Arthur Blank says his Falcons will be a playoff team in 2016. I'm not quite ready to commit yet.
I spoke to Blank for about 30 minutes and during the conversation he again expressed confidence in his football hierarchy (general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Dan Quinn), said he believes his team will be in the playoffs next season and addressed his health following surgery for prostate cancer in February.
To read Blank's comments on Falcons' playoff projections, click here.
To read the full question-and-answer with Blank, click here.
My thoughts on the Falcons this offseason are somewhat mixed.
Things I like:
• The signing of center Alex Mack. The Falcons' offensive line never recovered from the decision to push center Todd McClure into retirement. Draft pick Peter Konz and others were unable to fill the void and that adversely affected both the offensive line and quarterback Matt Ryan. Mack should help immensely.
• The decisions to draft for defense first. We can debate ad nauseam whether Quinn/Dimitroff overreached for safety Keanu Neal with the 17th overall pick, but the truth is nobody knows -- least of all everybody who participates in this annual knucklehead tradition of grading drafts. As Michael Cunningham illustrated , the Falcons earned poor draft grades overall, but the individual "grades" rank from an A- (NFL.com) to a D (Sports Illustrated). So to say it's subjective would be an understatement. Drafts are, and always have been, about player evaluation, not about someone's mock draft. Quinn believes Neal and second round pick Deion Jones, an outside linebacker, are perfect fits for his defense. We'll find out if he's right. At the very least, there's a lot more speed on that side of the ball.
• The decision to not blow up the offensive coaching staff: I know offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan took a beating publicly last season and he clearly had some missteps with some in-game decisions and his use of personnel. But to change schemes after one season could have had an adverse effect on Ryan, who may not be on stable ground as it is. To me, it made perfect sense to give the Shanahan-Ryan team another year to make it work. There were signs of improvement with the offense in the last few games of the season.
Things I'm uncertain about:
• There were no obvious move to improve the pass rush , which last year accounted for an NFL low 19 sacks. (At the other end of the spectrum: Super Bowl winner Denver with 52.) Quinn, a defensive coach by trade, is counting on two things: 1) Improved speed and pass coverage on the second and third levels of the defense to give more time to pass rushers to get to opposing quarterbacks; 2) Returning players' increased familiarity with the defense to speed up their thought process and their game. Me, I'd like a pass rusher with a resume.
• Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, a free agent signee, may prove to be a valuable piece for the offense, both as a receiver and on reverses. But he was the No. 3 receiver in Cincinnati and the Falcons gave him a five-year, $32.5 million contract ($14 million guaranteed), quite a leap for a general non-starter who saw his reception total drop from 56 to 33. I've made no secret that I believed the Falcons' erred last season in their (non-)use of Roddy White. I believe the receiving corps could've been improved with a more modest investment.
• It's difficult to get a feel for Quinn or his staff based on last season alone. The Falcons went from starts of 5-0 and 6-1 to a six-game losing streak and an 8-8 finish. Who does that? That's not saying the Falcons underachieved at 8-8, given the personnel turnover and scheme change (and the fact they went 10-22 over the previous two years). But so many extreme highs and lows in one season don't convey stability. Quinn did a number of good things in his first season but he also made mistakes, like choosing to kick a chip-shot field goal down by four points in the final minutes at San Francisco, and failing to adequately prepare his team during the losing streak --including a home loss to Tampa Bay , a road loss at San Francisco and a road loss at Tampa Bay. But they did rebound from that 38-0 loss at Carolina .
My thoughts on 2016: I'm interested to see how the loss of cornerback Josh Norman impacts Carolina's defense. I also wonder whether the Panthers will return to earth after a 15-1 regular season and a Super Bowl run.
I believe overall that the Falcons have improved themselves and therefore could be a playoff team next season but I would still give the NFC South to Carolina.
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