The Falcons go into the NFL draft late next week with one objective: improve the defense.
They will spend their first pick on a defensive player.
They will spend their second pick on a defensive player.
They will invest most of their selections on players whose job description is stopping and/or mauling the other team and celebrate each pick with only human cheers, cognizant that they’ve already been stripped of a fifth-rounder and that commissioner Roger Goodell reserves the right to pie owner Arthur Blank in the face should they pipe in more artificial crowd noise.
But most of the intrigue this offseason doesn’t center on how much better the Falcons can get on defense as much as whether it’s possible for them to improve on offense. The expensive free-agent signings of center Alex Mack and wide receiver Mohamed Sanu should help. But without improvement from quarterback Matt Ryan and coordinator Kyle Shanahan, the value of the Mack and Sanu signings will diminish.
So it was that Ryan took a step toward alleviating concerns Tuesday, saying that he sometimes took too long to process Shanahan’s scheme and affirming that he is “excited” to have him back. (I’ve never endorsed Shanahan’s firing, but I can report “excited” has not been a word used in any tweet, email or comment I’ve received over the past several months.)
“There’s that four or five seconds in your head where you’re trying to sort out what we’re doing,” Ryan said, referencing points when he struggled in the offense last season. “As you’re in a system more, you start focusing on the things that are important — what you’re going against defensively, what your keys are in protection, what you’re looking for from a coverage standpoint.”
Asked if he felt more comfortable in a recent passing camp in Miami, Ryan responded, “I think everybody was more comfortable. Jacob Tamme was new in a system, new to me. Justin Hardy was a guy who was always trying to get settled and figure out what he was doing. When we were in Miami and had a chance to work together, I could already tell we were a lot further along than we were even at certain points midway through the season last year.”
The Falcons have gone three consecutive seasons without making the playoffs. They haven’t missed the playoffs four consecutive years since the particularly dysfunctional days of Dan Henning and Marion Campbell (eight consecutive seasons, 1983-90), long before Arthur Blank became owner (2002).
I believe Blank is putting everybody on the clock, not just general manager Thomas Dimitroff but coach Dan Quinn and his staff and Ryan, who will have only two years left on a $103.75 million contract after the 2016 season. The owner is as competitive as any player or coach, and the looming move into a new stadium only magnifies the situation.
Ryan, who spoke as offseason workouts opened at the team’s Flowery Branch facility, reiterated the need for improved red-zone production and fewer turnovers. Both are largely on him: He had 16 interceptions (second most of his career), and 12 fumbles and eight lost fumbles (both career-highs, although a few mishandles could’ve been attributed to his center).
So in total, Ryan accounted for 24 of his team’s 30 turnovers. Even for the player who handles the ball on every offensive snap, that’s way too many.
Ryan believes familiarity will help this season, and that goes to Shanahan’s knowledge of his players as much as players’ knowledge of the offense.
As for criticism of Shanahan, who was retained by Quinn without hesitation, Ryan said: “When you’re not winning games, criticism goes in a lot of directions. That goes with playing in this league, playing quarterback, being a head coach, being an offensive coordinator. I’m excited he’s back. I think we learned a lot in Year 1 about each other, a lot about what we can be and what we don’t need to be. A lot of those things will serve us well.”
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