FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- You expect an NFL coach to use a football analogy when talking about his life. Steve Sarkisian did just that recently as he discussed his long and winding path back into the league for the first time since 2004, one that included self-inflicted wounds on his resume, temporarily derailing a promising college coaching career.

Since he last coached in the NFL as an assistant in 2004 with the Oakland Raiders, Sarkisian appeared to be on the fast track to becoming a coaching star: Head coach at the University of Washington at the age of 34; coach of the glamorous USC program after that and a guy who had the look of a potential NFL head coach later with his innovative offensive mind.

It all unraveled for Sarkisian, and the public had a front row seat for all of it. His troubles with alcohol got the best of him, leading to his being let go by USC in 2015 after some public misbehavior that was clearly the result of drinking, coupled with his reportedly showing up for a team meeting under the influence.

Sarkisian is back in the NFL as the new offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons, taking over for Kyle Shanahan, who left to become the coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Sarkisian's story will be a major one in 2017 from both a football and personal standpoint. If he can keep the Falcons' top-scoring offense from a year ago on the same level, Atlanta will once again be in the Super Bowl mix.

That's the football part of it. The life part if it is much heavier, but credit Sarkisian for one thing: He isn't shying away from his story, which is where the football analogy came last week during a break from the team's OTA practices.

"Life is what it is, but you have to continue to grow as a person," Sarkisian said. "I kind of liken it to getting in the locker room at halftime and re-grouping and making the adjustments, and then going out and playing the second half of the life the way I want to live it. That's in a fully healthy fashion, but one that is filled with love and compassion for the people around me. I am doing great. I feel really good. I put in a lot of personal time. I came out of it all knowing there was a better version of Steve Sarkisian inside of me. I wanted it for myself, but I wanted it for the people who love me and care about me."

Falcons coach Dan Quinn has known Sarkisian for a long time. They got to really know each other when Sarkisian was coach at Washington and Quinn worked on the Seattle Seahawks staff. It's a relationship that continued as both soared up the coaching ranks.

When Sarkisian's career went bad, leading to his public firing at USC, Quinn kept in touch. Sarkisian spent a year away from coaching, but made it a point to visit with other coaches and teams, including spending time with the Falcons last year during camp. Quinn and the Falcons did a thorough vetting of Sarkisian before offering him the job to replace Shanahan in February.

"We did quite a bit," Quinn said. "Having a good relationship with a lot of the guys he's worked with in the past, from Nick (Saban) to Pete (Carroll), who had a long history with him, to some of his colleagues who have coached with him at U-Dub (Washington), USC and Alabama, guys that worked either with him or for him, we talked to a lot of people," Quinn said. "The main thing was he and I sitting down and me wanting to hear about his treatment plan. I had everybody's input and wanted to know how can we have the best version of Sark. And I told him I would support the hell out of him. For him, the (AA) meetings are an important part, and I wanted to make sure I would support him in that way."

Sarkisian is adding wrinkles to a Falcons attack that soared last season. Courtesy Atlanta Falcons

Sarkisian spent last season as an offensive assistant at Alabama under Saban, but when Lane Kiffin left before the National Championship Game against Clemson, it was Sarkisian who took over running the offense. He would have stayed on as coordinator, were it not for Quinn giving him the call to run the Atlanta offense.

"I work for a guy who is very understanding and Dan allows me to do the things to continue to develop personally and be the best coach I can be," Sarkisian said. "There are plenty of things I should have and could have done differently. At the end of the day, all those experiences helped shape me and made me the person I am today, which is a compassionate person, who cares about the people around him.

Sarkisian looks healthy. He's trimmer and appears to be of clear mind and he genuinely seems happy and at peace where he is personally and as a coach. Both are major challenges.

The Falcons were an offensive power in 2016 under Shanahan, leading the league in scoring as quarterback Matt Ryan won the NFL MVP. They blew a 25-point second-half lead to lose the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, but the offense is what got them to that point.

Taking over under the scenario can be tough, especially for a guy who hasn't been in the NFL for over a decade and has never called plays in the league. But Ryan, who had some growing pains at times with Shanahan, has embraced his new coordinator.

It will be his fourth in his 10 years with the Falcons, which can be challenging. But Sarkisian and Ryan have already hit it off as coach-coordinator. And make no mistake about it: The offense won't be changing much.

The terminology will stay the same, although there will be tweaks in some areas, but not the run game, which is a zone-based scheme.

"He's had to make the transition," Ryan said. "For us, there might be a handful of things here and there that are different, kind of like when Dirk (Kotter) came in to run our offense [in 2012]. We kept the same system and Dirk adjusted. It's the same for me now. You are bringing in a real quality football guy with some new coaches and he will adjust to us."

Said Quinn: "It's a lot of the same concepts. That was important to us. We have to have a system that is right for us. We are a zone team. We like play-action that goes with it and the keeper game and the drop backs. His background in the system was a really good fit."

Sarkisian has worked with coordinators who run similar systems, but he's also used more power-run schemes at times in his offense, which will be a bit of an adjustment. Sarkisian's offenses have played fast in the past, which the Falcons also do, making it a good fit.

"It's not my job to maintain it, but to improve it," Sarkisian said. "I wouldn't be a competitor if I didn't feel that way."

There are those who have their doubts whether he can do it. Shanahan was considered a brilliant offensive mind, and he is that. But he had his troubles too. Arrogance led to his botching the end of the Super Bowl, calling pass plays in situations where runs would have ended with the Falcons hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.

Shanahan can grate on the players too. Ryan has never publicly chafed at the way Shanahan handled him in his two years, but others around the team have said the relationship had issues at times. They worked through it, but Sarkisian appears to be a much better fit with Ryan from a personality standpoint.

Sarkisian has been open with his players about his issues. An NFL locker room can be cruel at times, but Sarksian has been up front with the players about his past and where he is today as a man.

"For me, my goal wasn't to come in and win them over," Sarkisian said. "It was to let them know who I am as a person and who I am as a coach. I want to share my experience. I want to be able to tell it so that it might be able to help another person who might be going through the same thing. This has been a fantastic experience so far."

"I think people respect that he's been open about it," Ryan said. "We all have things in our life that come up and can get you a little sideways. I think he's dealt with a lot of his. We are supportive. We're here for him. He's been awesome to work with."

Those who doubt that the offense can be the same -- and there are many in the media who wonder -- are off base. It's just football, and Sarkisian is a bright, smart offensive mind with a veteran MVP quarterback to make the thing work.

The Falcons will be just fine on offense -- maybe better. After all, I don't think Sarkisian would throw a pass late in a Super Bowl after a big play put your team in range of what would have been the likely game-clinching field goal like Shanahan did.

That's the football part.

The life part for Sarkisian is a work in progress, one that will never stop.

"I am better than I was and I can be better than I am now," Sarkisian said. "I will continue to work on things."

He looked out onto the green fields in front of him and smiled.

"It's so good being back out here coaching again," he said. "It really is."