I don’t remember all the missives I’ve produced for the ol’ AJC. (Loose estimate is a bit south of 10,000.) I do recall the major whiffs. I think of the one offered Sept. 11, 2016, as the counterweight to the semi-legendary likening of the 1996 Braves to the 1927 Yankees. In the latter, I was irrationally exuberant. In the former, I was too glum too soon.
Dan Quinn’s second team had lost 31-24 at home to Tampa Bay after trailing 31-13. This was after a Year 1 that saw the men of Quinn start 6-1 and finish 8-8. The Falcons were on a 3-9 skid spanning two seasons, and darned if I could discern in the 2016 opener anything different from the collapse of 2015. I wrote a little something suggesting as much. The final five words of that effort: “They’ve become a bad team.”
That bad team – you probably knew this already – wound up leading the Super Bowl by 25 points. That bad team wound up being pretty great. I wound up being, not for the first or the thousandth time, rather wrong.
Never let it be said, however, that I’m not coachable. As deflating as the Falcons’ opener in Philadelphia was, I’m not about to repeat the error of my ways. That 18-12 loss mirrored the 15-10 playoff loss that ended last season. They couldn’t score more than a touchdown. They misfired inside the 20. Julio Jones couldn’t haul down a pass at the pylon. That all happened – again.
The days since have been no better. Strong safety Keanu Neal has been lost for the duration. Linebacker Deion Jones will miss at least half the season. Those are two of the Falcons’ three best defenders, and this was supposed to be the year the defense cracked the NFL’s upper crust. And, as was the case back in 2016, a Week 1 loss has opened the door to all manner of doomsday thinking.
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Two years ago, the Falcons’ next five opponents were Oakland, New Orleans, Carolina, Denver and Seattle, with four of those on the road. The Falcons’ next four opponents now: Carolina, New Orleans, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. The 2016 Falcons staked their claim to legitimacy by winning four of the five against a withering schedule. (Had interference been called against Richard Sherman, it would have been five of five.) Is there cause to believe these Falcons could quell all doubt by taking three of the next four?
Well, yes. There’s a reason Pro Football Focus ranked this the NFL’s second-best (after Philly’s) roster. Not many teams can match the Falcons, even down two worthy defenders, for manpower. Also: The next three games will be at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which hasn’t yet become a fortress – the Falcons lost three home games last season – but beats the heck out of the alternative.
As much as I’ve carped about the Falcons’ coaching, the reality is that Quinn hasn’t presided over a losing season. His guys do play hard – the Brotherhood, you know – and fast. They’re never intimidated. I do wonder if the Brotherhood in Year 4 could withstand a true downturn, but I don’t see a serious reversal upcoming. It would be no surprise, at least not to me, if they won the next three. (Then again, I thought they’d win in Philadelphia.)
If I believe in anything about these Falcons, it’s in the team-building done by Quinn, Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli. There’s no place on this roster that appears gravely undernourished. The more talented team doesn’t win every game – this is the any-given-Sunday NFL – but you’d rather have the better players than not. Do I have questions about Steve Sarkisian? Yes, and I suspect I’ll be saying the same come December. Full disclosure, though: After the Tampa Bay loss of 2016, I had the same questions about Kyle Shanahan.
Put simply, it would take a lot to mess up these Falcons. Quinn isn’t the greatest of game managers, but he’s fully capable of executing mid-course corrections. (Remember, last year’s team was 3-3.) Even with the loss in Philly and the absences of Neal and D. Jones, there’s no reason this team shouldn’t win 10 games. If it doesn’t, we’ll soon be having a different conversation.
I learned from 2016 something I should have learned long before: NFL openers can and do deceive. The Buccaneers looked spiffy in winning at the Georgia Dome that year, but they finished 9-7 to the Falcons’ 11-5 and were routed 43-28 in the return match. I don’t consider Matt Ryan’s unusually shaky performance in Philadelphia a function of anything than more than an off-night against a stout defense. (If it is, we’ll soon be having yet another different conversation.) I don’t believe this team is anywhere near doomed.
I do believe it needs to win Sunday. A good team can handle being 0-1. Being 0-2 is a different matter. Because then the good team starts to wonder if it is, you know, all that good. But this is me, being Mr. Brightside for a change, choosing to err on the sunny side. I learned the hard way not to drop the “bad team” hammer after one game. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice …