There’s not a lot to be gained by firing an NFL coach after four games. This isn’t baseball, where you can jettison a manager and hope for a new-voice-in-the-clubhouse bounce. Football isn’t just pitching and hitting. There are offensive and defensive schemes that need to be fitted to this week’s opponent. You can’t throw those out and install the option — unless you’re hiring Paul Johnson, which wouldn’t seem realistic but at least would be fun to watch.
Being pragmatic, an NFL owner must ask, “Can someone in-house get more from this team?” Even as we stipulate that it’d be hard to get less, I don’t see such a person working at 4400 Falcon Parkway. There’s no defensive coordinator, this head coach having heaped that assignment on himself. The new-but-old offensive coordinator has enough problems — a unit with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones is tied for 24th in points — and Dirk Koetter’s three years with Tampa Bay didn’t stamp him as the next Bill Walsh.
There’s also reality involved. The Atlanta Falcons are only two games behind NFC South leader New Orleans. Three-fourths of their schedule remains. If you change coaches now, you’re essentially punting away 12 games. Lincoln Riley isn’t leaving Norman, Okla., to come coach the Falcons against Houston on Sunday. (He might come in January, though.)
As bad as the Falcons have been, the only real course now is, er, to stay the course and hope for the best — even as what we’re seeing is close to the worst. For optimism, that’s all I’ve got. I concede it’s not much.
Even for someone who bears the scars of having occasionally believed this franchise is on the right track, September 2019 stands among the most shocking months of Falcons-watching. I didn't see 1-3 coming, not even after that Opening Day no-show in Minneapolis, not even after they lost to the promoted backup Jacoby Brissett in Indianapolis. I figured they'd beat Tennessee and be 2-2 with 12 to go, which wouldn't have been great but wouldn't have been the end of the world, either. Oops.
They lost at home by two touchdowns to a team that was close to benching its quarterback, who — but of course! — threw three touchdown passes in Sunday’s first half. Here’s one of those factoids that tell us nothing and everything: Through four games, Ryan is second to Patrick Mahomes in yards passing; Mahomes’ team is 4-0, Ryan’s 1-3. How does that happen?
How has any of this happened? At some point since the Super Bowl, the Falcons have employed the league’s highest-paid quarterback, running back and wide receiver. And yet: Carolina and New Orleans have won twice as many games this season with their No. 2 quarterbacks as the Falcons have with their No. 1. Other teams figure stuff out. The Falcons … well, they’re not so good at figurin’.
At this moment, the only reason to keep Dan Quinn as head coach is that there’s no percentage in firing him now — although the temptation is indeed great to say, “That’s enough. Thanks for your efforts.” His Brotherhood has splintered, as you knew it would when the winning stopped. The Falcons have had a couple of injuries, but no injury save the loss of a starting quarterback could begin to explain 1-3. This organization has spent four-plus years giving this coach just what he wants, and it’s not working. It hasn’t worked for a while.
The stats mightn’t look awful — the Falcons are 10th in the NFL in yards, ninth in yards allowed — but they mislead: Having outscored the Falcons 65-10 in the first halves of the three losses, the opposition hasn’t had to risk much. This club is 19-20 since winning the NFC title on Jan. 22, 2017. It’s 8-12 over the past two seasons. It’s alone in last place in the NFC South, which two weeks ago seemed there to be won. Beating Philadelphia seemed a big deal at the time, but the Falcons have since lost to two teams worse than Philly, rendering that rather fortunate victory null and void.
Anything less than a playoff berth isn't apt to satisfy Arthur M. Blank. As of Monday morning, FiveThirtyEight gives the Falcons an 11 percent chance of qualifying for postseason. It also projects them to finish 6-10. They're not going to lose every game from here on — they're too talented for that, but haven't we been saying that all along? — but if they knew how to fix this, wouldn't they have done it already?
One of the responsibilities of being the Falcons’ head coach is to brief the high-profile owner every Monday as to what just happened. It’s hard to imagine that there’s much to say. Quinn dumped his three coordinators on New Year’s Eve, leaving only one person, at least coaching-wise, left to fire. At the rate this is unraveling, that figures to happen soon. Not this soon, but soon enough.
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Credit: Henri Hollis / Henri.Hollis@ajc.com