Sarkisian’s task: Keep Falcons’ offense humming

The Falcons just scored the sixth-most points in NFL history during the 2016 season. That bar is so high that there isn’t much that new Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian can do to make the unit perform significantly better in 2017.

The Falcons will essentially have the same offensive player personnel next season with quarterback Matt Ryan, the league MVP, under center. The pressure is on Sarkisian to keep the unit humming as the Falcons defend their NFC championship next season.

So welcome to Flowery Branch.

“I’m extremely excited about it,” Sarkisian said during a Thursday conference call with Atlanta media. “In my career, I’ve been really fortunate to be part of some really high-level organizations. I’ve worked for some tremendous head coaches and been on very competitive and championship-caliber and championship teams. To me, this is not much different.”

Falcons coach Dan Quinn hired Sarkisian this week to succeed Kyle Shanahan, who left to become the 49ers’ head coach. Quinn said the Falcons would stick with the offensive principles that Shanahan applied over his two seasons.

Some of those philosophies, such as the outside zone-run scheme, are different than what Sarkisian adopted as a college head coach at Washington and USC. But he said he fit his schemes to the personnel on those teams and plans to do the same with the Falcons.

“All in all, I think there is a good mesh and a good correlation of things I’ve done to what they’ve really been doing the last two years,” Sarkisian said. “It really should make for a good transition.”

Sarkisian, 42, was an offensive analyst for Alabama last season and took over as coordinator prior to the national championship game. That was his return to coaching after he’d been fired as USC head coach in 2015 because of well-publicized problems related to his admitted alcoholism.

Now Sarkisian will be in charge of an NFL offense with a slew of talent. He was the Raiders’ quarterback coach in 2004, his only other NFL job.

Sarkisian’s most important task will be to establish a rapport with Ryan, who had the best season of his nine-year career in 2016. Sarkisian said he had lunch with Ryan soon after arriving at Falcons headquarters on Thursday.

“We had some really quality time already,” Sarkisian said. “Our relationship is really critical to the success of the organization. To work with a veteran quarterback coming off an MVP season is exciting. And then all of the other weapons and pieces we have in place.”

Sarkisian named All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones, Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman and speedy running back Tevin Coleman. The Falcons also will return a cohesive offensive line anchored by Pro Bowl center Alex Mack. The Falcons can bring back all of the complementary pieces that made their offense versatile and difficult to stop.

Sarkisian said he was attracted to the job because of that and also the organizational culture created by Quinn, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and franchise owner Arthur Blank.

“The opportunity to come in here and continue to build and ultimately win a Super Bowl, that’s why I am here,” Sarkisian said. “These guys were close. They are coming into this offseason with chip on their shoulder. In essence, I feel the same way. I’m coming with a chip on my shoulder.”

Sarkisian’s new job is another chance for him rehabilitate his professional reputation. He said Alabama coach Nick Saban tried to retain him but was “understanding” of his decision to join the Falcons.

Pat Haden, USC’s athletic director at the time, fired Sarkisian in October 2015, saying it was “clear to me he was not healthy.” Multiple media outlets reported that Sarkisian showed up for a game intoxicated. Earlier that season, Sarkisian apologized for appearing to be intoxicated at a public event with USC boosters.

Sarkisian later filed a $30 million lawsuit against USC for wrongful termination, a case that was moved to arbitration.

Sarkisian said he’s appreciative of the opportunities offered by Alabama and the Falcons. He said he’s currently in treatment for his alcoholism.

“This isn’t something that is necessarily in my past,” he said. “It’s something I have to work on every single day, that I do work on every single day because it is important to me. It’s important to who I am as a person.

“But I also say to people that this disease of alcoholism is a piece of me. It doesn’t define me. I’ve got a lot more to offer than that. Hopefully over time, everybody here in Atlanta can get a feel for just who I am as a person and get to know me and to develop the quality relationships that are necessary to be part of a championship organization.”