ATLANTA – Steve Sarkisian doesn’t expect to feel overly anxious when his career as an NFL offensive coordinator begins this weekend.
He’s been through several big moments and tough times over the last two years, so when the Atlanta Falcons open the season Sunday in Chicago, Sarkisian believes he will settle down quickly on the sideline.
“I think my nerves are fine,” Sarkisian said Thursday. “I’ve been in some pretty big games in my career. Obviously I’m excited. What a cool opportunity to be with these guys. It’s been a great offseason, a great training camp. We continue to work and grow together. All the excitement is there. I don’t think the nerves are there.”
Sarkisian, 43, has reinvented himself after self-described issues with alcoholism led Southern Cal to fire him as the Trojans’ head coach in October 2015. Following treatment, he landed a job as an offensive analyst at Alabama before coach Nick Saban promoted him to coordinator a few days before the Crimson Tide played in the national title game eight months ago.
The Falcons came calling after they lost the Super Bowl, hiring him to replace Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator. Sarkisian originally planned to work this season as Alabama’s coordinator, but he couldn’t pass up the chance to coach quarterback Matt Ryan, receiver Julio Jones and the NFL’s top-scoring offense.
Not bad for a guy who lost his dream job at USC.
“I’m humbled and honored that this team, this offense, this head coach, this GM and this owner had the faith and trust in me to come in here and do this job,” he said. “My job is to give the best version of Steve Sarkisian to them every day. That I come to work and whether it’s in the office or on the field, whether it’s interacting with the players and developing that rapport, I’ve really tried to take on every challenge in my career that way.”
Working alongside Ryan, last year’s NFL MVP, is the latest high-profile job for Sarkisian, whose college career has included stops with Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Jake Locker. He was quarterbacks coach for Kerry Collins and Rich Gannon with the Oakland Raiders in 2004.
Sarkisian spent six-plus seasons as a head coach in the Pac-12, going 34-29 in five years at Washington. He went 12-6 at USC.
“I’ve had some big jobs, some really cool jobs, some big challenges … I really feel like I’ve savored them and been successful in that approach,” he said. “I’ve never felt like this is the biggest one or downplay other ones. I just feel like this challenge, this job, this opportunity is what it is and I’ve got to be the best version or me every day to maximize the opportunity.”
When Sarkisian joined the Falcons, coach Dan Quinn had him do an audit of the 2016 season, evaluating what Atlanta did well, what it struggled with and what it could do to improve.
“Some of the formations that you’ll see that are new this year, how to feature certain guys and utilize them,” Quinn said. “He has some different personnel packages that he’s had some experience with. As far as concepts go, there are ones that we didn’t run before that you’ll see.”
Jones likes what he’s seen so far from Sarkisian, who will call plays from the sideline.
“He’s very aggressive,” Jones said. “He’s going to get the ball in playmakers’ hands. Everybody has something in the game plan. He’s showcasing everybody’s skills. It’s the same stuff. Everybody wants answers. Just watch the game to get your answers.”
Jones said the Falcons won’t care about Sarkisian’s past, good or bad, as long as the offense scores at a high level. Jones has heard all the talk that Sarkisian is a college coach who might get overmatched in the NFL, and he isn’t buying it.
“You tell them all they need to do is just tune in, you know?” Jones said. “We play the Bears at 1 o’clock. Tell them to tune in and see.”
Sarkisian will spend the next two days putting the finishing touches on his game plan. A new part of his unusual career is about to begin.
“I’m used to feeling the emotion of the quarterback, the players, the flow of the game,” he said. “I think that is kind of a little bit of fuel for me with how I like to call it to some degree. I love the interaction. I love the dialogue. I love the fact that we’re on the same page thinking what we’re thinking and if we’re not, I can explain it and really be clear with what I’m thinking.”
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