FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian knows criticism comes with the job. He refuses to succumb to it.
With four games remaining in the 2018 regular season, the naysayers continue to speculate about Sarkisian’s future with the team as the offense has experienced its share of struggles during a 4-8 campaign. The Falcons play at Green Bay on Sunday (1 p.m. ET Fox).
Coach Dan Quinn said he will evaluate every element of the team, including the staff, after the season. The Falcons last changed coordinators after their 2016 Super Bowl run, when offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan left to become the San Francisco 49ers head coach and defensive coordinator Richard Smith was not retained.
Asked Thursday if he felt any pressure to produce better results over the final quarter of the season to prove he belongs as coordinator, Sarkisian scowled and shook his head.
“I never feel the need to validate myself to anybody outside of our building,” Sarkisian said. “I work for Arthur Blank, Thomas Dimitroff, Dan Quinn, and I worked for these players. And I do the best I can do for them every single day. One week doesn’t change how I prepare or what I do. You put the work in. You feel good about the work. And when you do, you’re able to go to sleep at night knowing you did your job.
“You always want to do better,” Sarkisian continued. “There’s always things that you wish you did better. But my focus is on putting our players in the best position to be successful Sunday in Lambeau [Field].”
The Falcons’ approach all season has been to not worry about the big picture and focus on the next game. The reality is ’18 has been a major disappointment on many levels, especially from an offensive perspective. During a current four-game losing streak, the Falcons have averaged 17 points per game. They have averaged 21.3 points in their eight losses and 31.5 points points in their four wins.
Sure, quarterback Matt Ryan is completing a career-best 70.9 percent of his passes, and wide receiver Julio Jones tops the league in receiving yards with 1,323. However, the Falcons have been one-dimensional as they rank last in the league with an average of 79 rushing yards per game.
Last season, with a healthy Devonta Freeman, the Falcons ranked 13th in the league in rushing with an average of 115.4 rushing yards per game and ranked 8th at 4.3 yards per rushing attempt. This season, with Freeman playing in only two games before being place on injured reserve following groin surgery, the Falcons stand as the sole team yet to rush for 1,000 yards combined.
There have been times when Sarkisian has been guilty of not staying committed to the run game. His creativity typically comes into question whenever fans sees Tevin Coleman or Ito Smith get stuffed trying to run up the middle. But Sarkisian can’t take all the blame when offensive linemen can’t get a good push, when a running back doesn’t make a defender miss, or when those doing the talent evaluation show confidence in players probably not good enough to consistently get the job done.
Sarkisian talked about how much the lack of a running game has handcuffed him as a playcaller.
“I’ve been stressing it all along: We would prefer to be a balanced offensive football team,” Sarkisian said. “When we’re balanced, when we can run it, we can play-action pass, we can throw the ball, we can do all the things that we want to do, that’s when we’re at our best.
“Even in the stretch when we were throwing the ball well and we weren’t running it great, I kept trying to reiterate, ‘We’ve got to keep finding our ways to run the football because that’s when we’re at our best.’ We’ll continue to strive to do that here the last quarter of the season.”
The players have supported Sarkisian all season, and their stance hasn’t change. Ryan talked about the open dialogue he has had with his coordinator and the ability to make suggestions, with Sarkisian being receptive. Jones has spoken highly of Sarkisian from the moment he replaced Shanahan.
“Sark, he’s a part of us, offensively,” Jones said. “He can’t be good without us, and vice versa. We’re just together. We have to have the confidence in him. He has to have the confidence in us. It’s not like you can go into a game, ‘I don’t have confidence in him.’ That’s just like him saying he doesn’t have confidence in us and he doesn’t call certain plays. It’s a trust thing.
“I appreciate Sark, everything he [does] for us. He dials up the plays. Unfortunately, we haven’t been scoring. I’m still high on him.”
Field Yates, Mike Clay and Stephania Bell talk about the Falcons’ backfield and whether Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman hold any value in dynasty.
Said tight end Austin Hooper, “He does a nice job of not letting any outside noise or anything that any fans or writers say affect the way he is. He has the same approach every single week, and I really admire that. He just keeps the same mindset, preaches a similar message [about] constantly improving and getting better. I really appreciate that about him.”
Quinn pointed to one of the positives he has seen in Sarkisian, and that’s been the team’s performance in the red zone. The Falcons are converting at a 65.7 percent rate in the red zone this season, going 23 of 35. Last season, they were at 50 percent while converting 27 of 54 opportunities.
Some wonder why Sarkisian hasn’t used more no-huddle offense. The reality is that a team has to pick up first downs to go up-tempo, and the Falcons haven’t consistently done that.
Others ask why the Falcons don’t utilize more of a power run game. They aren’t built for it based on a zone run scheme more reliant on undersized linemen, although that’s not an excuse for not picking up at least 1 yard, when needed. The Falcons don’t have an impact fullback, either.
Although there will continue to be speculation about Sarkisian’s status, nothing will be clearly evident until after the season. Based on his words, Sarkisian is only focused on the next game.