Even worse is this: The Falcons’ final act was no one-off. They played nine games against teams playoff qualifiers. They scored 17, 7, 17, 9, 20, 13, 22, 26 and 10 points. They lost six of the nine. They managed 11 touchdowns over those nine games, kicking 19 field goals. If we didn’t see what happened in Philly coming, it was only because we weren’t paying attention.
In preseason, Pro Football Focus rated the Falcons’ roster the NFL’s most talented? How often was that talent brought to bear? Against Green Bay – that’s one time. Against Seattle – there’s two. I’m less impressed by the Dallas victory because it was accomplished against a team missing its best player, but feel free to include it. The victory over the Saints was a halting thing (Matt Ryan threw three interceptions), and the playoff clincher against Carolina was a function of Matt Bryant’s foot. The Wild Card showing against the Rams qualifies, even though the Falcons were outgained.
But if we count how many Falcons’ victories could easily have been otherwise -- Bears, Lions, Saints here, Buccaneers there – it’s nearly a wash between shaky victories and stirring performances. A year ago, we got the sense that the Falcons were on to something as early as October. We were never sure what to make of them this time, which is why bowing out against Nick Foles was no seismic shock. This team wasn’t very good very often, and then only in fits and starts.
Without Kyle Shanahan, an offensive regression was inevitable. What came was a collapse. Julio Jones, the NFL’s best receiver, caught four touchdown passes in 18 games. (Mohamed Sanu caught more.) Taylor Gabriel, exploited to great effect by Shanahan last season, slipped from six touchdowns to one. Ryan threw for 849 fewer regular-season yards. The Falcons scored 11 touchdowns in their final seven games; one of those was on a fumble recovery in the end zone.
If the argument for keeping Steve Sarkisian as offensive coordinator is that Shanahan’s first year here wasn’t very good, either, we need to note: Shanahan at least had a history as an NFL play-caller. Sarkisian inherited one of the 10 best offenses in NFL history and rendered it toothless. That’s an “F.”
The defense was better statistically than in the Super Bowl year, but this defense couldn’t get off the field in the second half in Philly. Vic Beasley Jr. went from NFL sack leader to forgotten man. Desmond Trufant returned from injury and wasn’t the same; once the cornerback nobody tested, he became the one everybody challenged. Keanu Neal still hit hard, but his coverage skills remain suspect. His leap-in-the-air-for-a-pass-that-hit-him-in-the-knees will stand as a weird memory of Saturday’s wretched loss.
A year after they should have won it all, the Falcons couldn’t get out of their own way. This makes us wonder which was the one-off in Dan Quinn’s stewardship – the year after the Super Bowl, or the Super Bowl run itself?
If Quinn’s ceaseless happy talk has grown old to us on the periphery, imagine hearing it every single workday: “Iron sharpens iron” and “It’s all about the ball” and yada yada yada. The shelf life on rah-rah is never long, and DQ is about to head into Year 4. If the Falcons underwhelm again next season, the tune-out factor – and I’m talking in-house – will become a mighty wave.
Bill Belichick has won five Super Bowls with nary a buzz phrase – unless you count, “Do your job,” which is the antithesis of buzzy. He keeps winning because he takes whatever talent he has and wrings the most from it. (Remember, the Pats beat the Falcons without Gronk.) Can anyone say that Quinn and Sarkisian wrung every drop from this gifted team? What assurance is there that next year will be any better?
Only two coaches have taken the Falcons to a Super Bowl. Quinn is one. He deserves the benefit of the doubt. But we’ve reached the point where it’s fair to ask if Coach Brotherhood has more in his bag o’ tricks than a box o’ bromides.
Matt Bryant, place kicker Adrian Clayborn, defensive end Derrick Coleman, fullback Taylor Gabriel, wide receiver Ben Garland, offensive lineman Kemal Ishmael, linebacker Leon McFadden, cornerback Austin Pasztor, offensive tackle Dontari Poe, defensive tackle Andre Roberts, returner Ahtyba Rubin, defensive tackle Jordan Tripp, linebacker Courtney Upshaw, defensive tackle Sean Weatherspoon, linebacker Nick Williams, wide receiver Blidi Wreh-Wilson, cornerback