If you stop by Flowery Branch, you’ll be shocked – shocked, I say – to learn that the Falcons are Really Excited about the 2019 season. If you visit any other team’s camp, you’ll find the same. (OK, maybe not Miami’s. Though the Dolphins did just win an exhibition against the Really Excited Falcons.) The point being: Preseason verbiage means less than zero.
In the attempt to separate signal from noise, we turn again to Football Outsiders and its annual almanac, the latest edition of which can be bought as an E-book for $20. If you care about football, it’ll be the best Andy Jackson you’ll ever spend. The continuing beauty of Football Outsiders is that its data, as they say of the coaches’ All-22 tape, sees the whole field. Everything that can be calculated and collated is, and even a cursory visit to the website will reveal something you didn’t know.
The 2019 Almanac is the Football Outsiders website in one handy package, and here I’m ceasing with the encomiums. Here I cut to the chase:
Football Outsiders ranks the Falcons as the NFL’s 22nd-best team. The NFL includes 32 teams.
Football Outsiders projects the Falcons’ mean-wins total at 7.6. NFL teams play 16 games.
Football Outsiders assesses the Falcons’ chances of drafting in the top four next April at 13 percent. It assesses their chances of winning the Super Bowl at 3.4 percent.
Back to me: Buying into a bit – only a bit, I stress – of the Falcons’ standard-issue happy talk, I believe they had a not-bad offseason. They found better coordinators than they had last season, at least on offense and defense. They imported some offensive linemen. They got rid of Robert Alford. (Football Outsiders’ verdict on jettisoned Rocky: “Arguably the worst cornerback in the NFL. He allowed the most receiving yards in the league last season, and his 34.7 percent coverage success rate was the lowest for a qualifying cornerback since 2016.”)
And yet: Their apparent upgrades were made to fix what has been an almost-systemic slippage since the Falcons seized a 28-3 lead on Feb. 5, 2017. Matt Ryan can still throw and Julio Jones can still catch, but they’re two years older, and the team around them hasn’t developed in the way its architects hoped. Counting the Super Bowl loss, the Falcons are 18-17 since winning the NFC title.
Some folks are picking them to catch and pass the Saints in the NFC South, and I’m not totally sold on New Orleans, either. (Football Outsiders, by way of contrast, ranks the Saints as the NFL’s best team.) At the same time, I wonder how much longer the Falcons can live off the promise of the 2016 season.
From Thomas Bassinger, author of the Falcons’ chapter in the Almanac: “To be sure, there’s top-flight talent and upside throughout this win-now roster. Problem is, there are too many ifs. … With this many question marks, the Falcons look more mediocre than super.”
Bassinger sees two issues – the running game, which the rehired coordinator Dirk Koetter was hired to fix, and the defense, now being shepherded by Dan Quinn, who’s also the head coach. Bassinger believes Quinn’s expressed desire for a balanced offense is silly, given that the thing the Falcons do best is pass. He also notes that the Falcons’ defense didn’t make Football Outsiders’ top 20 in DVOA – defense-adjusted value over average – in Quinn’s first three seasons, when most everybody was healthy. Writes Bassinger: “Each year, fans expect the second-half defensive improvement to carry over to the next season. Each year, it doesn’t happen.”
Oh, and there’s this: Bassinger informs us that recent examples of teams changing three coordinators but retaining the head coach have yielded little joy. The exception is the 2007 Giants, who won the Super Bowl. The exception, however, carries an asterisk: Their special-teams coordinator retired, as opposing to being given the gate.
If you follow the Falcons, you need to read this nuanced take. I track sports for a living, and much of it is news to me. And here’s where some fans will be saying, “What do a bunch of people staring at numbers on a computer screen know about football?” And here’s where I say, “When it comes to Football Outsiders and the Falcons, quite a lot.”
There’s history here, and I cite only one of many recent examples. In 2017, the Falcons were coming off that Super Bowl and were considered the NFC’s best team. Football Outsiders picked them to go 9-7, finish second in the South and settle for a wild card. The 2017 Falcons went 10-6, finished third in the South and settled for a wild card. Pretty darn prescient, I’d say.
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