Falcons Suffered Historic Offensive Regression in 2017 Despite Defensive Gains

Aug 31, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian calls a play against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the third quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY SportsAtlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian

Last June I wrote about how the Atlanta Falcons were very likely to suffer regression in 2017 from their all-time great offense a year ago. Now that the Falcons season is nearly over, it’s time to really break down what sort of step back this team experienced this year.

There is no doubt that the Falcons took a major step back in terms of the points scored this season in comparison to what they did last year. The 2016 Falcons offense scored 540 points during the regular season, which tied for the eighth most in NFL history.

In 2017 the Falcons generated a far from historic 353 points, settling for a decidedly average 15th ranked offense this season.

The final verdict is that decline in scoring led to the biggest regression in the ensuing year among teams that scored 500 or more points since 2000.

Falcons Regressed More than Any High-Powered Offense This Century

A year ago I looked at 13 offenses since 2000 that scored 500 or more points during the regular season. All but one of those units saw a decline in scoring the following season. On average for each of those teams that decline was by 17.8 percent.

Well, the Falcons drop in points this year was by 34.6 percent, eclipsing that of the 2015 Carolina Panthers that saw a decline of 26.2 percent the following year, the worst in that 13-team sample.

In fact, only the 1998 Denver Broncos prevented the Falcons from claiming the title of biggest regression in NFL history as they saw a bigger drop-off (37.3 percent) in 1999. Certainly, the primary cause for the Broncos’ regression was the retirement of Hall-of-Fame quarterback John Elway after 1998 and the debut of second-year passer Brian Griese as the Broncos starter the following year.

Unfortunately, the Falcons can’t blame their 2017 decline much on a dramatic shift at the quarterback position or really any major spot on the offense from the player standpoint. Instead, there is one major change of note for the Falcons and that’s new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian taking over from Kyle Shanahan, who left Atlanta to become the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.

In June, I noted that it was unprecedented among high-scoring offenses how a shift like the one from Shanahan to Sarkisian would impact the Falcons offense this year. Few teams in the post-2000 dataset were forced to overcome such a major shift in their coaching staff from one year to the next year. Those that did have changes among play-callers often had some semblance of continuity with a former coach returning or a long-time assistant being promoted from the previous year’s staff.

So one could say that the precedent has now been set that a team changing play-callers from an experienced one in Shanahan to a relatively green one in Sarkisian will suffer significantly more regression that the average team. In the Falcons case, that was nearly twice as much.

Falcons Swapped Out High Scoring Games For Low Ones

One of the other points I outlined in that piece from last June, was what a realistic output in scoring could look like for the Falcons using past New England Patriots offenses as a template. I did so by comparing the number of games each team had scoring a certain interval of points.

I used very unscientific four-point intervals between 20 and 40 points to show how much better the Falcons were at putting up huge point totals in comparison to a relatively stable and high-scoring unit like the Patriots from 2010 to 2016.

The choice of the Patriots as a comparison was due to the fact that they were consistently one of the league’s highest-scoring offenses, matching closely to what could be expected from a Falcons scoring offense if it fell by the average rate of roughly 18 percent.

Essentially the result showed that the Falcons had three more games of scoring 40 or more points than what you could expect from a relatively consistent offense. And the Falcons also had about three fewer games of scoring 23 or fewer points than what one could expect using the Patriots as a comparison.

The result of that comparison was to indicate that the Falcons were likely to have more games in 2017 in which they struggled to reach 20 points than they had in 2016, which would put more pressure on the team’s defense to contribute to wins by holding opponents to lower scores. I’ll discuss that latter point later on, but let’s look at the final verdict in breaking down how the 2017 Falcons offense fared in terms of intervals.

Clearly, the Falcons had many more low-scoring games in 2017 than they experienced in 2016 or were expected to experience based on the Patriots template.

In 2016 the Falcons only had two of their 19 games finish with 23 or fewer points. The Patriots on average had 5.3 such games each season from 2010-16. But the 2017 Falcons endured nine such games, about four more than average.

The 2017 Falcons also saw an increase in games where they scored 24 to 27 points from the expected benchmark (four versus two) and failed to eclipse 35 points at any point. The 2016 Falcons scored 36 or more points nine times and the average Patriots offense from 2010 to 2016 hit that mark 5.3 times.

Essentially the nine high-scoring games (36 or more points) that the Falcons experienced in 2016 were turned into nine low-scoring (23 or fewer points) games in 2017.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Falcons Defensive Coordinator Marquand Manuel

Falcons Defensive Improvement Helped Them 

And that brings us to the final point about the Falcons offensive regression, which is the progression of the defense under new defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel. One of the points I made note of in last year’s article was that with the likelihood that the Falcons were going to have some games in which they struggled to score points, they would need their defense to pick up the slack.

That definitely occurred in 2017. A year ago, the Falcons sported a 1-6 in games in which they failed to reach 31 points. This year the Falcons sported an 8-6 record in such games.

This year’s Falcons team has in fact been able to win all 11 games it has played in which it has scored at least 20 points. Their six losses have only been in games where the team failed to eclipse that benchmark.

So the Falcons defense has improved tremendously, picking up the slack of essentially an 11-point swing, which happens to be very close to the amount of drop-off (11.7 points per game) that the offense declined by.

It’s that defensive improvement that helped propel the 2017 Falcons down the stretch and into the postseason, where their final fate has yet to be written with an upcoming matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles this weekend.

However, expectations are that the Falcons offense in Sarkisian’s second year will show growth as the inexperienced coordinator makes adjustments. Plus the Falcons defense should continue to mature and develop, setting up the potential that regardless how the 2017 season ends, the team should be in an even better place a year from now in 2018.

About the Author

Aaron Freeman
Founder of FalcFans.com

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