Tabeek: Falcons are making coaching changes and here’s why

Monday

Today the Falcons announced that they are parting ways with offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel and special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong.

I spoke with coach Dan Quinn on Monday and, as you’d expect, he said the three moves were “difficult decisions,” noting that all three men are “excellent coaches” and that he has a ton of respect for each of them on a personal level as well.

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The deciding factor to move on all three coordinators, however, boiled down to the fact that the vision Quinn has for this team, specifically in its style of play, wasn’t there on a consistent basis.

“We know we have a group of players here we are excited about and in order for us to consistently play true to our identity in all three phases we thought we needed some changes,” Quinn said.

One of those changes will involve Quinn himself, who will assume the role of defensive coordinator moving forward.

The moves come a day after the Falcons beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 34-32 to close out the 2018 regular season with 7-9 record. The disappointing finish marks the second time in Quinn’s four years here that the Falcons will miss the playoffs and it’s also his first losing season as head coach.

The moves aren't surprising in the end, and here’s why.

If you’ve listened to Quinn during his press conferences or followed him at all during his tenure as defensive coordinator in Seattle coaching the Legion of Boom, he often talks about the style of play or a “brand of football” he expects here in Atlanta.

Just go back to the day Quinn was first introduced as the Falcons’ next head coach. He actually defines his “brand of football.”

“I want [Falcons fans] to know that the brand of football that we are going to play is going to be fast and physical,” Quinn said. “We are going to attack in every phase that we can.”

Fast. Physical. Attack. That’s Quinn’s standard or brand, if you will.

When you think of the Falcons defense in 2018, those aren’t words you’d probably use to describe it. At least I wouldn’t anyway.

Think about it this way, the word physical will never be used to describe an NFL team if it can’t stop the run or run the ball, for that matter. The Falcons didn’t do either with consistency.

Table inside Article
CATEGORY 2017 2018
Points allowed/game 8 (19.7) 25 (26.4)
Yards allowed/game 9 (318.4) 28 (384.5)
Pass yards allowed/game 12 (214.3) 27 (259.6)
Rush yards allowed/game 9 (104.1) 25 (124.9)
Sacks Tied-13 (39) Tied-22 (37)
Third-down conv. % allowed 18 (38.3%) 31 (48.7%)
Red zone TD % 5 (45.8%) 28 (70.4%)

The defense, for a lot of different reasons, had trouble stopping anyone in 2018 and there was a significant drop-off from a fairly strong 2017 campaign. For some perspective, the most points the Falcons' defense allowed in 2017 – including the playoffs – was 31 on the road at Seattle.

This season, the Falcons have allowed 31 or more points six times.

Now, that’s not all on Manuel. Losing Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen to season-ending injuries didn’t help. Nor did losing Deion Jones in Week 1 for 10 games.

“Marquand is a talented coach and excellent teacher that I have coached with for a number of years,” Quinn said. “I believe he should have the opportunity to call plays for a defense, so we have decided to allow his contract to expire so he can explore those opportunities.”

And I think Quinn’s decision to take over play-calling responsibilities of the defense is a smart one, and one that should ease Falcons fans’ concerns. And here’s why. Look at the Seahawks’ defensive rankings in 2013 and 2014, the two seasons Quinn was defensive coordinator:

Table inside Article
CATEGORY 2013 2014
Total defense 1 (273.6) 1 (267.1)
Scoring defense 1 (14.4) 1 (15.9)
Pass defense 1 (172) 1 (185.6)
Run defense Tied-7 (101.6) 3 (81.5)
Red zone defense 1 (36.11) 26 (59.46)
Takeaways 1 (39) Tied-20 (24)
Sacks Tied-8 (44) 20 (37)

Once you chew on those rankings and stats it’s easy to see why Quinn was one of the most sought-after head coaching candidates following the 2014 season.

There is another word Quinn mentions with great frequency when talking about his vision and preferred style of play – balance – and that, or the lack of it, might be at the heart of the inconsistency on offense over the last two seasons.

The Falcons had the sixth-best offense in terms of total yards, averaging 389.1 yards per game, but they were not a balanced offense by any means. Atlanta averaged 98.3 rushing yards, 27th in the league, while throwing for 290.8 yards per game, the fourth-most. The Falcons averaged 25.9 points per game in 2018, 10th-most in the NFL, but they scored no more than 20 points during their five-game losing streak.

Table inside Article
CATEGORY 2016 2017 2018
Attempts 421 (12th) 430 (16th) 351 (30th)
Attempts/game 26.3 (12th) 26.9 (16th) 21.9 (30th)
Yards 1,928 (5th) 1,847 (13th) 1,573 (27th)
Yards/game 120.5 (5th) 115.4 (13th) 98.3 (27th)

Sarkisian took over the offensive play-calling duties following the Falcons’ record-setting 2016 season and their ensuing Super Bowl run. The results over the past two years have been, well, mixed – and the reasons why have varied.

“Sark has shown he’s a good coach and play caller,” Quinn said. “After evaluating the entire season, I decided it was necessary that we had a new voice and direction for our offensive unit.”

Remember, the Falcons led the league in scoring during the 2016 season with 540 points (33.8 points per game). For Quinn, that’s the standard or the direction he wants to head in.

In 2017, Sarkisian’s first year in Atlanta, the Falcons dropped to 15th in the league with 353 points (22.1 points per game). While the Falcons actually improved to 10th with 414 points (25.9) this season, it’s not at the level Quinn expects.

Do you remember what Quinn said about the offense during his season-ending press conference a year ago?

“When people ask why hasn’t this offense achieved at the historic level that we were expecting now that this season is over, I think it’s a fair question,” Quinn said.

This season the Falcons improved to 11th in totals points with 380 (25.3 points per game), which was an improvement from 2017. And when you have high-priced players who are among the very best – guys like Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and Alex Mack – the expectations should be extremely high.

As for special teams, Armstrong has spent 14 seasons total with the Falcons, serving as safeties coach from 1994-95 before being promoted to secondary coach in 1996 and rejoining the organization in 2008 as Atlanta’s special teams coach, which he held for 11 seasons.

But Quinn believes it’s time for a new voice.

“Coach Armstrong helped develop some really good players on our kicking units over his time here,” Quinn said. “Special teams has to be the gateway to the identity of our football team. In order to see that, we felt we needed a new voice and design. We wish Keith nothing but the best in the future.”

Under Armstrong the Falcons routinely had one of the best field-goal and punt units in the NFL, and he helped kicker Matt Bryant become the leading scorer in franchise history. Throughout his time with the Falcons, Armstrong’s coverage units were routinely sound, and the Falcons allowed opposing punt return units to gain just 43 yards during the 2008 season, an NFL record-low.

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