There is tension between what the Falcons have and what they don’t. They have at least three great players in their primes, and one of them is the quarterback, so they don’t need to blow up the roster. But it clearly needs more than just tinkering and the Falcons aren’t in a good position to make major repairs.
It’s a murky place to be. The Falcons can’t start trading good players and accumulating draft picks. Their best players are expensive veterans, which means the Falcons don’t have the salary-cap space to add more. The Falcons can’t point to many young, cheaper players who are on the cusp of breaking out.
All of that makes me doubt the Falcons (1-6) can make a quick turnaround from bad to good. It’s always possible because the NFL is designed for that to happen, and luck plays a significant role year-to-year. But the minus-78 point differential through seven games shows the Falcons are not unlucky. They are as bad as they seem.
How will the Falcons get good in 2020? The obvious answer is to part ways with coach Dan Quinn. Franchise owner Arthur Blank obviously has reason to do it based on the results. But I don’t know that a new coach can quickly fix all or even most of what’s wrong with ails the Falcons.
I’ve heard the argument that Quinn’s players are tired of his message and a new coach can get more out of the same players. I guess that’s possible, but it seems like a simplistic narrative from a bad sports movie. It’s just as silly to think it’s not true because Julio Jones recently stuck up for Quinn in a team meeting.
I don’t know that messaging was a key part of Quinn’s success in the first place. It’s true that during the 2016 season the Falcons played with an esprit de corps that began to diminish in 2018. It’s just hard to separate cause from effect.
Surely, it’s easier for everyone to pull in one direction when it’s always going the same way. The 2016 Falcons started 4-1 and lost consecutive games just once, in October. Did they win because of a good culture or was the good culture because of winning?
A new Falcons coach would bring a new message. It will be harder to duplicate the tangible factors that made the Falcons contenders not long ago. That included an all-time great offense that made a decent defense look much better and impossibly good injury luck.
A coaching change would mean a new defensive coordinator since that’s Quinn’s job. Presumably, it also would mean a new offensive coordinator. That would make three times in three years that those jobs changed, and this time with a new head coach, too.
Remember, it took until Year 2 for the Quinn/Kyle Shanahan Falcons to take off. And those coaches didn’t walk into a bad situation
The Falcons won six games in 2014, more than they’ll win this year, and were outscored by 36 points. That team had a terrible run of injuries: eighth-most adjusted games lost, according to Football Outsiders. Five Falcons players selected in the 2013 or 2014 drafts would go on to become key members of the Super Bowl team: Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, Jake Matthews, Devonta Freeman and Ricardo Allen.
Those mitigating factors aren’t there this time around. The 2019 Falcons have not been ravaged by injuries. Calvin Ridley looks like a hit, but can you say the same about any other recent draft picks?
That’s not to say the Falcons won’t have anything good going for them after this season. They do, which is why a full rebuild isn’t necessary or palatable.
Matt Ryan is a top-10 quarterback in a league that doesn’t have many good ones. Julio Jones is an elite wide receiver and tight end Austin Hooper is an emerging star. Grady Jarrett is a great defensive tackle. Deion Jones is a very good linebacker.
Those players form a very good roster core. It’s just not big enough to field a very good team.
The Falcons lack a consistently productive pass rusher on the edges. There are no cover aces in the secondary (or, it seems, much clue about whom to cover). There is no special safety unless Keanu Neal can regain his form after consecutive season-ending injuries. The rebuilt offensive line still struggles to block, especially for runs.
To improve the roster, the Falcons are going to have to draft well and maneuver a tight salary-cap situation. Trading Mohamed Sanu to the Patriots on Tuesday helped with both. The deal gives the Falcons some cap relief for 2020 and an extra second-round pick. But they still are projected to use about half their cap space on five players, and they must draft the right prospects and quickly make them contributors.
The Falcons have too many good players to start over but no clear way to get much better. That’s a cloudy situation for 2020 no matter who is coaching them. It may turn out that the person picking the new players is more important.
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