FiveThirtyEight’s statistical projection predicts a third consecutive 7-9 finish for the Falcons and gives them a 34 percent chance to make the playoffs. Football Outsiders is more optimistic: eight victories with 44 percent playoff odds. In a compilation of 19 NFL power rankings by media, the Falcons' mean ranking is 18.3, with a high of 13 and a low of 25 among the 32 teams.
Outsiders are skeptical that the Falcons can build on their 6-2 finish to 2019. Team owner Arthur Blank cited that run as his reason for retaining coach Dan Quinn. The coach made staff changes and delegated defensive calls at midseason, when the Falcons were 1-7. The 49ers and Saints were the only opponents of note the Falcons defeated over the final two months, but I don’t discount victories because it’s hard to win in the NFL.
So, let’s say that 6-2 finish indicates the Falcons really were on the come. There are reasons why that isn’t likely to carry over.
More talent left than arrived during free agency. If the 2020 draft produces multiple players who are good right away, it would be the first time that’s happened since 2016. The Falcons could be better and still lose more than they win because the schedule is tough. In the NFC South, the Saints are Super Bowl contenders, and the Bucs have Tom Brady.
It’s easy to accept that the Falcons will be better in some ways this season. I trust that Matt Ryan will deliver accurate throws if he has time. I think edge pass-rusher Dante Fowler is a clear upgrade from Vic Beasley. I expect the offense will benefit from a change in approach by coordinator Dirk Koetter.
But it’s hard to see how the Falcons will be significantly better in other areas. Will this season’s rebuilt offensive line really be much better than last season’s rebuilt offensive line? The secondary couldn’t cover in 2019, and the best cover guy for that team (Desmond Trufant) is gone.
Expecting more from the Falcons also means believing Quinn can get his guys to play spirited football from start to finish. That hasn’t happened since the 2017 season. The Falcons had one losing streak that year. They began the next season 1-4. They started last season 1-7.
I see another bad start coming. Three of the Falcons' first four opponents (Seahawks, Cowboys and Packers) are ranked among FiveThirtyEight’s preseason top 10. There will be no fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium when the Falcons play host to Seattle (Week 1) and Chicago (Week 3). That’s good from a public-health perspective, but Dallas (Week 2) is planning to have a limited amount of spectators when the Falcons visit.
Most signs point to the Falcons continuing their slow, sad decline since going to the Super Bowl. In some ways, the Falcons still are chasing the ghosts of 28-3. They are 24-24 since blowing that Super Bowl to the Patriots. The next season the Falcons won a wild-card game at the Rams, flopped on four goal-to-go tries at Philadelphia and then were never the same.
There are 12 Falcons players still on the roster from the 2016 team, including eight starters. Quinn still is the head coach. (Two of Quinn’s top assistants from 2016, Kyle Shanahan and Matt LaFleur, met as head coaches in last season’s NFC Championship game). The Falcons are going back to the outside zone runs and play-action passes that Shanahan used to great effect as Falcons coordinator.
ESPN’s Bill Barnwell recently made a case for each NFL team to reach Super Bowl LV. He noted that the Falcons weren’t expected to contend in 2016. Before that season, they were 8-1 odds to win the Super Bowl with an over/under of seven wins. They beat those expectations and rolled through the playoffs until the collapse in Houston.
The 2016 Falcons surged behind an improved offensive line and a breakout season from Beasley. Barnwell argues that the Falcons have similar conditions in 2020 with five former first-round draft picks on the line and Fowler as a potential pass-rushing star. He concedes that the Falcons may not be able to duplicate that without Shanahan running the offense.
“What happened that year, though, should be a reminder of how big seasons can come out of nowhere, even for veteran teams that seem locked to finish at or around .500,” Barnwell wrote.
That’s been true since the NFL became obsessed with parity. It’s engineered via the salary cap and free agency. Luck plays a big role. The extra wild-card berth in each conference this season opens the field even more. Lots of NFL preseason predictions end up looking silly, so it’s possible mine will be among the bad ones.
Maybe Falcons offensive linemen quickly form a cohesive, effective unit. Perhaps the Falcons find enough guys who can rush the passer and cover targets while the coaches deploy them effectively. There’s a chance that Quinn can re-create the spirited atmosphere the Falcons had during his best season here.
The Falcons still boast the Ryan-Jones combination. Investing so much in those two means they had to be good with picking the right players and coaching them up. The Falcons haven’t done that in a while. That’s why I’m not expecting much from them in 2020.