Atlanta fires 3 top assistant coaches following 7-9 finish

By CHARLES ODUM

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — Widespread changes came quickly following the Atlanta Falcons’ first losing season since 2014.

FILE – In this Dec. 24, 2016 file photo, Atlanta Falcons special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong, left, confers with head coach Dan Quinn before an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, N.C. The Atlanta Falcons have fired Armstrong, offensive coordinator Steve Sarkasian and defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel. The firings came one day after the end of the team’s first losing season since 2014. Falcons owner Arthur Blank recently had said he still has confidence in Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff, but changes came as expected after a 7-9 finish. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone, File)

Changes were expected, and out are offensive coordinator Steve Sarkasian, defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel and special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong — all fired on Monday.

Coach Dan Quinn announced the firings and said he will take over the defense.

“All three of these men are excellent coaches that I have a lot of respect for,” Quinn said in a statement released by the team. “While these are difficult decisions, we know we have a group of players here we are excited about and in order for us to consistently play true to our identity in all three phases we thought we needed some changes.”

Falcons owner Arthur Blank said recently he still has confidence in Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff. Still, changes were expected after a 7-9 finish.

The change in the leadership of all three phases of the team came quickly, even after the Falcons closed the season with three straight wins, including Sunday’s 34-32 win at Tampa Bay .

The strong finish wasn’t enough to save the jobs of the coordinators.

Manuel came to Atlanta with Quinn from Seattle in 2015 as secondary coach and was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2017.

“Marquand is a talented coach and excellent teacher that I have coached with for a number of years,” Quinn said. “I believe he should have the opportunity to call plays for a defense, so we have decided to allow his contract to expire so he can explore those opportunities.”

Armstrong had led the special teams since 2008, Mike Smith’s first year as coach. Sarkasian was in his second season.

Quinn said Sarkasian “has shown he’s a good coach and play caller.” Quinn said he decided the offense needed new leadership.

“After evaluating the entire season, I decided it was necessary that we had a new voice and direction for our offensive unit,” Quinn said. “I have a ton of respect for Sark, both personally and professionally, and I appreciate all he’s done during his time here.”

Quinn and Dimitroff have scheduled a Thursday news conference as the team begins looking for new offensive and special teams coordinators.

Only two years after their 2016 Super Bowl season, the Falcons were hurt by injuries and inconsistent play this season, Quinn’s fourth as head coach.

“We didn’t make the standard this year,” left tackle Jake Matthews said Monday before the firings were announced. ”… It isn’t good enough, not making the playoffs.”

It won’t be easy for the Falcons to be gracious hosts at the Atlanta Super Bowl on Feb. 3. After winning at least one postseason game in two straight seasons, Atlanta had high expectations this year but couldn’t overcome losing nine players to injured reserve.

Starting running back Devonta Freeman played in only two games. The IR list also included safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen and linebacker Deion Jones, who returned for the last five games .

It was a season of inconsistency. The Falcons started 1-4 before winning three straight to return to .500. They then lost five consecutive games, scoring no more than 20 points during the devastating stretch. Already eliminated from the playoffs, the Falcons closed with three straight wins.

“I think it leads to optimism for us moving forward,” Ryan said after Sunday’s game.

Ryan passed for 4,924 yards with 35 touchdowns and seven interceptions — almost an exact match for his 2016 MVP season, when he threw for 4,944 yards, 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

There will be no MVP talk this year, but Ryan showed his big 2016 season wasn’t a career outlier.

Even in a year both starting guards and running back Devonta Freeman suffered season-ending injuries , the Falcons had a top-five passing attack. Julio Jones led the NFL in yards receiving , rookie Calvin Ridley had 10 touchdown catches and tight end Austin Hooper had 71 receptions.

Monday’s firings support the belief this team underachieved, even with all the injuries.

“We’ve got plenty of talent around here and we expect a lot from ourselves,” Matthews said.

Quinn and Dimitroff face decisions on such pending unrestricted free agents as defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, running back Tevin Coleman, guards Andy Levitre and Ben Garland, and defensive ends Bruce Irvin and Derrick Shelby. Cornerback Brian Poole is a restricted free agent.

After making 20 of 21 field goals in 13 games this season, kicker Matt Bryant, 43, told The Associated Press Monday he plans to return next season.

“I’d never have envisioned it going this far,” Bryan said of his 17-year career. “It has, so just ride it as long as you can.”

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More AP NFL: HERE and TWITTER

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