The Falcons need to start over. But will they?

Credit: Atlanta Falcons

Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris comments on Atlanta's motivation with three games remaining - two against division rival Tampa Bay.

Credit: Atlanta Falcons

Only one NFC team has been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. Three guesses which. In the grand scheme, this should — should, I say — be a good thing. The Falcons, who’ve gone nowhere for a very long time, cannot go anywhere once their 16th game of the 2020 season is done.

There can be no illusions now. They’ve been better under interim coach Raheem Morris — it would have been impossible to be worse — but they’ve also lost twice to New Orleans without Drew Brees, once to the sub-.500 Lions and once to the Chargers, who were beyond wretched in close games until they met this team, which exists to give hope to the hopeless.

For years, those in Flowery Branch — and, to be fair, we in the media — have harped on how talented this team is. We see now how little that has mattered. Know how many weeks this gifted assemblage has spent above .500 the past three seasons? None. Started 1-4 in 2018, 1-7 last year, 0-5 this time. They’ve been lousy from the get-go.

They’ve fired and hired and even rehired coordinators. They finally dumped Dan Quinn, who’d been both head coach and coordinator. They finally canned Thomas Dimitroff, the general manager since 2008. As much as they might like to reward Morris for his long service, it’d be tough to make the case that, having worked in Flowery Branch since 2015, he hasn’t been part of the problem. If ever a franchise required a new start, it’s this.

Conveniently enough, there exists a nearby model for what the Falcons need to do. The team based four hours up I-85 just re-imagined itself, hiring a new head coach (Matt Rhule from Baylor), a new offensive coordinator (Joe Brady from LSU) and a new quarterback (Teddy Bridgewater, most recently of the Saints). Carolina dumped Cam Newton, the quarterback who in 2015 was the NFL’s MVP, and saw Luke Kuechly, the defensive tent pole, retire. The Panthers allowed tight end Greg Olsen, Newton’s default target of long standing, to leave.

They began 2020 knowing they wouldn’t be a playoff team. Their record is 4-9, the same as the Falcons’. Indeed, it was the Oct. 11 loss to rebuilding Carolina that finally moved Arthur Blank to cut bait with Quinn. On that day, it was clear which team was better prepared and had a greater idea of how it needed to play, and it wasn’t the club that went to camp with 17 Round 1 draftees on its roster.

Even without Christian McCaffery, Carolina outgained the Falcons (who were without Julio Jones) by 63 yards. The Panthers took the lead six minutes into the second quarter and never let it slip. The final score — 23-16 — flattered the Falcons, who didn’t manage a touchdown after their opening drive and kicked a field goal with four seconds remaining. Even in the nascent stages of a rebuild, Carolina looked as if it knew what it was doing. The Falcons haven’t known what they were doing since the score was 28-3.

The Panthers are working under a new owner, David Tepper having bought the club from the disgraced Jerry Richardson in 2018. Their GM is Marty Hurney, serving his second stint in that position. Carolina’s key man is Rhule, who had spent only one year – he was the Giants’ offensive line coach in 2012 – in the NFL before taking this job.

Tepper had said he sought “the right mix of old-school discipline and toughness with modern and innovative processes.” That described Rhule, who brought a vision that allowed the Panthers to move beyond the greatest player in their history. The Panthers drafted Newton No. 1 overall in 2011. He was 30 the day they released him. It would have been tough for Ron Rivera, who arrived in lockstep with Newton, to bid adieu to the quarterback who took him to the Super Bowl, but Rivera was fired last December, clearing the deck for a new man with a new plan.

The Falcons have a similar opportunity, though it will be more difficult for them to part with Matt Ryan. Newton was on the final year of his contract; his release cost the Panthers $2.1 million against the salary cap. Ryan’s cap charge for 2021 is $40.9 million. Jones’ is $23 million. Not many, if any, teams would be willing to trade for either. Ryan is 35 and having one of his worst seasons; Jones is 31 and cannot stay healthy.

Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) and quarterback Matt Ryan (2) talk during an NFL football training camp practice Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020, in Flowery Branch. (John Bazemore/AP)
Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) and quarterback Matt Ryan (2) talk during an NFL football training camp practice Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020, in Flowery Branch. (John Bazemore/AP)

Credit: John Bazemore

Credit: John Bazemore

Here we see the cost of keeping Quinn and Dimitroff in place for so long. Ryan and Jones took Quinn to the Super Bowl. The drafting of Ryan and Jones were the greatest moves of Dimitroff’s tenure. Rich McKay has worked for Blank since December 2003. Is there anyone in this organization who could persuade this owner to tear everything up and start again?

NFL teams don’t usually tank. The draft and a hard cap and widespread free agency offer annual opportunities to get better in a hurry. Trouble is, the Falcons are close to capped out. McKay insists that workarounds exist, but the bigger issue is this: Where the presence of Ryan and Jones once represented a lure to coaching candidates, their ages and the money they’re owed could well be a deterrent. Can you rebuild around a quarterback who’ll be 36 and a wideout who’ll be 32 come Week 1 of the 2021 season? Can you talk Blank into moving one/both?

The Falcons have long seen themselves as a playoff-level team. The cold truth is that they’ve had two winning seasons over the past eight. They’re 57-68 since 2012. The Super Bowl season was the exception, not the rule. They went 7-9 last season and kept Quinn, and then they added Todd Gurley and Dante Fowler and Hayden Hurst and A.J. Terrell. They’ll have to win out to get to 7-9 again.

To borrow from Inspector Harry Callahan, a man’s got to know his limitations. So does a team. The Falcons haven’t been good for a while. If they were going to win a Super Bowl with Ryan and Jones, they would have by now. They came close once; they haven’t been close since. They need a restart. The question: Will Blank allow one?

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