McMullen | Steve Sarkisian has beaten bigger things than expectations

Steve Sarkisian has faced off with far bigger things in life, so maybe that’s why the new Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator is embracing an almost untenable situation — actually improving his team’s explosive offense.

Sarkisian, the former Southern California coach, is taking over for Kyle Shanahan, who moved on to greener pastures as the head coach in San Francisco after Atlanta lost Super Bowl LI in heartbreaking fashion to the New England Patriots.

Shanahan left behind the game’s best and most explosive offense and Sarkisian believes there will be no hiccups now that he’s calling the plays for Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Co.

“It’s not my job to maintain [the offense], but to improve it,” Sarkisian told “I wouldn’t be a competitor if I didn’t feel that way.”

The likelihood of Sarkisian actually improving the efficacy of a team that averaged 415.8 yards per game and a league-best 33.8 points is small, but the hurdle itself looks even smaller for a guy who has waged a very public battle with alcoholism only to reappear in a high-profile coaching position.

Sarkisian’s inability to beat the problem on his own cost him his job with the Trojans, and the fall from grace was embarrassing. He once came to a pre-practice meeting only to have his assistants tell him to go home when some of the players smelled alcohol on his breath. Sarkisian was then fired by Pat Haden after giving a drunken, profanity-filled speech at a booster club event.

For most that would have been the end, but Sarkisian found the courage to seek help thanks to a player in another sport facing similar issues, New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia.

(Photo by Adam Davis/Icon Sportswire)

Sabathia, who dazzled the Boston Red Sox in eight shutout innings on Wednesday, entered rehab at the worst possible time on his calendar, right before the playoffs in October 2015.

Sabathia, though, felt he was speeding toward disaster and his health meant more than another potential World Series ring. Although the 6-foot-7 pitcher didn’t realize it, he likely reached many people with his bold decision because of his celebrity and one of them happened to be Sarkisian.

“When CC Sabathia had decided to go to treatment before the playoffs, I thought to myself, ‘Whoa, here’s somebody who is like me, who is in a very high-profile position in sports — ace pitcher of the New York Yankees — and was being relatively commended or almost celebrated for going to do what he did,’” Sarkisian explained to reporters Wednesday.

And that encouraged Sarkisian to take the step he knew he needed.

“I knew I needed to [go to rehab],” he said. “I didn’t know how to go about it. But that thing gave me a feeling of, ‘There’s a like person that is going to do this. I know I need to do it. Now how, what, when.’ So I made the decision to go do it. It’s been the best decision of my life.”

Sarkisian has slowly rebuilt his reputation over the past 18 months, first resurfacing in Alabama thanks to Nick Saban and then parlaying a gig as an offensive analyst and a very short time as the Crimson Tide’s OC into being the leader of the best offense in the NFL.

“It’s going great,” Sarkisian said when discussing his sobriety. “It is something that is daily, and there is varying degrees of what I do each day. But the reality of it is, it’s gone really well. And I’m in a great place.”

Compared to what he has to beat every day, the expectations of following Shanahan or solving the defense in Carolina are going to seem like a walk in the park for Sarkisian.

-John McMullen is a national football columnist for You can reach him at or on Twitter @JFMcMullen.

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