The Atlanta Falcons have beaten two of the NFC’s better teams on the road, which suggests they should be one of the NFC’s better teams. They aren’t. But what are they?
Consecutive losses to the Buccaneers and the Saints, coming as they did after the dead-cat bounce of victories in New Orleans and Charlotte, appeared to administer the final stamp of clarity to a season that defied reason. Seen by most as a playoff-caliber team, the Falcons started 1-7. Then they beat two teams above .500. Then they lost twice more. They were 3-9. Any hope of a winning season – or a miracle-to-end-all-miracles postseason – was gone.
Arthur M. Blank could have fired Dan Quinn after the Falcons hit their the bye week having lost six straight or after the Thanksgiving playoff elimination. Nobody would have argued the owner didn’t have just cause. But two more victories, the latest over the then-best-in-the-NFC 49ers, make us wonder if A.M.B. is himself wondering. Are these, finally, the real Falcons? If they play like this with Quinn a presumptive lame duck, why might they do if they knew he’d be their coach in 2020?
(Yes, I know. We’ve referenced dead cats and lame ducks. We aim for high-end imagery.)
We’ve spent the season speculating about Quinn. The belief in this space has been that he needs to go – he will have worked five seasons and bettered .500 twice – but that it served no purpose to fire him before Black Monday. Not for the first or last time, this correspondent might have erred. The one thing dumping a coach in midseason does is clear the deck. Carolina doesn’t have to ask what it might mean for Ron Rivera if it wins the next two weeks. He’s already gone.
Quinn is not. Quinn’s team is 4-2 since the bye. With Jacksonville and Tampa Bay remaining, the Falcons could win twice more. That would make them Falcons 7-9 after starting 1-7. So which of the seasonal halves do we believe?
The answer is, or should be, both. The second half gives us an indication of what the Falcons coulda/shoulda been; the first, alas, was so awful that nothing afterward much mattered. It’s a lot easier to play when nothing’s on the line. (Technically, these coaches’ jobs are on the line, but most of the key players have signed long-term deals, which is why the Falcons’ salary-cap position is about to become a fright.) What’s one more loss?
Cold fact: These Falcons won 25 percent of their games that mattered. Should a team with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, Mohamed Sanu, Austin Hooper, Alex Mack, Jake Matthews, Grady Jarrett, Vic Beasley, Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell – all participants in a Super Bowl that saw the Falcons lead by 25 points – have fallen so far? (To be fair, Sanu was traded at the bye week.)
We say again: This wasn’t a fluky fall. The Falcons have trailed by at least 17 points – this is hard to believe – in each of their nine losses. They were so bad in the first halves of games over the first half of the season that you questioned whether they’d practiced. Quinn fired three coordinators on New Year’s Eve, and it was clear none of the changes had yielded an upgrade. Depending on the down, Quinn wound up ceding defensive play-calling to Jeff Ulbrich or Raheem Morris, the latter of whom had spent the previous 3½ seasons working with the offense.
Should we credit the Falcons for figuring things out? I guess. Should it have taken half a season to start playing like a real team? The 1997 Falcons started 1-7 and finished 7-9, but that was a rebuilding team – Dan Reeves was in Year 1 of cleaning up after June Jones – and nobody expected much. These Falcons graced a Super Bowl on Feb. 5, 2017. They played a Divisional Round game in Philadelphia on Jan. 13, 2018. They’ve spent as big as the NFL allows. This wasn’t a fixer-upper. This was a team that, after its coordinator shuffle, was supposed to be fixed.
Nor does this season mark a departure. Last year’s team started 1-4 and was 4-9 with three games against bad teams remaining. It won all three. It finished with no victory over an opponent that made the playoffs. This losing season will include at least two such wins. Is that progress enough? (No, that’s not a serious question.)
These Falcons were built to win big, but they performed so abominably they never gave themselves a chance. For half a season, they were the league’s worst-coached team. Since the Super Bowl, they’ve only occasionally appeared to know what they were doing. (The team that made the Super Bowl was superbly coached, but that was with Kyle Shanahan running the offense.) They’ve squandered yet another year of Ryan and Jones, the youngest of whom will be 31 when next this team plays a game of consequence.
If we credit Quinn & Co. for bleeding a few stirring wins from a season gone wrong, we must also ask: What took so long? Why will this again be the NFL’s most gifted sub-.500 team? And – the big question here – what’s to say that staying the course will yield anything different next time? How long can an organization live off a (lost) Super Bowl?”
As for the part about this team Not Quitting ... well, here’s where I roll my eyes. These guys are pros. This is their job. Had they really wanted Quinn to be their coach in 2020, they should have played better sooner.
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