You might look at the conference championship games Sunday and figure the Falcons aren’t far from reaching that level. After all, three of this year’s final four didn’t make the playoffs last year. Only the Patriots have cracked the code of NFL parity, and they aren’t playing this weekend for the first time since 2010.
The Chiefs are a cut above the Falcons. They are back in the AFC Championship game largely because they have Patrick Mahomes, the 2018 league MVP. But the Falcons have a better quarterback than the 49ers (whom they beat) and the Titans.
Packers QB Aaron Rodgers has won a Super Bowl. Recall that he played great in 2016 when Matt Ryan played better to beat him in the NFC Championship game. Julio Jones is an All-Pro wide receiver, something each of the final four lacks.
Yet there’s one important area where the Falcons are lagging the final four. The teams still playing all have clear offensive identities that work. The Falcons didn’t have that during Dirk Koetter’s first season back as coordinator.
Falcons fans can watch 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan make hay with wide runs and bootleg passes this weekend and reminisce about his days doing the same as Falcons OC. Green Bay coach Matt LaFleur, Shanahan’s QB coach with the Falcons, has merged a similar scheme with Rodgers’ preferences.
The Titans got this far playing power football with running back Derrick Henry. Chiefs coach Andy Reid melded his West Coast offensive tendencies with spread plays to take advantage of Mahomes’ talents.
Opponents know what those teams like to do. It doesn’t matter. Koetter tried doing the things he likes with the 2019 Falcons, including deep passes and power runs. His formula did not work. The Falcons were no better than average on offense and searched for consistency all season.
Through the first half of the season the Falcons’ offense ranked 18th in the Football Outsiders Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric (opponent- and situation-adjusted). It finished 15th. The Falcons’ defense made a bigger leap, from 30th in the first half of the season to 20th at the end.
Like his predecessor, Koetter was stymied by inconsistent line play. But that’s also related to philosophy. The Falcons decided to de-emphasize the zone runs that Quinn embraced when Shanahan was here. The Falcons built their line for more power runs, and it flopped.
Last offseason, when Quinn said the Falcons would mix up their scheme, I noted the benefits of Shanahan’s single-minded approach to offense. He established a clear identity for the Falcons: quick tempo, outside-zone runs, play-action passes (run fakes). Quinn gradually drifted away from that prescription after Shanahan left for San Francisco, first with OC Steve Sarkisian and then with Koetter.
The Falcons’ offense became a one-dimensional mess in 2019. They passed at a higher rate than any team in the NFL this season. Worse, they didn’t often use the most efficient play type when they did throw it.
Per Pro Football Reference, this season the Falcons ranked 25th in the percentage of passes that came after play-action. Statistical evidence indicates that’s a more efficient way to pass independent of the effectiveness of the run game. Instead, Koetter had his QB taking lots of deep drops for the OC’s favored deep throws. Ryan has had more five- and seven-step drops than all but six QBs this season, according to Sports Info Solutions tracking data.
Obviously, Koetter isn’t solely to blame for the losing season. The Falcons might have won a couple of more games if their defense hadn’t been so bad for half the season. That’s on Quinn. But also blame him for getting diminishing returns from shifting away from Shanahan’s philosophy, which the ex-OC once described as: “When you believe in something that is sound, you drill it over and over and over until you get really good at it.”
It doesn’t have to be Shanahan’s scheme. Whatever it is, it needs to be sound and consistent. The Falcons were missing that with Koetter. The NFL’s final four have it.
That’s not the only thing that makes them better than the Falcons. You may think the head coaches are the difference. You may be right. But also note that only one head coach among the final four, Reid, is more accomplished than Quinn (both lost their one Super Bowl to the Patriots).
Three of the head coaches have never guided a team to the postseason. LaFleur is a rookie. Quinn may have lost his touch, but at least there’s evidence he once had it.
The teams in the championship game are deeper in player talent than the Falcons. Even there, the gap isn’t always huge. Remember, the NFL system is designed to drag all teams to the middle.
The Falcons had issues with pass blocking. The Chiefs and 49ers made it to this weekend with lines that are just OK at it (Kansas City is helped by Mahomes’ elusiveness). The Chiefs and Titans are pretty good at rushing the passer. The Falcons were not even that, but tackle Grady Jarrett is a better interior pass rusher than any still playing.
There are clear reasons why the Falcons have posted back-to-back losing seasons. But even the teams in the conference title games have relative weaknesses. They also have consistent offensive identities. The Falcons need to get back to that.
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