In 2016, the Atlanta Falcons had one of the best offenses in NFL history. In 2017, with roughly the same personnel, the Falcons were eliminated from the playoffs when they were comfortably outgained by a Philadelphia Eagles team that started Nick Foles at quarterback.
Let’s break down the last few offensive plays of Atlanta’s season. The Falcons’ best drive of the game had Atlanta 9 yards from the end zone, needing a game-winning touchdown with under two minutes to go. Here is what happened:
- On first down, quarterback Matt Ryan threw to Julio Jones on a fade route. Despite Jones’s pedigree, this is an incredibly low-percentage play: Ryan went one-for-18 on passes to Jones in the end zone this season.
- On second down, the Falcons ran a shovel pass to Terron Ward, the team’s third-string running back. Ward had just three catches this season and had touched the ball zero times in the team’s last three games. It is rare for shovel passes to result in incompletions, but Ryan’s underhanded toss was too high for Ward. Anyway, it didn’t look like Ward would have gained much yardage if he had caught the ball.
- On third down, Ryan completed a pass to Jones short of the end zone, setting up a fourth-and-goal for the game.
- On fourth down, Ryan, who is notably immobile, rolled out of the pocket. He was supposed to throw to Julio Jones, but Jones slipped and was well-covered. There were essentially no other receiving options: The Falcons had one other wide receiver on the field, Mohamed Sanu, who ended the play covered by three defenders. On the opposite side of the field from Jones was fullback Derrick Coleman, who was lined up as a wide receiver even though he had just two catches this season and isn’t a receiving threat by any stretch of the imagination. The Falcons had their blocking tight end, Levine Toilolo, in the game, and he stayed in to block. Their running back Tevin Coleman attempted a cut block, leaving him incapable of receiving a pass. You could see Ryan slowly grasping the situation in his head: He needed to throw a touchdown for Atlanta’s season to continue, and nobody was open.
Ryan’s pass was incomplete, and the Falcons lost 15-10. Eagles defenders even mocked the play call after the game.
This is the work of Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Last year, Atlanta’s offense was run by Kyle Shanahan, whose season-long offensive master class got the Falcons to the Super Bowl and earned Shanahan a head coaching job with the 49ers. (For these purposes, “season-long” excludes the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.) So the Falcons turned to Sarkisian, whose most recent coordinating gig at Alabama had lasted exactly one game: the team’s lone loss of the 2016 college football season.
The Falcons’ offense wasn’t bad this year. Atlanta was fifth in the NFL in yards per play and third in net yards per passing attempt. But they were first in both categories by a mile last year. Atlanta was well above average on offense this year, but after setting the bar so high last year, above average was a letdown. Throughout the year, it didn’t help that Sarkisian had a tendency for poor situational decisions—going a tad cutesy when working with an offense that had so recently been world-beaters.
Saturday’s loss was a fitting end for a Sarkisian offense. The Falcons only had one touchdown, and that score came on an obviously broken play after the Eagles muffed a punt to give Atlanta the ball in the red zone. Foles, who is playing because of a late-season injury to Carson Wentz, had 246 yards passing on 30 attempts; Ryan, who was last year’s MVP, had 210 yards on 36 passing attempts. The Falcons’ starting running back, Devonta Freeman, had 7 yards on 10 carries. Throwing to Julio Jones worked OK—he had 101 yards on 16 targets—but nothing else really did. It was hard to see Atlanta lose due to a sputtering offense, knowing how explosive they could be.