On Sunday, the Falcons lost the Super Bowl, a devastating defeat that birthed a massive, hollering ghost that will follow Atlanta fans everywhere they go until the team finally wins it all. On Monday, their chances of ever doing that slimmed a bit, as they lost the man perhaps most responsible for getting to the Super Bowl in the first place. After several weeks of playing coy, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan became the San Francisco 49ers’ head coach.
Here’s what he’s leaving behind: Shanahan turned Matt Ryan into the league’s best player nearly a decade into the quarterback’s career; he finally unleashed Julio Jones into the primal force he was born to be; he made the team’s complementary receivers into legitimate threats; he developed Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman into dynamic playmakers as ball carriers and as receivers; he effectively deployed his tight ends; and he’s perhaps most loved by offensive line aficionados for his weaponization of the outside zone-blocking scheme. Shanahan’s tenure started at the same time as head coach Dan Quinn’s, so we can’t put the Falcons’ speedy rise to excellence entirely on Shanahan, but his league-best offense propelled them to the Super Bowl.
Replacing Shanahan, then, was the team’s key offseason move, and while they’ve had nearly a month to think about whom to nab, their choice was a stunner. They’ve hired Steve Sarkisian, who has only one year of NFL experience, as a quarterbacks coach for the Raiders in 2004. His greatest successes were as a position coach and coordinator for college offenses led by Matt Leinart and Mark Sanchez. I’d imagine the connection is that both Sarkisian and Quinn come from the Pete Carroll coaching tree — Quinn with the Seahawks, Sark at USC.
Sarkisian is fresh off a one-game, one-loss tenure as the offensive coordinator at Alabama. He was fired from USC in 2015 after reportedly coaching and showing up to team events while noticeably drunk. (A lawsuit that Sarkisian filed against USC, alleging discrimination and breach of contract, is now in binding arbitration.) After rehab, Sarkisian was hired as an “offensive analyst” at Alabama, a behind-the-scenes role in which he was explicitly not allowed to interact with players. But head coach Nick Saban made the surprising move to switch offensive coordinators the week before the national championship game because he felt that Lane Kiffin, who’d just accepted the head-coaching job at Florida Atlantic, wasn’t focused enough. (Imagine Quinn doing this to soon-to-be-49ers coach Shanahan after the NFC championship game.) Saban promoted Sarkisian, who, after over a year off, was now tasked with calling plays in the most important game of the year on one week’s notice.
Sarkisian’s play-calling in that game was a fireable offense. Alabama jumped out to a 14–0 lead thanks to two booming runs by behemoth back Bo Scarbrough. Scarbrough finished with 16 carries; Sarkisian called 31 passes for freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts, who finished 13-for-31 with 131 yards. The Crimson Tide had only two drives of longer than two minutes, leaving their defense on the field for 99 plays. Clemson rallied back against a gassed defense, winning in the game’s closing seconds.
This should sound familiar to Falcons fans. They also just ignored their successful running game and failed to sustain any drives in a championship game, allowing an opponent to storm back while running an obscene number of plays against their dead defense.
The difference is while Alabama failed to live up to its lofty expectations in the championship game, the Falcons played better than most people expected in the Super Bowl. Ryan played one of the most efficient games in Super Bowl history, throwing for 284 yards and two touchdowns on just 23 passes, putting him fourth in yards per attempt and QB rating in a Super Bowl. Jones caught every pass thrown to him, often in spectacular fashion. New England never demonstrated the ability to consistently stop Atlanta’s running back tandem. The Falcons’ questionable defense played just about the best game anybody had played against the Patriots. They sacked Tom Brady a season-high five times and hit him a bunch more. They turned two turnovers into 14 points, including a pick-six after Brady threw just two interceptions in the regular season.
Many things about the Super Bowl must be upsetting for Falcons fans, but blowing a 25-point lead isn’t what would depress me the most. No, it’s that Atlanta played about as well as possible, and they lost. The result of the team’s tremendous effort is the most embarrassing loss in the history of a franchise with a history of embarrassing losses. Even playing at their best wasn’t enough, and there’s no guarantee they’ll ever play at their peak again.
It’s possible the Falcons can make another Super Bowl next year. We know what weaponry they have, and how deadly it can be. But that’s up to Sarkisian. If he can’t succeed, it’s possible we just witnessed the high-water mark of the Atlanta Falcons. The team got so close to the pinnacle of NFL success, then picked a questionable replacement for the man who organized it all. Atlanta’s future is promising, but nothing in the recent past suggests Sarkisian can be the one to keep those promises.