In the wake of the most historic collapse in Super Bowl history, the Falcons, individually and collectively, must take a long walk through a psychological valley.
Some have started and completed the trek. Others have put it off. Others will just try to move on to the 2017 season unabated.
The Falcons are set to start Phase 3 of their offseason program with OTAs (non-contact practice) on Tuesday. After the team’s mandatory minicamp, June 13-15, the team will disperse until training camp, which is slated to start in late July.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn started his walk immediately after the Super Bowl. He kept reviewing the game looking for things he could have done differently. He has some ideas about how he could have helped the defense during a stretch of five consecutive second-half scoring possessions by New England.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan reviewed the game for three consecutive days after the game.
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Running back Devonta Freeman briefly discussed his key missed block.
Several of the nation’s top sports psychologists discussed some of the psychological issues the Falcons are going through after losing to the Patriots, 34-28 in overtime, becoming the first team to blow a 25-point lead in the NFL’s biggest game.
“In those type of moments, things are happening so fast, they can’t even remember what went on,” said Brent Walker, associate athletic director of championship performance at Columbia University. “So, really going back and watching it, you are filling in the pieces. Part of filling in the pieces is then saying all right, put in that situation again, what do we need to do differently. I think that has to be a big component of it. If you face the exact same situation how would you handle it differently? If you don’t figure that out, you’ve really missed an opportunity.”
Most believe Quinn could have vetoed some of the play calls by former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who finally, just last week, admitted to wanting a play-call redo.
“Obviously, those guys will never forget it as a holistic picture, but in terms of impacting them in a game, it’s probably not going to impact them in a game until they have a big lead and someone starts to make a big comeback,” said Walker, past president of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. “Then, that might bring it back up. That’s why it’s important that they know how they are going to respond if that were to happen.
“For a lot of the guys, if they look back on it, they’ll never forget that.”
How the Falcons respond to the mega-failure will determine how they move on. Most of the team and key players are set to return, although Quinn had to replace Shanahan with Steve Sarkisian and made some changes on the defensive staff.
“One of the attributes of a mentally tough athlete is determination,” said Bob Harmison, a professor of sports psychology at James Madison. “Determination, you can think about determination as basically the ability to bounce back from adversity or failure with a greater determination to succeed.”
Instead of dwelling on the failure and mega-collapse, the Falcons need to glean out and cobble together the positives and try to move forward.
“One of the keys to doing that is your emotional response to adversity and to failure,” Harmison said. “The default response, for most of us, tends to be when we fail, especially if it’s a repeated failure or in the Falcons’ case, a pretty big failure on a big stage, is to be pessimistic or even be kind of hopeless if you well. You can combat that, really, the ideal emotional response to failure is optimism and hope.”
If the Falcons truly address the cause of their collapse and arrive at some conclusions, that would clear the path to recovery. Perhaps, creating that optimism and hope “that’s needed to bounce back from failure with a greater determination to succeed,” Harmison said.
The Falcons clearly are taking different coping paths.
“When you are dealing with professional athletes, they really have (dedicated) their entire career… toward that one event, achieving that outcome,” said Logan Kaleta, an associate professor at Emory University School of Medicine’s department of rehabilitation medicine. “If they are able to use that experience to fuel their motivation and then that might be to their benefit. That’s going to be very individualized in terms of how they respond and how they can use that experience to their benefit.”
Being able to learn from the loss will be key.
“I honestly think that experiential learning is the best form or learning out there,” said Kaleta, who’s has worked with amateur, collegiate and professional athletes. “Being able to go through it and face that adversity, hopefully provides growth. Especially, when you are talking about professional teams.”
Before meeting for the team’s offseason program, the Falcons held a players-only camp in Florida. The players came out of that gathering deferring to the leadership of Ryan.
“If you go back and watch what happened and all you can think about is the mistakes you made and focus on what couldn’t have been better, or you focus on the parts you couldn’t control in that situation, then that is not going to be helpful,” Harmison said. “But if that’s your tendency, I would advise somebody not to actually replay that in their mind if they can’t move past that.”
Quinn has talked with Golden State coach Steve Kerr about how he tried to re-charge his team after they blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals last season. He also talked with Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona about how his team planned to rebound from blowing a 3-1 lead to the Chicago Cubs in baseball’s World Series last season.
He’s also talked to San Antonio Spurs general manager R.C. Buford about how the team handled its collapse in the 2013 NBA Finals.
“(The Super Bowl loss) may be the fuel that drives them,” Walker said. “The best example that I can think of is when the San Antonio Spurs had the big collapse against the Heat, they came back the next year and dominated them in the finals. That was one of their big themes. It was kind of the redemption effort for them.”
Howard Falco, has written two books on human potential and human understanding titled “I am” and “Time in a Bottle.” He’s worked with college and professional athletes in every sport. He spent a season working with Arizona State’s football team.
The Falcons’ relative youth on the roster may help them rebound.
“In the NFL, at that level of play, you can’t give an inch,” Falco said. “You can’t take anything for granted. So, those young players, can learn from that. The older players can help them with that maturity.
“What is great about the young players, being so young and making it to that level, they now know that’s what possible of them. That’s something you can’t teach unless you’ve gotten that close. So, they’ve already won half of the battle.”
Somehow, turning the loss into a positive will be Quinn’s challenge.
“The experience itself is extremely valuable,” Falco said. “What the Falcons ran up against was a champion-mindset and a belief system within the Patriots organization from the top to the bottom that was just too strong for them to hang own and overcome.
“You saw that in the third quarter as things started to tilt the other way. You saw it in some questionable play-calling …. when they were in Patriots’ territory where they had a chance to go up maybe by (two) scores, but ended up with a sack or fumble that started to turn the game. What happened was you had the identity of the Patriots, as a champion, kick in and it started to take over the energy of the game.”
History is not on the Falcons’ side. No losing team in the Super Bowl has returned to the game since the Buffalo Bills in 1994.
“I’m not familiar with anybody, who’s actually looked at that from like a scholarly or empirical sort of way,” Harmison said. “I think to me, it’s a pretty good reflection that it’s pretty damn hard to get to the Super Bowl.”