Steve Sarkisian last walked off the Los Angeles Coliseum field as the head coach of the USC Trojans on Oct. 8, 2015. He and his team that began the season in the top 10 had suffered a humbling loss to the Washington Huskies, a middle-of-the-pack Pac-12 team that year.
But Sarkisian’s biggest loss that year occurred five days later when he was relieved of his duties as coach when it was deemed that his drinking — even occasionally on the job — and his performance were too troublesome to overlook. It was as depressing and humiliating a coaching downfall as there’s been in recent years, and when videos of a seemingly inebriated Sarkisian made the rounds, it was hard to imagine him being able to revive his football career, much less take care of his obvious problem, anytime soon.
Two seasons later, and Sarkisian found himself back at the Coliseum in a situation that few expected. As offensive coordinator of the defending Super Bowl runners-up, Sarkisian has faced a new kind of criticism this season with the Atlanta Falcons needing to scrap their way into the playoffs again. They made it by their tail feathers, as the NFC’s No. 6 seed.
The Falcons’ 26-13 win over the Rams on Saturday night means they’ll head to Philadelphia, Matt Ryan’s hometown, to take on the Eagles, the NFC’s top-seeded team but one that must prove itself with Nick Foles at quarterback. Expect this Falcons team to go in there with a lot of confidence, even if this victory was more of a war of attrition than anything else.
What must Saturday night have felt for Sarkisian? The much-maligned play caller, who has drawn the ire of the Falcons’ Kyle Shanahan-longing fans, was at the center of the victory. That Sarkisian had perhaps his best and most important game in his new job — in the old building of his one-time dream job — cannot be overlooked.
Atlanta controlled the clock and the game from the opening minutes, although the offense wasn’t perfect and the Rams gave them plenty of gifts along the way. But make no mistake, this was a terrific way for Sarkisian and the Falcons to turn the page on one important chapter.
That Sarkisian bested the Rams’ brilliant defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, also must be stated. Although Phillips might have held the upper hand early, Sarkisian adjusted well and didn’t abandon the Falcons’ bread-and-butter weapons as they controlled the clock for more than 37 minutes and scored on six drives.
Matt Ryan played a smart game, completing 21-of-30 passes for 218 yards and not turning the ball over — something he’d done at a higher rate this season than in his MVP campaign in 2016. Julio Jones had a workmanlike 94 yards (nine catches on 10 targets) and caught Ryan’s only TD pass, which was the nail in the coffin with just under six minutes remaining in the game.
“This game was kind of like how our season played out — tough,” Ryan told NBC’s Michele Tafoya after the game. “We had to grind it out.”
Prior to Jones’ touchdown, the Falcons had bogged down in the red zone and were leaving the door wide open for the Rams to make this a game. But to Sarkisian’s credit, he dialed up two brilliant drives — one a 16-play, eight-minute beauty to open the second half, the other the 83-yard drive that Jones capped — that doomed the Rams. Phillips and his worn-out defenders had run out of answers.
The Falcons ran 72 offensive plays, and at one point in the second half had run 20 more plays than the Rams had.
It was the first NFL playoff game in Los Angeles since the 1994 season and the first Rams home playoff game since 1986 — 20 days before their head coach, Sean McVay, was born. Although they occasionally flashed the brilliance that led them to lead the NFL in scoring, it was a poor night overall that was plagued by early special-teams breakdowns and only one scoring drive (a field goal) in the second half.
Pharoh Cooper, who was named All-Pro as a returner this season, had a rough night. He was back for a first-quarter punt when Cooper’s teammate, Blake Countess, touched the ball and it was recovered by the Falcons, who turned that into a field goal. Maybe Cooper is excused for that one, but he also took a shot on the ensuing kickoff return and later fumbled a punt that the Falcons again converted into three points.
The Rams only gained 14 yards on their first 10 plays and had two special-teams turnovers by the end of the first quarter. Playoff inexperience showing through? Perhaps. But the majority of the Rams’ starters also sat in Week 17, so rust might have been a bit of a factor, too.
The second of those turnovers led to a Falcons touchdown from Devonta Freeman, and it was 13-0 Atlanta when the Falcons barely had 100 yards of offense. The Rams, who outscored opponents 280 to 188 in first halves in the regular season, were down but not out at this point.
Todd Gurley got them going with a 26-yard run, sprung by a big block from tight end Tyler Higbee, and 15 more yards tacked on with a late hit by the Falcons’ Ricardo Allen. Five plays later, Goff hit Cooper Kupp on a wheel route for a touchdown and the Rams’ first score of the game. It was a beautifully designed play by Sean McVay, as the Falcons’ defenders were caught in man coverage chasing two slants the other direction and a rub route in front of them while Kupp got loose.
The Falcons had to punt after back-to-back sacks on Ryan, and the Rams got the ball back. Goff hit four straight passes — including a gorgeous post to Robert Woods for 38 yards — to get them in the red zone with less than a minute taken off the clock. Falcons coach Dan Quinn erred and helped the Rams out by calling timeout with 1:15 left in the second quarter.
After a chaotic series of plays to run out the half, plus some vamping by camera-hog referee Ed Hochuli, the Falcons couldn’t get in the end zone again but were able to tack on a short field goal. That cut the Falcons’ lead to 13-10 at halftime.
After starting out 1-of-5 passing, Goff rallied to finish the half 10-of-19 (and that included four drops) for 127 yards. All season long, the Rams dominated the third quarter, outscoring opponents by a count of 119-41, and they seemed to have the momentum coming back out of the tunnel.
But the Falcons got the ball first and came out with a beautiful drive that featured smashmouth football as they looked to be taking the spirit away from the Rams’ defense. This was Sarkisian’s reckoning. They ran the ball with Freeman and Tevin Coleman on what would be a 16-play drive that took more than eight minutes off the clock.
Still, in a form that has been true most of the season, the Falcons bogged down in the red zone. They finished the regular season 23rd in red-zone efficiency, which is just stunning for a team with Julio Jones and two ace runners. They were ninth in that statistic in 2016 with mostly the same personnel. But two incomplete passes by Ryan, only one of which actually entered the end zone, and the Falcons settled for Matt Bryant’s third field goal and a 16-10 lead.
The Rams crossed midfield on their next possession, but the Falcons got a stop and the ageless Bryant (OK, he’s 42) kicked his fourth field goal to stretch it out to 19-10, Atlanta. The Falcons’ first two drives of the second half might have only netted six points, but they did take more than 12 minutes off the clock.
The Rams rode Gurley for back-to-back runs of 14 and 33 yards to get them back in business on a had-to-score drive early fourth quarter. But they could only muster a field goal to counter with just over 10 minutes remaining following a key sack by the Falcons’ De’Vondre Campbell.
Sarkisian’s finest hour might have been the bubble screen he called against pressure to Mohamed Sanu, who cut through the Rams’ defense for 52 yards to set up Jones’ TD. Although Ryan slipped on what appeared to be a terrible playing surface, he had enough on his eephus ball to land in his top target’s hands for the deathblow.
Falcons fans might not be ordering their “I Love Sark” shirts just yet. There’s a long way to go before the team is satisfied following their Super Bowl LI nightmare and after one cleanly called game from their offensive coordinator.
But it’s a start. And you can bet this was a game Sarkisian cherished very much. The time, the place, the result. Everything worked pretty darned well for a guy who had very little going right not too long ago.