How did the Falcons get here?
There has been a monumental slide from NFC champions and Super Bowl contenders to last place in the NFC South in a matter of only a few seasons.
After the Falcons reached Super Bowl LI in January 2017 and even after their historic collapse, their future appeared so bright they needed designer sunglasses. The Falcons' Super Bowl window, with a high-octane offense and a young defense, figured to be open for at least five years and possibly longer.
The Falcons returned to the playoffs in 2017, but were upset by a backup quarterback in the divisional rounds of the playoffs. Since, they went 7-9, 7-9 and after losing the first five games this season, Falcons coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff were fired Oct. 11.
Things started to unravel immediately after the Super Bowl, and the descent was swift and persistent.
Here are five things that doomed the Quinn-Dimitroff administration:
1. Losing Shanahan. The architect of the Falcons' offensive attack had the San Francisco job and a hefty contract in his back pocket going into the Super Bowl.
Shanahan had been waiting for his opportunity to follow in his father’s footsteps. Coupled with former safety John Lynch being named general manager, the Falcons couldn’t stand in the way.
In his third season in San Francisco, Shanahan had the 49ers in the Super Bowl.
The Falcons, bypassed quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur and turned to Steve Sarkisian, who hadn’t called plays in the NFL before, and he lasted only two seasons.
LaFleur would go on to make stops with the Rams and Titans and then land the Green Bay Packers' head coaching job.
Sarkisian took Shanahan’s offense and couldn’t re-create the magic as the Falcons moved away from the stretch outside zone runs and the bootlegs that were so deadly in 2016. They tried to replace the runs with toss sweeps, jet sweeps and some motion.
Sarkisian is back in the college ranks calling plays at Alabama.
2. Freeman’s contract. The Falcons mishandling of Devonta Freeman’s contract was a major factor.
Freeman made his contract demands known the week of the Super Bowl and then and missed a key block in the game that helped to fuel the Patriots' comeback.
If Freeman had blocked Dont’a Hightower, quarterback Matt Ryan had a completion and not a sack-strip.
With Tevin Coleman on the roster, there was no pressure to meet Freeman’s contract demands.
Instead of distancing themselves from a disgruntled player, they embraced him. Freeman was signed to a five-year, $41.25 million contract, with $17.3 million guaranteed, in August 2017.
He never was the same player and was released after the 2019 season, with three years remaining on the contract and dead money against the salary cap.
3. The Super Bowl defense didn’t develop. Vic Beasley was considered a rising star after getting 15.5 sacks that season. Defensive tackles Grady Jarrett was scratching the surface of his talent, and the Falcons were hopeful that Ra’Shede Hageman would mature.
Dwight Freeney was an aging veteran, but the Falcons were thought to have three-fourths of a stout defensive line.
Linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell were rookies.
Robert Alford, Brian Poole and Jalen Collins were the starting corners in the game, with Desmond Trufant out with an injury.
Safeties Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal also were ascending players.
Beasley never improved. Hageman and Collins, both second-round draft picks, ended up getting suspended and bounced out of the league.
Campbell eventually had to leave in free agency because there was no money left after paying Freeman prematurely.
Neal and Allen would have season-ending injuries in 2018, which doomed the defense. Neal went down again in 2019.
So, the defense that Quinn and Dimitroff were building collapsed, which was mostly be attributed to not getting through to Beasley, failed draft picks (Hageman and Collins) and injuries.
4. Interior offensive line. Dimitroff understood that as long as Ryan could step into his throws, the Falcons were going to the playoffs. The interior of the line -- left guard, center and right guard -- had to be rock solid.
In the Super Bowl season, the offensive line was in place for all 17 games, but when right guard Chris Chester retired and left guard Andy Levitre couldn’t stay healthy, the interior of Ryan’s pocket was compromised.
Also, right tackle Ryan Schraeder, a former Valdosta State legend, would play only two more seasons and was out of football at age 30.
5. Musical coordinators. Quinn, a former defensive coordinator, never seemed to get comfortable with someone else calling the defense.
During the march to the Super Bowl, he took over the play-calling from defensive coordinator Richard Smith.
Marquand Manuel was named the defensive coordinator. But he wasn’t good enough either. Manuel and special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong were fired along with Sarkisian after the 2018 season.
Who fires all of the coordinators at the same time?
Quinn took over the defense, but after a 1-7 start in 2019, he passed those duties along to linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich and Raheem Morris.
After Quinn was fired, special teams coordinator Ben Kotwica was fired.
Playing musical chairs at the key coordinator positions took its toll on the team.
Now, the Falcons, with the trade deadline Tuesday, are the crossroads. How do they move forward?
The Falcons are not in a position to start another full-out rebuild. They are tied to quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones for at least two seasons and likely three.
“He doesn’t want to be traded,” ESPN analyst Louis Riddick said of Ryan on “NFL Countdown” before the Falcons faced the Panthers on Thursday. “He’s not going to be traded. His contract is too prohibitive from a salary-cap standpoint. They could not do that right now.”
Ryan told the Atlanta media of his desire to remain in the city earlier in the week. Matt Schaub is the backup, and Kurt Benkert is being developed to be Schaub’s successor, not Ryan’s.
“They don’t have anyone on the roster really as far as a succession plan at quarterback,” Riddick said. “With Matt just being 35 years old, I think he has one or two years in Atlanta before they could move on if they wanted to. He’s just going to have to play out the string.”
How do you fix the many issues that will face the new general manager and head coach.
“The problems in Atlanta are much bigger than Matt Ryan,” Riddick said. “From a coaching perspective, they have had some serious mismanagement in terms of how they turned over coordinators multiple times under Dan Quinn. On the defensive side of the ball they have missed badly as far as trying to upgrade the defensive line in particular. The secondary has been poor.”
Also, the Falcons have had a rash of injuries over the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
“There is a litany of problems outside of Matt Ryan,” Riddick said. “I think for him, and with them, they just need to stay the course with him for right now and address all of these other issues as quickly as they can as soon as this season is over.”
It’s still a major reconstruction job if not a full rebuild.
“They have got a lot of work to do,” Riddick said.
With Drew Brees and Tom Brady, who both are older than Ryan, in the NFC South, the Falcons' path in climbing within the division could be easer if they both retire.
Another question is what should the Falcons do with wide receiver Julio Jones.
“In this division, there is no way I’m talking about starting over with that opportunity standing right there in front of me,” NFL Network analyst Michael Irvin said before the Falcons played Carolina. “I’m never getting rid of Julio Jones. I told you how much I prayed to God to be Julio Jones, and you guys are talking about getting rid of Julio Jones?”
Others are not as high on a quick recovery for the Falcons.
“You’ve got to blow this thing up because Julio is wasting great years,” NFL Network’s Steve Smith said. "You have to give Julio an opportunity to get a championship. Atlanta is not doing it. Atlanta has to move on.
"They can’t move on from Matt Ryan because they owe him 90 acres and 10 hundred mules, but I’m telling you, do (Jones) a favor. He’s given you so much, so give him an opportunity to win a championship (by trading him).
“They don’t have a chance to do anything, so you might as well start over.”
Falcons' Next four games
Broncos at Falcons at 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 8
Falcons at Saints at 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 22
Las Vegas Raiders at Falcons at 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 29
Saints at Falcons at 1 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6
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