The 2017 Atlanta Falcons must try to climb a mountain that no other NFL team has completed in nearly a quarter of a century.
Coming off the most devastating defeat in Super Bowl history, the defending NFC champions will try to become the first losing Super Bowl team to make it back since the 1994 Buffalo Bills.
“It’s speaks to the overall parity that we’ve had in the league,” Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver Cris Carter said. “And, I think that losing in the Super Bowl is more traumatic than people want to believe. I believe that’s a tremendous obstacle that Atlanta has to overcome.”
The Falcons built a 28-3 lead and appeared on their way to earning the franchise’s first Super Bowl title, but they collapsed on several fronts as they went on to lose 34-28 to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI in Houston.
“Not only losing the Super Bowl, but they actually had the game won,” Carter said. “They are one play away from being champions.”
The Falcons path to Minneapolis will be littered with all kinds of obstacles, real and perceived.
“There are so many things that happen after a Super Bowl,” said John Clayton, a longtime former national writer and broadcaster for ESPN. “Contract problems, injuries, the fact that you’re out there a month longer than anybody else, it takes you a little bit longer to heal up.”
The Falcons dodged the contract problems by signing running back Devonta Freeman to a five-year, $8.25 million deal, which made him the highest paid player at his position.
Injury-wise, center Alex Mack healed from a broken fibula. Two-time All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones had surgery on his right foot and didn’t practice over the offseason and played just eight snaps in the exhibition season.
Slot receiver Taylor Gabriel worked his way back into form after suffering a lower leg injury.
“The overconfidence factor sometimes gets teams,” Clayton said. “If it’s a close game, there is a lingering affect. It’s just very different.”
Quarterback Matt Ryan, the league’s reigning MVP, is back and at age 32 and is in the prime of his career. That is a major plus for the Falcons.
“You look over in the AFC and it’s only been like four quarterbacks that have won Super Bowls since 2001,” Clayton said. “(Peyton) Manning, (Tom) Brady, (Joe) Flacco and Ben (Roethlisberger). Only four. You think about that. You have 16 teams and only five teams with four quarterbacks have been able to do something like that.”
Ryan took more than 30 players to Miami in April to get ready for return of the season. His leadership is setting the tone for the young team, with an improving defense.
“It’s just so difficult because you have to have the luck of not having the injuries,” Clayton said. “The help of the schedule. You know it’s going to be tougher. You know teams are going to target you. The margin of error is just that more difficult.”
Falcons coach Dan Quinn, who’s set to enter his third season, sought advice from all sectors of the sporting world on how to get his team motivated and re-focused for the challenge.
He talked to NBA coach Steve Kerr, major league baseball manager Terry Francona and NBA general manager R.C. Buford of the San Antonio Spurs. They all suffered devastating defeats in their respective championship situations.
Equipped with that information, Quinn set forth on a path that called for the team to address the situation. They had an open team meeting where players and coaches were allowed to vent and clear the air.
Once the smoke and thrown chairs settled, all parties agreed to move forward.
“It’s such a devastating defeat,” said Rick Gosselin, the respected former NFL writer for the Dallas Morning News. “When you come to the doorstep of the championship and you think you’re going to win the championship and then you come back after losing. You have to go through that whole process again. You remember how hard it was to work. It’s just tough to replicate.”
The past 23 Super Bowl losers failed to make it back to the Super Bowl the following season (although Buffalo had gone to four consecutive by the 1993 season). Ten of the 23 teams missed the playoffs altogether, including the Carolina Panthers, who went 6-10 after going 15-1 and losing the Super Bowl to Denver two seasons ago.
“It’s tough for a defending champion to replicate, much less a team that’s been knocked on its keister with a loss,” Gosselin said. “The Atlanta loss was particularly devastating. That game was (seemingly secured), and all of sudden it was lost.”
The Bills’ run of four consecutive Super Bowl trips looks more impressive as time has passed.
“That’s one of reasons why Marv Levy is in the Hall of Fame,” Gosselin said. “After three consecutive Super Bowl losses, he took a fourth team to a Super Bowl. That’s one of the greatest coaching achievements in history.”
Like the Bills, who returned their core stars on offense, the Falcons, who led the league in scoring, have their core stars back.
Quinn, who was Seattle’s defensive coordinator, has been to three of the past four Super Bowls. The Seahawks defeated Denver before losing to New England in an excruciating fashion on a late-game interception.
“How do you recapture a mindset, an attitude to battle for it on regular basis without going to that space every week,” Quinn said. “We’re more in tune with how can we get better today as opposed to looking out there months from now.
“We know the history of teams that have done it and haven’t done it, but past that, there is lots to do prior to that.”
The superior focus on short-term goals should help the Falcons.
“When you are playing in championship games and Super Bowls, you are not sneaking up on anybody,” Quinn said. “So, the year after you win, sometimes you get everyone’s best shot. That can be a difficult challenge.”
After the Seattle Super Bowl loss on a late-game interception from the 1-yard line, Quinn was named head coach of the Falcons. They finished 8-8 in his first season before the team took off last season and finished 11-5 and claimed the No. 2 seed for the playoffs.
The Falcons soundly defeated Seattle in the divisional round of the playoffs before blasting Green Bay in the NFC Championship game. The Falcons earned the franchise’s second trip to the Super Bowl, matching the 1998 team that was coached by Dan Reeves.
“When you go to a championship game, the storyline is can you make it back,” Quinn said. “In either case, you better put yourself right back into the next season and not look down to the postseason...because I think if you look too far down the line, if you won or lost it, and you look way too far down, you can get your (expletive) kicked.”
Former quarterback Kurt Warner, who was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in August, won a Super Bowl and lost two in late defeats.
His Rams won Super Bowl XXXIV 23-16 and were defeated by New England in XXXVI. Later, as quarterback of the Arizona Cardinals, he led a furious rally only to lose to Roethlisberger and the Steelers when wide receiver Santonio Holmes made a spectacular 6-yard touchdown catch with 35 seconds remaining to win Super Bowl XLIII.
“I think the bottom line in sports is that the difference between quote, unquote, winning and losing is so small,” Warner said a day after he received his gold jacket. “I look at the three Super Bowls, and I could be sitting here 3-0 because the last time I left the game in a meaningful situation, my team was tied or ahead in all of those Super Bowls.”
The former grocery-store worker and Arena Football League star has one of the greatest treks to Canton in the modern era of professional football.
“I also look at it and say I won one Super Bowl by one yard,” Warner said of the title the Rams won over the Tennessee Titans in the Georgia Dome. “I could very easily be 0-3 in Super Bowls. Or, I could be anywhere along the way. So, how I’ve come to reconcile it, is that you go and you play a great (team). You understand in the Super Bowl it’s great teams and great players against other great teams and great players.”
He believes the Falcons can move forward by recognizing what that accomplished was pretty special.
“Win, lose or draw is not always determined on the scoreboard,” Warner said. “Sometimes you tip your hat to the great players on the other team and say ‘well done.’ You two guys made a great play that ended up getting them a win in the Super Bowl doesn’t diminish what I accomplished, doesn’t diminished what our team accomplished.”
Quinn is giving his squad a shot at beating the Super Bowl hangover myth.
“I think we can get a lot better,” Quinn said. “It probably took me all the way up to training camp this year to see really where our mindset was at. We didn’t work on it in the spring, but it was going to take me into camp.”
Quinn believes that he sees the early signs of a team that’s ready to battle its demons and move forward.
“Probably the second day that we came in, I could tell this team is going for it,” Quinn said. “That’s when I knew that we were ready to leave that there and focus on the here and the now, even when the rest of the country may not.”
It was a small thing that Quinn noticed that led him to that conclusion.
“It was the speed at which we were practicing,” Quinn said. “It was faster. Given an expectation about what a training-camp practice would look like, and so we had surpassed it in terms of the attitude and the effort. It wasn’t like we were easing into anything.
“It was more like, there’s lots to prove to see how good we could get. That’s why I think we can get a lot better.”
The Falcons hope to put the myth of the Super Bowl hangover to rest.
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