They were so good at the outset, it seemed as if the new coach, Dan Quinn, had placed two electric paddles on the Falcons organization and yelled, “Clear!”
They were so good at the outset, you had to wonder if some of those holdover bad draft picks maybe weren’t so bad after all and they had just been undercoached.
They were so good at the outset, the Falcons didn’t even have to pump in fake crowd noise.
One game. One win. Welcome to the latest organizational cleansing.
Quinn was spotted running the steps of the Georgia Dome before his first real game as a head coach Monday night. Then his team’s performance gave everybody else an endorphin rush.
The Falcons’ defense smothered the prematurely celebrated Chip Kelly offense early. They built a 20-3 halftime lead over Philadelphia. They sputtered, as if channeling ghosts of Falcons past, turned the ball over and allowed three straight touchdowns in the second half to fall behind, but this time didn’t fizzle.
Matt Bryant kicked a 47-yard field. The defense made a stop. The Eagles missed a 44-yard field goal. Ricardo Allen intercepted a tipped pass in the final minute. They finished. They won 26-24.
Amazing the things that can be accomplished when a team doesn’t fold. Dan Quinn arrived like a Red Bull with ears.
“Coach Quinn brought us that energy,” defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux said. ” What you saw out there is what you see in practice every day. We have a lot to improve on but we can have a great team here.”
Did the Falcons come out with that kind of energy in any game last season?
“Um. Notsomuch,” Babineaux said.
The last time the Falcons debuted a new coach was 2008. Mike Smith was everything Bobby Petrino wasn’t: stable, respected, human.
Players responded. They started the season like they were shot out of a cannon. Matt Ryan, a rookie, threw a 62-yard touchdown laser to Michael Jenkins on his first attempt, the Falcons opened a 21-0 lead over Detroit in the first quarter on the way to a 34-21 win and the team finished 11-5 and made the playoffs.
That Falcons’ team was coming off the hangovers of Petrino, Michael Vick and a 4-12 season. This Falcons’ team was coming off consecutive non-playoff seasons of 4-12 and 6-10 and had increasingly showed deficiencies in the sport’s two staples: blocking and tackling. Some of it might have been coaching but most of it was bad personnel decisions, particularly on the offensive and defensive lines.
The Falcons, with player choices now being split by Quinn and slightly clipped general manager Thomas Dimitroff, couldn’t fix all of their mistakes this offseason. So their season will be determined by how well Quinn and a mostly new staff can get the team to overachieve.
The beginning was impressive. Kelly’s offense seems to have romanced the national media in his two NFL seasons but the Falcons held the Eagles to a field goal in eight first-half possessions and led 20-3 at intermission. Fans were so impressed they have the team a standing ovation as they left field, which I believe was one more ovation than they had the previous two years.
Notwithstanding the Falcons’ dizzying string of changes on the offensive line, their record this season ultimately will be determined by their defense. Even with poor run blocking, the team has enough weapons (Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Roddy White) to score points. But defensively, the Falcons have been a mess. Their overall defensive finishes in the last seven seasons: 24th, 21st, 16th, 12th, 24th, 27th and 32nd. The primary culprit: no pass rush.
But the Falcons held the Eagles without a first down in their first two possessions and forced them to punt on their first four. Philly’s first 16 offensive snaps netted 35 yards. The key was the pass rush, which often pressured and hit quarterback Sam Bradford.
“Pressured” and “hit” – there’s two verbs we haven’t used much in the last two years, at least when alluding to the Falcons’ defensive front.
The score was 20-3 at halftime. But it could’ve been even more one-sided, if not for a great one-handed interception by Philly’s Kiko Alonso in the end zone. That interception, however, was on Ryan for not getting more air under the throw to get it to an open Roddy White.
The offense otherwise moved the ball effectively early, with Jones shredding Philly’s secondary for eight catches, 97 yards and two touchdowns in the first two quarters. But for all that went right in the first half, things began to unravel in second.
Ryan, who underthrew receivers too often Monday, let Philly back into the game from deep in Falcons’ territory when he shorted a pass to White, Walter Thurman stepped in front of the receiver for an interception and returned it 23 yards to the Falcons’ 8-yard line. Two plays later, the lead was down to 20-10.
The Falcons went nowhere on offense. Bradford, suddenly well-protected, completed 11 of 12 passes on the next possession and the Eagles drove to another touchdown, a 5-yard pass to DeMarco Murray: 20-17.
A sense of doom followed. A Bryant field goal gave the Falcons a little more breathing room. But Philly followed with its third straight touchdown to take a 24-23 lead, as the defense seemingly tired and began channelling ghost of Falcons’ past. But Ryan connected with Jones for a 44-yard gain, setting up Bryant’s kick and Atlanta exhaled.
“We knew this game would come down to how we finished,” Quinn said, “and that’s what happened.”
One game. One win. The view just got significantly better.
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