The Falcons can make us mad. On Sunday, they made us sad

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

They’re the Falcons, for all that entails. They’ve often been bad. They’ve sometimes been good. Of late, they’ve mostly made you want to throw a shoe at the TV. (How do you back away from an onside kick?) The emotion stirred by their first performance under their latest new coach was different. This effort, such as it was, didn’t make you mad. It made you sad.

It was – cue the philosopher Jed Clampett – “pitiful, just pitiful.”

It came against Philadelphia, which figured to be worse than the Falcons. They managed 144 yards and 12 first downs on their first two possessions, after which they trailed 7-6. They had 116 yards and six first downs the rest of the game, which spanned the final three quarters. They didn’t cross midfield again. They were outgained by 134 yards. When last did a favored team playing at home make no turnovers and lose by 26 points?

The Falcons’ possessions over the final three quarters ended thusly: punt, punt, end of half, punt, punt, punt, punt, downs, downs, end of game. For only the second opener since 2003, they were working under a head coach with an offensive background. (The first time came in the Bobby Petrino era, which lasted 13 games.) They could have been working under Bobcat Goldthwait and fared no worse.

They were overwhelmed by an opponent that went 4-11-1 last season and fired coach Doug Pederson and dumped alleged franchise quarterback Carson Wentz. The Falcons fired Dan Quinn after five games last fall and wound up 4-12. They hired a new general manager and a new head coach; they kept their franchise quarterback, which meant the latest regime had a foundation, or so we thought.

On Sunday, the usually unflappable Matt Ryan was made to look as he did in his second game as a pro. (Which, incidentally, he refenced afterward.) That was Sept. 14, 2008, at Tampa Bay. A mighty Buccaneer defense sacked Ryan four times, intercepted two of his passes and forced a fumble. The Falcons lost 24-9 and didn’t score a touchdown. Ryan completed 13 of 33 passes for 158 yards. He averaged 4.8 yards per pass. His longest completion: 23 yards to Laurent Robinson.

On Sunday, in his 206th start as an NFL quarterback, Ryan completed 21 of 35 passes for 164 yards. He averaged 4.7 yards per pass. He was sacked three times. His longest completion: 18 yards to Kyle Pitts. Ryan’s finest moment came when he avoided a strip sack by intentionally grounding the ball.

Credit: Curtis Compton /

Credit: Curtis Compton /

This is Ryan’s 14th season. He has seen everything. He has seen a zillion defense better than Philly’s. Last year the Eagles ranked 19th in total defense, averaging 363 yards and 26 points against. On Sunday they yielded 260 and six.

Yes, it’s one game. Chuck Noll’s first Pittsburgh team won its opener and lost the next 13. Bill Walsh’s first 49ers went 2-14. Vince Lombardi’s Packers managed nine points and 262 yards in his debut on Sept. 27, 1957. (They won, though.) It’s possible Arthur Smith will never know a worse given Sunday. But they didn’t lose to Philadelphia because they left an onside kick untouched. They lost because they were overwhelmed by an opponent that likewise changed coaches. Two peas in a pod, the Falcons and the Eagles, except that the team working with Jalen Hurts scored four touchdowns.

The 2016 Falcons lost their opener at home to the Buccaneers of Jameis Winston and Dirk Koetter and, as defensive coordinator, Mike Smith. Five months later, those Falcons held a 25-point lead in the Super Bowl. That opener prompted this always-rational correspondent to proclaim the pairing of Ryan and Kyle Shanahan a misfit. Ryan would be the NFL’s MVP; Shanahan would, until the second half of the Super Bowl, have one of the finest play-calling seasons in the sport’s history.

That 31-24 loss to Tampa Bay was frustrating/maddening. This loss to the Eagles was different. This made you feel sorry for the Falcons. Before Sunday, we’d have said their schedule includes some winnable games — Giants, Jets, Lions, Jaguars, Panthers home and away — but nothing seemed more winnable than Week 1 at home against a team starting over. They lost 32-6.

Afterward Ryan told reporters this had been “a small sample size,” which is true. Rarely, though, has a sample of any dimension been so sobering. As Rankin Smith Jr. once said, watching yet another numbing loss during his family’s long stewardship: “Is this all we’ve got?”

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