The bleeding never stopped. The Falcons blew a 17-point lead at home in the 2012 NFC Championship Game and, two full seasons later, still haven’t recovered. An offensive line thin on talent suffered a collection of season-ending injuries in two consecutive offseasons. Julio Jones, easily the most talented player on the roster, was lost in 2013 to a broken foot. Tony Gonzalez, the greatest tight end in NFL history, retired after a frustrating 4–12 year that was supposed to be a last run at the Super Bowl. A defense built on bending instead of breaking shattered beyond repair, and a hasty personnel change did nothing to fix both lines in 2014.
From 2008-12, the Atlanta Falcons under Mike Smith and GM Thomas Dimitroff were a blueprint for stability and success. Matt Ryan became a franchise quarterback, and the organization posted back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in history. But since that so-close title run, the Falcons have imploded, winning 10 games in two years. Smith became the fall guy, due in large part to the defensive-minded head coach’s stubborn control of a league-worst unit. Accordingly, owner Arthur Blank has now turned to Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, architect of back-to-back Super Bowl defenses under Pete Carroll.
Entering 2013, the franchise seemed a tweak or two away from its first Super Bowl title. Entering 2014, conventional wisdom wrote off a stunning collapse as an extreme bout with Murphy’s Law. There’s no clear prognosis now: Atlanta has to rebuild its defense almost from scratch while finding a way to keep Ryan alive and productive.
The cautionary tale of almost any NFL failure is that no matter what, you can’t win without an elite quarterback throwing to consistent playmakers. The Falcons have one of the most consistent quarterbacks in the league and perhaps its best wide receiver. The problem — and the cold truth for Falcons fans — is that after that, there’s not much else.
Ryan, Jones and Roddy White: Even in the worst stretch of the Smith era, that battery remained reliable (when healthy). What 2014 exposed is that just about everything else has imploded around the Pro Bowl trio since the 2012 playoff run.
Expect an entirely new running game under new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. His 2014 Browns were fourth in the league in rushing touchdowns, while the Falcons’ 1,498 rushing yards were the 22nd-rated attack in Football Outsiders’ offensive efficiency metrics. Atlanta will shift to a zone-blocking scheme, emphasizing fast and mobile linemen breaking open holes for an overhauled trio of backs.
Porous line play and Steven Jackson’s career twilight hindered play-calling. Now rookie Tevin Coleman (2,036 yards and 15 TDs last year at Indiana) and Devonta Freeman will be expected to read blocks and break upfield. Still buried on the depth chart is the dangerous Antone Smith (10.3 yards per carry in two seasons as a backup). Smith has broken TD runs of 48 and 50 yards and could explode under Shanahan.
If Atlanta can run the ball with more efficiency and create balance, Ryan won’t have to force throws and risk turnovers. It’s hard to criticize Ryan’s increase in interceptions post-2012, as he’s been sacked 75 times in two years of 1,279 pass attempts. The unbalanced pass/run ratio has damaged the perception of Ryan as an elite quarterback.
Shanahan’s a creative play-caller, but simply bumping the run game up to mediocre will free Jones and White more than any schematic. Free agent Leonard Hankerson and rookie Justin Hardy will complement one of the best receiving tandems in the league. While veteran Jacob Tamme isn’t Gonzalez, he’s more reliable as a weapon than blocking tight end Levine Toilolo.
Quinn has carte blanche with an awful defense — 27th in scoring, 21st in rushing, and last in passing and third-down conversions — so any experimentation is welcome.
The end of the Smith era brought rumblings of discord between the staff and front office, with the beleaguered pass rush at the heart of the matter. Smith and former DC Mike Nolan wanted to stop the run to force the pass, while Dimitroff longed for a prototypical pass rusher. Quinn’s influence over the 2015 draft was inarguable, and Vic Beasley will almost certainly start at LEO, the end/linebacker weak-side rush position Seattle uses to great effect.
If Shanahan merely has to adjust and balance, Quinn and new defensive coordinator Raheem Morris have to perform a complete overhaul, and must do so with misfit parts. Smith and Nolan flirted with a transition to 3-4 looks in 2014, adding big bodies such as Paul Soliai and Ra’Shede Hageman to a rickety, aging 4-3 depth chart. The hybrid look was a total bust, and teams converted an astounding 46.8 percent of third downs.
Aside from Beasley, it’s anyone’s guess who makes the Opening Day front seven and how they’ll position exactly. Hageman and former undrafted rookie middle linebacker Paul Worrilow might be the only returning names, as Quinn and Dimitroff pulled in a host of former Seahawks and other free agents who are a better fit for the new style. Former Tampa Bay defensive end Adrian Clayborn will likely start opposite Beasley, and former Cowboy Justin Durant is the favorite to replace the departed Sean Weatherspoon at weak-side linebacker.
Desmond Trufant isn’t going anywhere, though: The third-year corner has quietly developed into one of the best in the league at his position. His size makes him a “Quinn guy,” and the Falcons drafted Jalen Collins, another long, aggressive corner to groom as his counterpart. Free safety is a question mark, but veteran William Moore is expected to have recovered from multiple injuries and should reclaim the job at strong safety.
A dramatic overhaul in philosophy and execution is needed. There is literally nowhere to go but up, and that’s the best news possible.
Devin Hester might be the best free-agent signing of Dimitroff’s career. The veteran was supposed to help bolster the Falcons’ return game and instead lit the entire special teams and receiving corps on fire. Hester led the league in total kickoff return yardage (1,128, the only player to go over 1,000 last season thanks to an awful Falcons scoring defense) and averaged 13.3 yards per catch as a viable rotation receiver. Until Jones’ deal is extended, Matt Bryant’s new contract extension is easily the most important bit of front office business in 2015. Bryant hit 29-of-32 field goals and was perfect inside of 50 yards as he’s remained one of the league’s elite clutch kickers. Punter Matt Bosher’s career 41.3-yard net average has made him one of the most reliable at his position.
It’s a distant memory now, but the Falcons were a possession away from locking up a Super Bowl trip two seasons ago. While it’s hard to classify any team with elite quarterback play as a true rebuilding effort, the Falcons’ long and horrific decline on defense might qualify them regardless of Ryan. Quinn has the bones of a terrific offense waiting on a defensive miracle, which is what he’ll have provided if Atlanta makes the playoffs in 2015.