What if you had told quarterback Matt Ryan, head coach Dan Quinn and owner Arthur Blank that the second year of Atlanta’s Seattle-inspired “Brotherhood” rebuild would net an MVP award for Ryan, record-setting stats for Kyle Shanahan’s explosive offense, a division title and two playoff wins? What if you told them that Devonta Freeman would emerge as an elite running back and assumed draft bust Vic Beasley would lead the NFL in sacks?
If you stop the story on Feb. 4, 2017, this year’s Falcons are without a doubt one of the hottest teams in the NFL come September. The problem is: 28-3.
Atlanta suffered the biggest blown lead in Super Bowl history to the New England Patriots, an unforgettable collapse. Shanahan, feted as a genius during an 11-5 regular season, became the Super Bowl scapegoat when Atlanta couldn’t run out the clock in the fourth quarter. He’s gone, and how well former USC head coach and brief Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian replaces him is more important than any on-field position battle.
The blown lead will live forever in sports. What the Falcons do to combat that psychology in 2017 will determine their future more than any single play call or draft pick.
Sarkisian steps into a rare situation: The new coordinator has absolutely nothing to fix in the Falcons’ offense. Atlanta finished 2016 first in points scored, offensive touchdowns, points per drive and total offensive DVOA at Football Outsiders.
After Sarkisian’s hire, the team’s messaging stressed that Atlanta wouldn’t overhaul anything — the zone-blocking scheme, the passing attack that earned Ryan the league MVP award, or the “relentless attack” mindset that ultimately cost them a title.
The argument surrounding Ryan’s “eliteness” ended in 2016. The veteran was both statistically impressive (4,944 yards, 38 TDs, seven INTs) and a commanding force in two playoff wins. Sarkisian’s play-calling tendencies in the college game promoted play-action and no huddle, which jibes with the aspects of Shanahan’s system that elevated Ryan’s game. Ryan hasn’t missed a start since the 2009 season, but Atlanta extended the agreement of backup Matt Schaub, the most reliable No. 2 option the Falcons have had in years.
Freeman was the breakout star of Atlanta’s offense last season. Julio Jones is arguably the NFL’s best wide receiver if not its most physically impressive. Perhaps more important for Jones (and Ryan) was that the big free-agency price paid for Mohamed Sanu was worth it (59 catches on 81 targets). Jones and Sanu thrived when Ryan consistently hit supporting targets (Freeman, tight end Austin Hooper and breakout sensation Taylor Gabriel), forcing defenses to avoid bracket and double coverage.
Sarkisian’s burden will be to continue to spread out targets in his play calls as well as Shanahan did. Sanu and Jones are known quantities, but Gabriel, Hooper, Justin Hardy and re-signed tight end Levine Toilolo have to prove they weren’t merely system successes.
Of all the gaudy stats during the Super Bowl run, the most important might’ve been that Atlanta was the only team in the NFL to have all five offensive linemen start in all 16 regular season games. That’s seemingly unlikely to happen again in 2017. Right guard Chris Chester retired, and depth in the interior could be an issue as the year wears on.
Quinn fired defensive coordinator Richard Smith and promoted Marquand Manuel after the Super Bowl collapse.
Nowhere has the Quinn era created more change than in the front seven. Atlanta again shed old bodies during the offseason and again drafted with a focus on defensive speed and versatility. First-round pick Takkarist McKinley will become a pass-rushing complement to Vic Beasley, who led the league in sacks (15.5) last season. Run stuffer Dontari Poe was a literally massive signing in free agency. The emergence of rookie tackle Grady Jarrett was a surprise in ’16.
The Falcons must continue to develop a pass rush beyond Beasley and contend with a division that’s spent 2017 trying to balance its elite quarterbacks with big runners (Adrian Peterson to New Orleans, Christian McCaffery to Carolina). McKinley will almost certainly start if veteran Dwight Freeney doesn’t re-sign late in the offseason.
The Atlanta linebacker corps was most in need of Seattle-ization three years ago, and the project continues. Gone are workmanlike Paul Worrilow and the oft-injured Sean Weatherspoon. Deion Jones became a breakout playmaker as a rookie, and he and fellow 2016 rookie De’Vondre Campbell will anchor a much faster, more versatile unit than anything the Falcons have fielded in the Ryan era. Campbell and Jones were exposed at times last season transitioning from run to pass. Now they’ll be joined by Kemal Ishmael, moving to linebacker from safety. In the variety of packages Quinn’s system employs, Ishmael could become an ideal tweener in the open field.
Desmond Trufant signed a $68.75 million contract extension in April, and before a Week 9 pectoral injury sidelined him for the season, the 2013 first-round pick was emerging as one of the NFL’s best shutdown corners. The hope was that Jalen Collins would flourish as a complementary corner, but he is suspended the first 10 games of the season due to another violation of the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances. Keanu Neal, a 2016 first-round pick, emerged as a huge hitter, living up to comparisons to Earl Thomas and embodying Quinn’s Seattle ethos. Brian Poole was an undrafted free agent who became a starter at nickel back, where he’ll likely stay and compete with converted receiver C.J. Goodwin.
The Falcons’ fourth quarter vs. New England was a snapshot of what this very young defense must improve upon — depth and disruption. Another year has allowed Quinn to stock personnel better suited to his signature Cover 3, but the Falcons lived and ultimately died by the variety of pressures they could create up front. The Super Bowl Seahawks are still the blueprint, and Quinn is a little bit closer to replicating that personnel.
For the second consecutive season, the Falcons will have to find a new return specialist after losing Eric Weems to the Titans in free agency. Weems handled every punt and most kick returns last season, replacing the ageless Devin Hester. The Falcons have a few existing options in second-year wideout Devin Fuller and receiver Justin Hardy, but they also signed receiver Andre Roberts to a one-year deal. Roberts was a rotation player in Detroit’s offense but mainly saw work on special teams, scoring two touchdowns on 20 punt returns and gaining 747 yards on 33 kickoff returns, good for fourth best in the league. Roberts will likely take over both kicks and punts with Hardy as a second option.
The 42-year-old Matt Bryant is as automatic of a placekicker as a pro franchise can ask for. A 58-yard miss in a loss to San Diego may have cost the team a win, but Bryant seems impervious to age. He finished 2016 by connecting on 91.9 percent of his field goals, and he was 6-of-8 on attempts of 50 or more yards. Punter Matt Bosher notched a career-best 41.6-yard net average in 2016.
Had an overachieving offense and very young defense not made it to Houston in Quinn’s second season, 2017’s narrative would be a total positive: the league’s best offense and an improving, aggressive defense set to open a billion-dollar stadium with an engaging, explosive brand of football. Instead, Atlanta flew too close to the sun, and its flaws were exposed in the most noticeable manner possible. Now Quinn has to assume that Shanahan’s record-setting offense will logically regress to some degree, and to compensate, the defense will have improve its consistency.
If the Falcons can move past February’s devastation, they’ll discover they’re still in the hunt for a Super Bowl win. If they make it back to the final Sunday, it will almost certainly happen thanks to a slightly less explosive offense and a considerably improved defense.