Still, the Falcons had a decent shot to make the playoffs late in the season. This year’s playoff field shows that getting back there can happen fast.
Only three of the eight teams left in the playoffs did it the old-fashioned way: draft a quarterback who becomes the cornerstone. The Chiefs did it with Patrick Mahomes (they were good before with Alex Smith). The Packers did it with Aaron Rodgers. They still missed the playoffs the next two years after the Falcons eliminated them in the 2016 season.
The Bengals drafted quarterback Joe Burrow No. 1 in the 2020 draft. They ended a six-year playoff drought this season. The Falcons had a chance to take a similar route in the past draft. They passed on quarterbacks Justin Fields and Mac Jones with the No. 4 pick.
The Falcons stuck with Matt Ryan. He doesn’t play at an MVP-level anymore. I’d still take him over three of the quarterbacks still playing: Jimmy Garoppolo (49ers), Matthew Stafford (Rams) and Ryan Tannehill (Titans). Every team would take Rodgers, Mahomes, Tom Brady (Buccaneers) and Josh Allen (Bills).
Ryan’s production didn’t match his performance this season. That’s largely because of poor pass protection and a lack of playmakers. Fix those issues, and it’s plausible the Falcons could return to the playoffs next season.
The turnaround plan started with Smith and Fontenot. Picking the right coach helped the Rams end a 12-year playoff drought.
The Rams were 4-12 the season before hiring coach Sean McVay in January 2017. They played a wild-card game at home in his first season, losing to Quinn’s Falcons. The Rams lost the Super Bowl to the Patriots in the 2018 season. They missed the playoffs the next season before making it the past two.
Smith came to the Falcons with a background like McVay’s. Both coaches had received acclaim as play-callers before becoming head coaches. McVay was on Mike Shanahan’s staff in Washington early in his career. Smith worked in Tennessee with Matt LaFleur, now Green Bay’s head coach. LaFleur was Ryan’s quarterback coach during his MVP season and served as McVay’s coordinator for one year.
Until this season, McVay’s quarterback was Jared Goff. Goff has never been as good as Ryan. The Rams had to surrender two first-round picks to coax the Lions to trade Stafford for Goff. If the Rams won with Goff then the Falcons can do it with Ryan.
The Lions haven’t won a playoff game in the salary-cap era. That’s hard to do. The NFL’s safety nets are designed to prevent it. The worst teams get the highest picks. The best teams are forced to cut loose free agents. Mediocre teams can make runs with good luck.
Some teams still manage to fail. The Bucs ended their 12-year playoff by signing Brady and winning the Super Bowl. The Rams play at Tampa Bay on Sunday. The Bucs are favored by a field goal.
McVay’s Rams can give us a two-for-one. Stop Brady and inspire hope that the Falcons soon will be winning games like that again.