Reality set in on Monday as the Falcons packed their bags, signed autographs and headed off to other parts of the country for an offseason of uncertainty.
The Falcons finished 8-8 after streaking out to a 5-0 start under first-year coach Dan Quinn, staggering primarily because of the midseason collapse of the offense. Wide receiver Julio Jones, who turned in an outstanding 136-catch season, believes the offense can be much improved in the second season under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
“As an offense, we just have to protect the ball better,” Jones told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Kyle Shanahan just gave us a stat. We were like 32nd (actually 27th) in the league turning the ball over. … It was just more so us than anybody else.”
Jones turned in a franchise record-setting season with 136 receptions and 1,871 yards. But if the offense is to improve, from quarterback Matt Ryan to rest of the unit, taking care of the ball must be their focus.
“That’s the central theme of the program,” Jones said. “Next year, we just have to focus on (limiting turnovers) and keep emphasizing that every week.”
Jones believes a more effective rushing attack contributed to his mega-season. The Falcons improved from 24th (93.6 yards per game) in the league to 18th (100.7).
“The running game is going to continue to keep getting better,” Jones said.
Jones also made it sound like 2015 was a personal springboard.
“I feel like I had a pretty good year,” Jones said. “I feel like I can do better. The standards for myself are so much higher. I know what I put out there. I feel like this year, I missed a few passes. I could have done a lot of things better. It’s hard to play a perfect game in football and have a perfect season. I strive for that every year.”
Jones lobbied for the return of wide receiver Roddy White, who turned 34 during the season while his production dropped off dramatically, failing from 80 catches in 2014 to 43 catches in 2014.
The Falcons have a recent history of cutting veteran players as salary cap casualties.
“There isn’t a question about whether if Roddy is going to be here or not,” Jones said.
Quinn, who has control over the 53-man roster, outlined two areas of emphasis as he attempts to strengthen the team.
“Offensive and defensive line is going to be in the front of our thinking at all times,” Quinn said. “When we have our big guys rolling, that’s when we are at our best.”
The Falcons’ pass rush, the worst in the league in 2014, didn’t see much improvement in 2015. The Falcons tied for 30th in the league in sacks per opponent pass attempt.
The Falcons tried to improve their pass rush in the draft by adding end Vic Beasley with the No. 8 overall draft pick and tackle Grady Jarrett in the fifth round. They also added free agents Adrian Clayborn and O’Brien Schofield.
The Falcons offensive line allowed a sack on 5.15 percent of their pass plays, which was ninth-best in the league. They allowed 89 quarterback hits, which tied for 17th-most.
After injuries and ineffectiveness led to the release of some regulars, the Falcons put together a patchwork offensive line better suited for the zone-blocking scheme favored Shanahan.
Quinn said he would look to improve the lines through the draft and free agency as well as develop players already on the roster.
“I want to make sure the line of scrimmage is something that’s always in the front of my mind,” he said.
Linebacker Paul Worrilow, who led the team in tackles for the second consecutive season, believes the defense made strides.
“But the important thing now is to do that again,” said Worrilow, the unit’s signal-caller. “We’ve built a good foundation that we can really build on and thrive upon.”
The Falcons gave up 347.6 yards per game, which ranked 17th in the league. In scoring defense, the Falcons were 14th (21.6 points per game).
“You can make stats out to say something or slant them one way or another, but I’m just proud of my teammates as a whole,” Worrilow said.
Quinn was frank in final meeting with the team.
“The truth is, we are done playing,” Worrilow said. “That’s unacceptable.”
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