The headline on the front page of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution summed it up: “HEARTBREAK.” The sub-headline read: “From joy to despair; Atlanta watches Super Bowl slip from its grasp.”
Let’s look back at the five reasons we offered then for the collapse after the Falcons took a 25-point lead at the 8:31 mark of the third quarter and still held it with a little more than two minutes to play in the quarter.
1. Falcons got too cute. Ahead 28-20, why did the Falcons try to pass after moving to New England's 22-yard line after a spectacular pass caught along the sideline by Julio Jones for a 27-yard gain? If they'd run the ball three times and didn't gain a yard, they would have kept the clock moving and stayed in field-goal range.
After a 1-yard loss by Devonta Freeman, they tried to pass. A 12-yard sack by Trey Flowers made it third-and-23 from the 35. A holding call on left tackle Jake Matthews moved the ball back to the 45. After an incomplete pass to Taylor Gabriel, the Falcons were forced to punt.
Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s play-calling in this sequence has been questioned over time.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn discussed being aggressive and “ripping it” when Shanahan’s play-calling was addressed. It’s not known if Quinn or Matt Ryan could have changed the play-call from the 23-yard line.
Shanahan, who left after the game to become the 49ers head coach, discussed the game leading to Super Bowl LIV, three years later.
“The days after were real tough,” Shanahan said. “Losing a Super Bowl is extremely tough for everybody, especially when you lose one when you have a 28-3 lead.
“The way it came down on me personally, I didn't react to that the way people would expect because there were definitely parts in that Super Bowl that I would love to have back and stuff I was very hard on myself, but the whole narrative of if I would’ve just ran it, we would’ve won. I know that wasn’t the case."
He also didn’t regret the pass he called with the Falcons leading 28-12 that led to Dont’a Hightower’s sack and forced fumble.
Later in the same interview at this past Super Bowl, Shanahan finally admitted that he regretted the call from the 23.
“They played a different coverage, didn’t get the call I wanted so I didn’t like the call," he said. “I was hoping we could just get rid of it, but they had a pretty good rush and got a sack.”
2. Edelman catch. On first-and-10 from New England's 36, Robert Alford tipped a pass intended for Julian Edelman, who fought through traffic to make a spectacular grab. The Falcons challenged the play, but the ruling was upheld and gave the Patriots a 23-yard gain and continued life. The Falcons lost their third timeout on the challenge.
3. Defense wore down.The Falcons' defense came out strong, but ran out of gas while playing 99 plays, including the two two-point conversions.
4. Falcons didn't try to run up the middle. The Falcons ran the ball successfully outside early, but once the Patriots adjusted, the Falcons didn't try to run the ball up the middle. The lack of a running game with a lead was vital.
5. Pass protection was porous. Ryan was under siege. He was sacked five times and hit 12 times. The offensive line, playing with a limited Alex Mack, did not play at a championship level. Matthews was subpar, and Ryan Schraeder left the game with an injury. Up 28-12, running back Devonta Freeman didn't pick up New England's Hightower, who had a key sack-strip, and Alan Branch recovered the fumble at the Falcons' 25. The Patriots converted the turnover into a touchdown to make the score 28-20.
The game has been dissected over the years.
“I think I said it best during the Super Bowl, the one that we lost,” said Falcons defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, who was the assistant head coach/wide receivers in the Super Bowl season, on Dec. 19, 2019. “People want to talk about ... I felt really comfortable losing the Super Bowl because of the preparation, how we went into the game, how we prepared, and I was able to live (with) the results and those results weren’t able to affect me in future play and that was the biggest stage.”
Falcons former defensive line coach Bryan Cox, who wants to get back into coaching, had some regrets.
“My thoughts on it are, hindsight is 20-20, but had I been able to do anything differently, I would have played more guys to give my front-line starters more rest so that maybe they would have had more in the tank at the end of the game,” Cox told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday. “I think we just simply ran out of gas. That was, in my estimation, a miscalculation on my part. I don’t think I played the backup guys enough to where I could rest the guys to be able to finish the game the way we needed to.”
Cox wished he played the reserves more in the first half.
“You never know you’re going to play (99) plays,” Cox said. “At the end of the day, with all that was at stake, if you had to play 120 plays, you would like to think you’d be able to finish it and figure out a way to get it done.
“But again, with hindsight, you’d figure in the first and second quarters, we could have played the backups and just rotate by series to get those guys up into the 40 plays and then your starters would only have to play 50 something plays. Unfortunately, some guys played as many as 70 plays. That was bad on my part.”
But a look back, it appears that Cox did rotate the defensive line.
Here are the snap counts: Vic Beasley (71 snaps), Grady Jarrett (57), Dwight Freeney (56), Jonathan Babineaux (49), Brooks Reed (44), Ra’Shede Hageman (41), Courtney Upshaw (26), Joe Vellano (25), Tyson Jackson (25) and Ben Garland (1).
Jarrett tied a Super Bowl record with three sacks and was listed as the MVP on a few ballots before the Patriots took over.
“If I had to do it all over, when you look at some of the success of Grady being out there, if I could have gave him a little more rest maybe he could have had four or five sacks,” Cox said. “I could have did a better job of rotating those guys.”
Former Falcons defensive backs coach Marquand Manuel, who would become the coordinator in 2017, has been to four Super Bowls as a player and coach. He’s won one and lost three.
But none was more painful than the one the Falcons blew.
Manuel, who did not have his contract renewed after the 2018 season, is the defensive backs coach with the Eagles.
“(NBA coaching great) Phil Jackson was on with us yesterday (May 21),” Manuel told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday. “One of the questions that came up was, how did you keep guys motivated. He said something that’s always been near to my heart from that game, he said, find a way to win the game, but don’t lose the game.
“Find a way to win it at the end. As far as the staff (and) as far as the players and it goes back to those little moments when the details matter. That’s what happened. The details mattered.”
Manuel remembers those little things that maybe could have stopped the bleeding or turned things around in the Super Bowl LI.
“I can tell you on the last drive, if Robert (Alford) catches the ball,” Manuel said. “So many small things. If we covered down. There were so many things that could have happened. But what did that go back to?
“We can nitpick. But that’s focus and finish. Find a way to do it. The great teams find a way to do. If you can find a way to do it in that moment, that’s what you cultivate.”
With Desmond Trufant out because of torn pectoral injury, Jalen Collins (95 snaps) and Alford (98) were the starting cornerbacks, and Brian Poole (90) was the nickel back. A converted basketball player C.J. Goodwin (16) and late-season pickup Deja Olatoye (31) also played some cornerback against Tom Brady.
“It’s not about doing anything spectacular,” Manuel said. “It’s about doing things detailed and finishing. That’s what I learned from that.”
From the former assistant coaches’ viewpoints, Shanahan has received too much of the blame.
“Let me just say this, they can say whatever they want, for me and my standpoint, being a defensive coach, I can’t worry about what they are doing on offense or what they didn’t do on offense,” Cox said when asked if Shanahan should have run it more. “At the end of the day, we win as a team. We lose as a team. But my job was to help us stop New England’s offense and that didn’t get done.
“I’m not going to criticize or be critical of anything that happened on the other side of the ball. That was not my job.”
Shanahan had a magical season calling plays, and Matt Ryan became the first Falcon to win the league’s MVP award.
“I’ve never called a play on offense,” Cox said. “I’ve never been on offense. Well, I did play offense. I actually caught a pass from Brady before (in 2001). I’ve never been in the situation.
“I’ve never been in that man’s shoes. I can’t say what he should have did. What he could have did. It’s easy to do that. It’s hard to look in the mirror and say what could I have done to perhaps change the outcome.”
Manuel said it was an over-simplification to contend that Shanahan should have run the ball more to bleed the clock.
“He’s a sharp guy,” Manuel said. “We wouldn’t have been there without him. So, that’s null and void. It’s a team game.”
Manuel also took the view of looking at all of the opportunities the Falcons’ had.
“We had an opportunity at the end even on the last play,” Manuel said. “Even on the last play, you still had an opportunity. Just to get the details right. That didn’t happen. From that standpoint, that really was the focus.”
It was a missed opportunity.
The Falcons battled back in the 2017 season and went to the playoffs, but stalled on the 1-yard line in a 15-10 loss to Philadelphia in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Eagles went on to win Super Bowl LII.
Manuel, a big Michael Jordan fan, watched the ESPN documentary “The Last Dance.” He felt the Bulls learned the most from their early defeats to the Pistons. He was hoping the Falcons could grow from the Super Bowl LI collapse.
“It was refreshing for me to hear some of the things that they talked about as far as what the battles were going to be like in defeat,” Manuel said. “That’s where the learned the most.”
He regrets that the Falcons were not able to atone for their collapse.
“If I had any shortcomings in Atlanta, (it’s) that it didn’t go how I wanted and that we never got a chance to see the fruition of the battles in those championship moments,” Manuel said. “We were on our way in ’17, making it back to the playoffs. If the ball goes another way in Philly and we win that, who knows. We go back to the Super Bowl and all of the parameters are different.
“But it didn’t bounce our way. That’s the hard part, but that’s our profession.”
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