Just a year ago, the Falcons were in the same position as one of the two teams now playing in Super Bowl LV.
The Falcons defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 2019 finale, which ended both of the teams’ seasons with 7-9 records. The Falcons were able to get the win with linebacker Deion Jones returning a James Winston interception for a walk-off touchdown. That pick secured Winston with 30 interceptions for the 2019 season.
Needless to say, for the Buccaneers to become a contender, they needed an upgrade at quarterback.
Enter Tom Brady, arguably the greatest quarterback of all time.
After 20 years with the New England Patriots, Brady signed a two-year deal with the Buccaneers last offseason. The Buccaneers did make some other important moves, which included drafting offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs, signing running back Leonard Fournette after the Jacksonville Jaguars released him, bringing tight end Rob Gronkowski out of retirement and adding receiver Antonio Brown to the team midseason.
In the end, Brady proved to be the biggest difference. He’s thrown 18 fewer interceptions than Winston while bringing the intangible qualities he’s long possessed. NFL Network analyst David Carr, a former quarterback who the Houston Texans selected first overall in the 2002 draft, said teams around the NFL likely will try to duplicate the Buccaneers’ model with the hope of capturing some magic at the position.
To a degree, this already has happened, with the Los Angeles Rams and Detroit Lions agreeing to swap Jared Goff and Matthew Stafford.
“I don’t think this is something that can be duplicated too often,” Carr said. “Tom Brady is a once-in-a-lifetime player. For him to come in and change the entire culture -- because if you even watch the flow of that team, how they started ascending, that’s how the Patriots ascended every year. You watch them finish off a year on a high note and start running the ball late. It’s like, wait a minute. Is this the Tom Brady way or the Patriot way? You saw that same flow in Tampa Bay. I think it’ll be hard to duplicate but teams are going to definitely try.”
The Falcons aren’t in a situation like the Buccaneers were a year ago, with Matt Ryan returning as the franchise’s quarterback. The Falcons aren’t looking to part ways with Ryan in the immediate future either. However, keeping Ryan on the roster for the 2021 season doesn’t preclude the franchise from drafting a quarterback at the No. 4 overall slot.
It does, however, make the Buccaneers’ turnaround model difficult to copy.
“If you think you are that one player away from being a championship team, you typically aren’t,” said Brian Billick, the former Baltimore Ravens coach who won Super Bowl XXXV. “In Tampa’s instance, it was very much true because that one player was Tom Brady.”
All that being said, the Falcons could stand to either add and develop more go-to leaders on the roster. Although there aren’t many players who command the kind of following Brady does, the 2016 Falcons team that went to Super Bowl LI had a slew of veteran leaders young players gravitated toward, such as Dwight Freeney, Tyson Jackson and Paul Worrilow. Although Ryan and receiver Julio Jones are considered the faces of the franchise, the fiery type of motivational leaders have been missing from the Falcons’ locker room in recent seasons.
Carr noted that Brady’s presence in this facet has elevated others on the roster. The Falcons won’t be looking to swap Ryan with a veteran quarterback as the Buccaneers did a year ago. But if there is any takeaway or lesson to learn, it’s that the right kind of leadership goes a long way.
“Everyone bought in and followed his lead,” Carr said. “Tom’s doing this, so, ‘Let’s go do it.’ Then you take a really talented football team and you start going down the path of this Hall of Fame player and now all those talented players are preparing and playing like a Hall of Fame player. That’s pretty good. You find yourself in a Super Bowl.
“Are there other teams that can do that just by switching a quarterback out? I don’t know, probably not anymore. There are teams that can get closer and give themselves a chance.”