The Falcons offense has regressed mightily from its league-leading pace in 2016, despite keeping all key players on that side of the ball, with rival scouts and coaches attributing much of the decline to the loss of offensive coordinator and play caller Kyle Shanahan. Some who have studied Shanahan's offense closely also note that Atlanta's decision to allow top assistants Matt LaFleur and Mike McDaniel to leave for other teams is also a significant factor in the ongoing malaise.
Atlanta managed just a single touchdown against the Patriots' NFL-worst pass defense a week ago, quarterback Matt Ryan is a shell of his MVP-self from a year ago, with just seven touchdowns (he averaged two per game a year ago), six interceptions (he threw seven all of last season) and a mundane rating of 89.3 (16th in the NFL). New coordinator Steve Sarkisian has limited NFL experience, no real ties to Shanahan's offense (which was being kept in place given the 2016 dominance) and has struggled to grasp the system, much less master it, according to team and league sources.
It would be difficult for any outside coach to step into that situation, much less this one given Shanahan's unique ability to scheme up game plans to exploit certain players and matchups, and thus far the transition has been frustrating for all involved. The fact that only two position coaches in Atlanta's offense are in the same roles as a year ago further complicates things. While the Falcons made the determination that neither LaFleur or McDaniel was ready to assume coordinator or play calling roles -- and both are very young and it's understandable head coach Dan Quinn did not block them from leaving -- numerous advance scouts and execs have pointed to their departures as exasperating the offensive issues in Atlanta.
LaFleur was Shanahan's primary sounding board on the passing game; he was allowed to leave to join wunderkind Sean McVay, the youngest head coach in the NFL, in Los Angeles. They are doing tremendous work with Jared Goff and league sources anticipate McVay letting LaFleur leave in the offseason to become a play caller elsewhere, as McVay excels in that regard and retains those duties in LA. McDaniel is very close to Shanahan as he oversees the run game for him; he went with Shanahan to San Francisco.
"Losing Kyle was bad enough," said one exec who knows that Shanahan system very well, "but letting the other two walk is crushing them right now. Sark doesn't know what he's doing in that offense. He's running some of Kyle's plays, but he's not setting up things the way Kyle did. He's not establishing one thing early to then trick the defense into something else late. It's Kyle's plays but it's not Kyle's offense and they don't have any other coach in that building who knows the scheme with LaFleur and McDaniel gone, too."
One source with knowledge of the dynamics in Atlanta now mentioned, only somewhat tongue in cheek that, "they should let (back-up quarterback) Matt Schaub call the plays, because he was with Kyle forever and he understands it better than Matt Ryan does."
Another source directly connected to the Atlanta offense said: "That's not Kyle's offense they're running anymore. You can't just replace Kyle's brain, especially if you let his top run guy and top passing guy leave, too. They're running the ball well without him, but it's not those gashing runs in the outside zone. It's not the same script. It's some of the same plays, but it's out of sync."
The Falcons have gotten almost nothing out of dominant receiver Julio Jones this season and Ryan hasn't looked nearly like the confident and cunning quarterback that was seemingly in control of everything from Week 1 until the second half of the Super Bowl. Given the lack of in-house candidates, the sources doubted the Falcons would be quick to fire Sarkisian in-season, even with the extent of the problems, but undoubtedly changes will be coming in the offseason on that side of the ball if they cannot break out of this first-half slump.