FLOWERY BRANCH — After only one game as Alabama’s offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian is heading to the NFL.
To work with MVP quarterback Matt Ryan and the league’s highest-scoring offense, no less.
Less than 24 hours after Kyle Shanahan left to become head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, the Falcons announced Tuesday that Sarkisian would be his replacement.
The stunning move came with Sarkisian less than a month into what was to be his first full season running Alabama’s offense, a job he took over for the national championship game in place of Lane Kiffin. But Falcons coach Dan Quinn said he’s had his eye on Sarkisian since last spring, figuring it was only a matter of time before Shanahan moved on to a team of his own.
“I knew how good Kyle is,” Quinn said. “I wanted to make sure I had contingency plans in place.”
The two have known each other since Sarkisian coached at Washington and Quinn was Seattle’s defensive coordinator. Sarkisian stopped by Atlanta last year to check out the Falcons’ offseason workouts, as well as training camp.
Even though Sarkisian has only one year of pro experience, Quinn expects a smooth transition for the new coordinator, who is familiar with many of the wide zone blocking schemes that worked so well for Atlanta on its way to the Super Bowl.
“We love the way we attack,” Quinn said. “It took a lot of work to put that system in place. We have a real emphasis on the personnel and how we can feature the guys in that system. So it’s very important that we stay consistent with that.”
Sarkisian will certainly have plenty of weapons at his disposal.
Ryan threw for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns to become the first Falcons player to win the MVP award. Julio Jones is one of the league’s top receivers, an All-Pro who caught 83 passes for 1,409 yards. Devonta Freeman earned Pro Bowl recognition with his second straight 1,000-yard rushing season, teaming with Tevin Coleman to give Atlanta a dynamic backfield pairing. In all, 13 players caught touchdown passes, an NFL record.
In addition to five years as Washington’s coach, the 42-year-old Sarkisian held the same job at Southern Cal. But he was fired by the Trojans during the 2015 season when officials said he showed up in no condition to lead practice following an embarrassing public display at a pep rally where he appeared to be intoxicated. He later sought treatment for alcoholism.
Quinn said he has no concerns about Sarkisian’s personal life.
“We went through the process, obviously, to check and make sure everything would align with our organization, in terms of cultures and values,” Quinn said. “He’s done a fantastic job. There were zero hesitations, zero limitations.”
Sarkisian spent most of last season as an offensive analyst for Alabama. When Kiffin was hired as the head coach at Florida Atlantic, Sarkisian was designated as his replacement.
Kiffin was planning to stay with the Crimson Tide through the College Football Playoff and, indeed, he coached in the Peach Bowl victory over Washington. Then, without much of an explanation, he left early for his new job and Sarkisian took over for the title game against Clemson, with only a week to prepare.
Alabama squandered a 10-point lead heading to the fourth quarter and lost 35-31 on a touchdown pass with one second remaining.
The Falcons certainly know how that feels. They let a 25-point lead slip away in the Super Bowl, losing to the New England Patriots 34-28 in overtime.
“We appreciate all Coach Sarkisian did for our program during his time here,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said in a statement. “He is an outstanding coach, and we wish him the best in his new role as Atlanta’s offensive coordinator. As always, when we have an opening on our staff, we will use it as an opportunity to go out and hire the best coach available.”
Quinn said he spoke with Saban on Monday after his interest in hiring Sarkisian.
An agreement was quickly reached.
“This is something I approached Nick about first, before I reached out to Sark. He said, ‘Yeah, I understand what you have to do for your organization,’” Quinn said. “In typical Nick fashion, he nailed it like a complete pro. I’m fortunate we have that good of a relationship.”