About an hour and 45 minutes or so into Star Wars: The Last Jedi, immediately after one of the most visually satisfying fight sequences in franchise history, Kylo Ren utters a line. “It’s time to let old things die. Snoke, Skywalker. The Sith, the Jedi, the Rebels… Let it all die.” Three sentences that, in the context of the plot, outline Kylo Ren’s vision for his version of the galaxy. Thematically, however, it also acts as a platform for the future of the franchise to build from. It’s a very smart film like that, you know. Honestly it might be my favourite in the saga.
I point to this, in particular, because I cannot think of a more fitting line to summarise how the Atlanta Falcons Front Office should approach the offseason. If Arthur Blank is the Emperor to Thomas Dimitroff’s Darth Vader, then Dan Quinn, the young, ambitious, success hungry head coach needs to be Kylo Ren. And Steve Sarkisian needs to be added to that list of Snoke and Skywalker, The Sith and The Jedi and The Rebels. Let his career in Atlanta die.
The Phantom Menace
I cannot understate how atrocious the hiring of Steve Sarkisian has been for the Atlanta Falcons once all-conquering offense. A once absurdly confident and talented unit has been reduced to absolute fear. Everything has been safe. Devoid of daring. Devoid of anything close to what worked well last season. The drop off in production between Kyle Shanahan and Steve Sarkisian was expected, this is true. To this level, though? It’s like going from Luke Skywalker to Hayden Christiensen’s Anakin Skywalker. Or Nute Gunray, depending on how harsh you want to be.
The warning signs have been there all season. Seeing a jet sweep dialled up against the (at the time) worst passing defence in the league on 4th and 1 at the goal line should have sent the Falcons into panic mode. But when Atlanta work their way down to the 9 yard line, within less than two minutes to go, with a trip to the NFC Championship game on the line, redemption was available. Redemption was not achieved.
First down: a goal-line fade from the 9 yard line. Second down: a shovel pass to the third string running back. Third Down: a quick slant to Julio Jones, to take it to the 2 yard line. With the season on the line, he put Derrick Coleman, a full back, wide left, with Julio and Sanu on the right. Fourth down: he rolled Ryan out to the right, eliminating the field to a third, and saw a pass incomplete. Malcolm Jenkins confirmed they knew what Atlanta were gonna do before the huddle was even broken. Unforgivable.
Attack of the Clones
There will be those that will point to Shanahan’s first season and compare it to this. And, at first glance, I suppose you could consider the two comparable. 21 Touchdowns in both seasons. 17 interceptions in ‘15, to the 12 in ‘17. Matt Ryan still managed to get over 4000 yards in the regular season. At a very basic level, you can say that yeah, Sark did what Shanny did, but better because he got more wins.
I’m sorry, but this is an absolute fallacy. Matt Ryan laboured to his worst yardage showing since the last days of Mike Mullarkey. Julio Jones found himself haul in his lowest touchdown number since 2013 (when he missed 11 games with a broken foot). Fresh off a massive pay day, Devonta Freeman failed to register a 1000 yard rushing season for the first time since his debut season. These are top 5 (top 10 at worst) players in their positions, being limited to their own personal floors.
The most damning indictment against Sarkisian, as far as I’m concerned, is that Shanahan inherited an offense without a Plan B. It was Julio or bust. There’s no surprise that Jones reached his personal best in Dirk Koetter’s final season. Over 1800 yards and his highest yards per game number to date. Yet they finished 6-10. A running back room comprised of an aging Steven Jackson, gadget man Jacquizz Rodgers, head down runner Antone Smith, and a rookie Devonta Freeman combined for 1498 yards between them, before Shanahan stepped in.
Return of the Jedi
The offensive line was porous. While Jake Matthews and Ryan Shraeder survived the transition from Koetter to Shanahan, the entire interior was rebuilt over the two years. Ryan was hit consistently between 2012 and 2015, so the Falcons went big for Alex Mack in Free Agency, and gave up a sixth round pick for Andy Levitre. This culminated in Ryan getting the time to play at the level we all knew he could play at.
And can we talk about the receiving corps? Julio aside, Ryan was throwing to Leonard Hankerson, the corpse of Roddy White, a rookie Justin Hardy, and Nick Williams. Compare that to Julio, Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, a seasoned Justin Hardy, not to mention the likes of Freeman and Coleman succeeding in the passing game. The gulf in talent is clear.
In short, Shanahan took over an unbalanced, trigger happy offense and made it something great. His numbers in 2015 are low because he didn’t have the quality to put up gaudy records. His 2016 talent was. Shanahan didn’t take over one of the best offenses in football. Sarkisian did, and regressed them.
Revenge of the Sith (The Sith being a lack of execution)
There are some thing you cannot blame Sarkisian for. We likely wouldn’t be talking about Ryan’s yardage had the Falcons hauled in a handful of their (league leading) 30 dropped passes (of which about 8 of them led to interceptions). Freeman likely would have surpassed 1000 yards for the third straight season had he not missed 2 and a half games through injury. As much as I would like to, I can’t blame Sarkisian for Ryan Shraeder missing two games trough injury, and Andy Levitre being put on IR thanks to a Triceps issue.
These are all problems every team has to face. Minnesota lost their starting Quarterback, and managed to make the Championship game. The Patriots lost the guy atop their receivers depth chart, and finished first in the AFC. It’s how you handle these injuries that define you, and the Falcons, despite securing back to back playoff appearances, didn’t really deal with them.
A New Hope
Similarly, what the Falcons do next will define how they’re perceived, both culturally and analytically. The most likely outcome is Dan Quinn will see 11 wins, including a playoff, injuries and poor execution, and decide that Sarkisian has earned a second crack of the whip. His defiant backing of him in the face of Seattle Seahawk rumours shows there is a belief in what he can bring. That option flies in the face of what Dan Quinn has brought to the Falcons.
Quinn has brought more than just defensive expertise. He’s brought a winning culture to an organisation starting to lose its way. A winning culture doesn’t just limit itself to winning games, as weird as that sounds to type. It’s about constantly finding ways to become better, despite what success you’re having at the time.
The Empire Strikes Back
Sir Alex Ferguson created a 27 year period of unprecedented dominance in English football, and Bill Belichick has created a true dynasty win 18 years. I point to these two giants of their respective sports because they achieved success by showing very few loyalties. Yes, they had their methods, but they constantly retooled, refreshed, and adapted their approaches as new information became available to them. Think Roy Keane, long standing captain of Manchester United, being released to Celtic following an outburst levelled against the sides younger players. Think former number 1 overall pick Drew Bledsoe being replaced by a sixth rounder following an injury, and then sticking with him as Bledsoe returned.
This isn’t a decision that is easy to make, I know. It’s one decision that should be taken. Steve Sarkisian was hired on the recommendation of Pete Carroll, who clearly named him on a hunch. A hunch that could waste another season of the rapidly aging Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. His only real achievement, to date, is turning Jake Locker into a first round pick. You’re almost setting yourself up to lose a war that so many people have written you out of already.
The Last Jedi?
But if you do make the decision to move on from Sarkisian. Well. The Rebellion will be reborn. The war will just be beginning. And Kyle Shanahan may not be The Last Jedi.
Follow Thomas Willoughby on Twitter, @Willo290592.