Why I still can’t say the Falcons should start all over

After the Falcons faded at Kansas City, quarterback Matt Ryan and interim coach Raheem Morris made the case that the close loss to the defending Super Bowl champs was a sign that their team isn’t far from being good. I made a similar argument a week earlier. I didn’t take it as far at Ryan and Morris because the Falcons famously can’t finish games.

That happened again against the Chiefs on Sunday. And yet I still can’t bring myself to say the Falcons should tear it down and start over in 2021.

That’s not just because there’s really no such thing in the NFL, where parity is engineered. It isn’t only that parting with Ryan and Julio Jones would cause too much damage to their salary cap. It’s all those things, plus one fact that’s very hard to dismiss: The Falcons have been outscored by only one point on the season.

Only three of their 11 losses were by more than one score. Those three opponents — the Packers, Saints and Seahawks — currently own playoff seeds Nos. 1-3 in the NFC. Four Falcons losses were by a field goal or less. Two were by one point. The Falcons really might not be as bad as their record.

As a numbers guy, I subscribe to the belief that luck plays a big role in close games. Admittedly, the Falcons have shaken that belief with their pattern of finding ways to lose them. But the only sure way to be better in close games is to be good enough to avoid many of them. The Packers (eight wins by two scores or more), Saints (six) and Seahawks (four) are that good.

The Falcons won’t reach that level in one offseason. But they have some productive players under contract for next season with salaries that won’t hurt their salary cap. The Falcons could be a middling team in 2021. With better luck, that’s good enough to make the playoffs in the NFL.

For years the assumption has been that the Falcons would be all-in for as long as Ryan and Jones are in their prime years. Former co-team builders Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff set that timeline to last through at least 2021. Now they are gone, leaving behind 2021 salaries for Ryan and Jones that are projected to eat 36% of the cap.

Ryan isn’t yet finished. He recovered from his awful day in L.A. with two consecutive weeks of strong play. After last season I was convinced he still can be a top-10 quarterback if the offensive line improved. The Falcons tried doing that, but they still can’t block effectively for run or pass. Maybe the next team builder can fix that.

The new personnel boss will have a trickier decision with Jones. A hamstring injury has limited him to nine games, and he couldn’t finish two of those. His trade value is lower than ever. Cutting him would mean leaving about $23 million in “dead” money on the cap.

Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley (18) celebrates with Julio Jones after catching an 8-yard touchdown pass during the first half against the Minnesota Vikings, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, in Minneapolis. (Bruce Kluckhohn/AP)

Credit: AP

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Credit: AP

Perhaps a full, normal offseason will allow Jones to build up his finely tuned, fast-twitch leg muscles. If not, Calvin Ridley looks ready to take his position as the team’s top wide receiver. No. 3 wide receiver Russell Gage seems to have developed a good chemistry with Ryan.

The Falcons’ defense hasn’t been good in a long time. It doesn’t appear as hopeless as it once did. That was true even before the Falcons made Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes look bad, which hardly ever happens. The Falcons still need more pass rushers and pass defenders, two other areas Quinn and Dimitroff couldn’t get right on multiple tries, but they have some good defensive players to build around.

The Falcons have enough player talent for a record better than 4-11. They’ve shown that several times this season, right up until they don’t.

The Falcons have scored 67 points more than they’ve allowed in the first half of games this season. That’s the fifth-best margin in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats and Info. The Falcons have been outscored by 68 points after halftime. That’s the third-worst differential.

It’s reasonable to look at those numbers and conclude that coaching is the problem. The Falcons start fast with a game plan that works, then are caught flat-footed when opponents counter. I don’t think it’s that simple. Many of the Falcons’ blunders have been less about strategic miscues than professional football players failing to do basic aspects of their jobs.

That’s how it went late in KC.

Ryan couldn’t connect with Ridley for a potential touchdown because leaky protection forced him to throw early. Brandon Powell lost a fumble 18 yards from the end zone with the Falcons trailing by three points. Cornerback A.J. Terrell is having a great rookie season but he dropped an interception with the Falcons leading by four and two minutes to play. Younghoe Koo, a Pro Bowl kicker, missed from a range that he hadn’t this season.

Those kind of events are common for the Falcons. They push me away from my objective view of the role of luck in close games toward the subjective feeling that this group of Falcons players just can’t win close games. Can a new coach really do better? Would new Falcons players just succumb to the sense of dread that surrounds the Falcons when games get tight?

Still, I keep going back to that point differential, both on the season and from half to half.

It’s hard to believe a truly terrible team can be nearly even in points scored and allowed. It’s difficult to accept that what the Falcons don’t do after halftime negates what they’ve done before it. I stubbornly cling to my view that Ryan and the good players on the perimeter of the offense and defense can flourish if the Falcons finally get the right mix of players along both lines.

The Falcons are going to get a high pick in the next draft. Their poor record this season means they should have an easier schedule in 2021. Better teams will lose free agents after the season. Every team is at the mercy of injury luck, which has been lousy for the Falcons for two consecutive seasons.

Those are among the reasons why I just can’t bring myself to say the Falcons should tear it down and start over in 2021. If they lose another close game at Tampa Bay on Sunday, I’ll have to decide whether that bolsters or undermines my case. That’s the dilemma when trying to figure out these Falcons.