As awful as the unraveling of 28-3 was, we Atlantans could take a smidgen of solace — just a smidge, mind you — in the knowledge that what happened on Feb. 5, 2017, in Texas could never happen again.
Something like that just happened again.
We stipulate that there’s a difference between blowing a 25-point lead with a Super Bowl on the line with the world and Lady Gaga watching and botching the end of a 1 p.m. EDT game in September, but that said … this was the same franchise and the same head coach working in the same state of Texas. And Kyle Shanahan had nothing to do with this.
The Super Bowl stands apart, OK? The Super Bowl is the worst collapse IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD. But this one at least made us wonder. This was a game the Falcons had controlled from the start, a game they had to have, a game that could only have been lost by them — as a collective — standing around watching the ball on an onside kick.
Understand: Anything the Falcons did on the onside kick — diving for the ball, batting it out of bounds, kicking it between the goalposts — would have been better than what they did. Which was NOTHING. They LET IT GO the 10 yards the Cowboys NEEDED IT TO GO. They aided and abetted their opponent in a way not seen in the NFL since … well, since they gift-wrapped Tom Brady his fifth Super Bowl ring.
They are the Falcons. This is what they do. They lose the unlosable game.
Afterward Dan Quinn said the sorts of thing he says after cosmic flops. (Having more than a passing familiarity with such debacles says something about his stewardship, does it not?) “There’s a lesson you have to take away with the pain,” he said. “It’s tough to put a loss like this in place,” he said. “You have to go finish it out,” he said.
What he didn’t say: “Guys, I just put a team out there that stood and watched the game dribble away — and I called a freakin' timeout so everybody would know what to do.”
Said Matt Ryan, who has now seen leads of 25 points and 20 points cast aside in the Lone Star State: “There’s nothing else you can say.”
Truth to tell, you can say a lot. The Falcons scored 39 points and lost. They did some stuff wrong — Julio Jones dropped a touchdown; a 2-point try when it was 26-7 failed, and how big would that unbanked PAT be at the bitter end? — but let’s face it: They were the better team. They smacked the Cowboys in the mouth early — Foyesade Oluokun forced three fumbles in the first quarter — and had control throughout. Dallas kept closing ground, but hey, this is the NFL. Margins shrink. Fall on the ball and you’re a road winner. Fall on the ball and you’re 1-1.
Asked what he was thinking on the onside kick, linebacker Deion Jones said: “Get on the ball. Onside kick, slow roll. Got to fall on the ball. Got to finish what we started.”
Yep, yep and yep. The Falcons did none of the above. Five of them — five! — stood and admired the ball as it was creeping along. Had they forgotten they could recover it inside the fateful 10 yards? “They definitely know (the rule),” Quinn said, but there the five were, bent over as if inspecting a frog in the backyard, Hayden Hurst and the great Julio among them.
“We played our [butt] off,” Julio said, and they did. And they lost 40-39.
J. Jones again: “We’ve got to learn from it. Got to attack that ball.”
But that’s the thing: They KNEW what to do. They just didn’t do it. The only way to lose was the way they lost it.
J. Jones: “We’re definitely a better finishing team than we showed today. It sucks to lose the way we did today. But we’re not going to let it define us.”
It’s way too late for that, three years, seven months and 15 days too late. These are the Falcons. This is Quinn’s team. This is what a Quinn team does. It plays its (butt) off and falls on its face one step from the finish line. There are 32 teams in the NFL. Some have been terrible for a long time. Only one is known for losing that which cannot possibly be lost. This one.
D. Jones: “I feel like we’re on the right track. This is just growing pains we have to get through.”
Growing pains? As if seeing “28-3” etched in the Patriots' championship rings wasn’t lesson enough? As if knowing how difficult it has been to carry that weight these past three years, seven months and 15 days didn’t inspire anyone to, you know, fall on the ball?
“This can be a very good team,” Quinn said, and until the onside kick you might have believed him. The Falcons had taken the fight to a good team on the road. They’d made no turnovers. They’d scored on eight possessions. They’d led from almost the start until the game’s last snap. And they’d lost.
They’d lost in a way that, for any other franchise, would have marked an all-time low. For this team under this coach, it was only second-worst. Which says it all.