The first turning point came when offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who took the offense and quarterback Matt Ryan to new heights, left the day after the Super Bowl to become San Francisco’s head coach. He received a fabulous offer and had been angling for an NFL head coaching job for years.
The Falcons’ decision to hire Steve Sarkisian as his replacement was suspect from the beginning. He had spent one season in the NFL as a quarterbacks coach, in 2004. Because of the Super Bowl run, possible replacements Mike McCoy and Greg Roman earlier took other jobs, and Chip Kelly was the only known alternative.
The Falcons’ offense was so potent that all Sarkisian, who came with personal baggage, had to do was keep things in place.
The Falcons’ descent didn’t start immediately, as they shook off the Super Bowl hangover and went 10-6 in the 2017 season. They returned to the playoffs and notched a road win over the Rams and were favored against backup quarterback Nick Foles and the Eagles in the divisional round of the playoffs.
But Sarkisian’s offense couldn’t pierce the Eagles defense from the 2-yard line on fourth down, and they lost 15-10. The Eagles went on to win Super Bowl LII.
In the ensuing offseason, the Falcons added speedy wide receiver Calvin Ridley in the draft and figured their young defense would continue to blossom.
But in the season opener against the Eagles last year, strong safety Keanu Neal and middle linebacker Deion Jones suffered major injuries. Two games later, free safety Ricardo Allen, the quarterback of the defense, went down with an Achilles injury.
With the defense reeling from injuries and unable to stop anyone, the team struggled early. They dipped to 1-4, but managed to put together a three-game winning streak against weak competition (Tampa Bay, New York Giants and Washington) to pull to 4-4.
But the bottom fell out in Cleveland as the Browns punched them in the mouth and sent the Falcons on a five-game losing streak. The Falcons won three meaningless games to mess up their draft position and finished at 7-9.
The day after the season ended, Quinn blew up his coaching staff, citing that the team’s “compass was off.”
Sarkisian, defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel and special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong were let go.
Quinn would take over calling the defense. Dirk Koetter, who was dismissed as Tampa Bay’s head coach on the final day of the regular season, was hired to replace Sarkisian, and Ben Kotwica, who coached with Quinn with the Jets, was hired to replace Armstrong.
Over the offseason, the Falcons spent more than $80 million on players along the offensive line, including two first-round picks.
With the prospect of playing eight games this season against mobile quarterbacks, Quinn started to tinker with the defense by adding more 3-4 principles and five-man fronts.
So, heading into 2019, the Falcons were projected to be one of the league’s bounce-back teams. But they have stumbled mightily out of the gate.
The re-tooled defense has been porous, and the offense has not been able to put a full game together.
The defense has been outscored 102-25 in halves of games, which includes 65-10 in the first half in losses to Minnesota, Indianapolis and Tennessee. They were outscored 37-15 in the second half against the Texans.
The offense may have to carry the team, while Quinn tries to get things sorted out with the defense.
“No. 1, he really knows attack and how to go about it,” Quinn said of Koetter’s offense. “Very clear and concise about how to do that. Although the numbers don’t reflect where we’re at, it doesn’t mean I’m not happy with where we’re headed.”
The offensive line lost first-round pick Chris Lindstrom to a broken foot in the first game of the season. Right tackle Kaleb McGary, also a first-round pick, underwent a heart ablation procedure and Jamon Brown sustained a concussion.
The offensive line is still working on its continuity.
“They’re absolutely the right group of guys to get us where we want to get to,” Quinn said.
The Falcons’ defense may receive a boost from Deion Jones, who didn’t play in the exhibition season while rehabbing from his broken foot. Linebacker coach Jeff Ulbrich noted that Jones is back to full speed.
Jones said the defense plans to rebound from this horrid start.
“One play at time,” Jones said. “One day at a time. That’s how we start.”
Quinn and Jones are hopeful that a week in the Arizona desert will bring the unit together.
“It’s dope,” Jones said of the week away. “We got a lot of time together all week. We are just soaking it all in, enjoying each other and getting ready for this game on Sunday.”
Quinn squarely put a bull’s-eye on his own head when he dumped all of his coordinators last season.
“Now, we’ve got to make sure collectively, in all three phases, we can go execute like we’re capable of,” Quinn said. “That’s the real challenge for us.”
The Falcons were built to win now, so they are not ready to throw in the towel and consider any long-term ramifications.
“The great thing is that we have an owner in Arthur Blank, who is providing us with all of the resources we need to be the best that we can be. ... This year we spent a lot of money on putting this football team together, and we feel confident that we have a very good football team,” general manager Thomas Dimitroff said recently.
The Falcons are not trying to figure out how they got to 19-21 after the NFC title win, but know they need to get moving fast.
“I realize that you are always learning from your past mistakes,” Dimitroff said. “And you’re learning from some of things we did well to get us to the Super Bowl in ’16 and be consistently playing as a playoff-caliber football team. ... There are so many ups and downs, so many learning stages. Not only with player acquisition, but with how you are running organizations and the decisions that were made.
“I’m very proud of what we have on so many levels.”
Now, the Falcons need to start winning again.
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