There are two four-letter words that are essentially forbidden at Atlanta Falcons headquarters: “last” and “year.”
To a person, the Falcons have no interest in discussing the 2016 season, and certainly not in comparison to this year. That’s not just because the team blew a 28-3 lead over New England in the Super Bowl, an epic collapse on the biggest stage, but because the task at hand, the incremental march forward, demands every ounce of their attention.
That said, in replacing Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator and taking over one of the most prolific units in NFL history, it’s as if Steve Sarkisian was handed the keys to a Lamborghini and — at least from outside the organization — a pretty unreasonable set of expectations.
Either win the Super Bowl with the same core of players, or be viewed as a disappointment.
So far, the 4-3 Falcons have been underwhelming. They’re ranked 15th in the league in scoring at 21.9 points per game, sharply off the pace of last season when they averaged an NFL-best 33.8. They’re ninth in passing, 11th in rushing, 26th in time of possession, and 27th in turnover differential.
Sarkisian, the former USC coach who is calling plays in the NFL for the first time in his career, said he’s able to block out the outside noise, which includes a fan-driven #FireSark campaign on Twitter.
“I don’t think about the what-ifs of, ‘This could happen,’ or ‘That could happen,’ especially not now,” Sarkisian told The Times this week during a break from preparations for Sunday’s game at Carolina. “I think more of, I love football. I love being around good players and good coaches, and being around a good organization. I just embrace the opportunity that I have. I’ve never been afraid of a challenge, obviously.”
Sarkisian was a surprise hire in February, after the long-expected departure of Shanahan, who left to become head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Fired by USC in the middle of the 2015 season after multiple incidents involving alcohol, Sarkisian went through addiction counseling, then reappeared at Alabama, where he stepped in for fired offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin for last season’s national championship game against Clemson, which the Crimson Tide lost.
The Falcons got off to a 3-0 start this season, and looked to have avoided the classic Super Bowl hangover. They then lost three in a row, though, including a non-competitive 23-7 loss at the Patriots in a Super Bowl rematch.
Last Sunday, Atlanta clawed its way back to a winning record with a 25-20 victory at the New York Jets. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, last year’s NFL most valuable player, orchestrated his 26th comeback in the fourth quarter or overtime to pull out that win.
Julio Jones raced down the middle for a 53-yard catch in that game, a welcome sight for the Falcons, who need to get that All-Pro receiver involved. Jones has one touchdown in the first seven games after reeling in six last season despite missing two games.
“I don’t need validation from anybody,” Jones said this week, “or numbers to tell me throughout the year what kind of player I am.”
Regardless, the expectations piled are piled high on the shoulders of Sarkisian. The challenges he has faced have been well documented in recent years, most notably the painful public stumbles that cost him the USC job. Except to confirm that he regularly attends meetings to tend to his recovery, he avoided getting into the details of his daily regimen.
He did disclose, however, that he didn’t realize how gratifying it would be to help others as they face their own issues of addiction.
“To be there for someone else is really powerful,” he said. “It’s really powerful to put your arm around somebody and take five minutes or 10 minutes or two hours with somebody to share your experience, to help one person at a time. Because it’s a tough disease. But to know that I can help? That’s pretty powerful stuff.”
Sarkisian spends long days and nights focused on getting the offense clicking.
The Falcons are standing by him for now, confident that they have the pieces in place to get back to the postseason. They also know that it took a while for Shanahan to get up to speed when he was here. But this is a production league, and people who don’t get the job done are shown the door, and — like the words “last year” — are treated like yesterday’s news.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer