What exactly were the expectations for the Atlanta Falcons entering the 2016 season depended on who you asked, but there was plenty of evidence that many believed the team would be in line for its first chance at a winning season and a playoff berth since in four years ago.
But those high expectations took a hit on Thursday night in what many consider to be the most pertinent exhibition contest of the entire summer. The third preseason game is typically the “dress-rehearsal” game that most resembles the preparation for a regular-season contest, and thus in many minds carries the weight of indicating exactly how a team might perform during the upcoming season.
Unfortunately for the Falcons, they struggled in their 17-6 loss to the Miami Dolphins in that dress rehearsal. Doubly troubling was the fact that most of those struggles were exhibited by the offense, which was the exact same problem the team faced in 2015, prompting their 8-8 finish.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan had another red-zone interception, the running game was completely bottled up, the offensive line looked overwhelmed at times and the play-calling of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan came into question. It seemed as if those watching were transported back in time to a year ago when they watched a Falcons team lose six consecutive games after a promising 6-1 start with similar issues.
And yet that doesn’t include the concerns that the defense’s performance also raised, which including missed tackles, a lacking pass rush and an inability to get off the field on third downs, all of which were issues that the team dealt with in 2015 as well.
For the first time in months, it caused many to question whether the offseason moves the Falcons made this spring did much of anything to improve a team desperate to return to the postseason.
Welcome to my world.
Third Preseason Game Is Not Predictive For Falcons
While on one hand there’s a bit of satisfaction in seeing people a bit more responsive to what I’ve been saying for months, it is all ultimately meaningless because at the end of the day it’s still a preseason game.
One only has to look at the past two summers to know that performances in the third preseason aren’t exactly predictive for what is to come over the next few months in the regular season.
Last year the Falcons lost 13-9 to the Dolphins in a sloppy “dress rehearsal” featuring a wealth of bad offensive line play. A year before the Falcons starters looked sharp in a 24-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans, getting out to an impressive 17-3 lead in the first half before it was squandered by the reserves.
If one was basing things solely off the performance in those dress rehearsals, then one would have imagined that the impressive 5-0 start of 2015 and 2-6 start that defined 2014 would have been reversed.
So despite my elevated smugness this week, the reality is that using Thursday night’s performance as an indicator of what is to come this year is foolhardy. If the Falcons struggle in 2016, it won’t be because of an underwhelming game against the Dolphins in August. It’ll be because they didn’t do the things they needed to do September through December to win enough games. And the opposite is just as equally true if the Falcons managed to succeed.
However I do think there was one thing that did emerge on last Thursday night that is likely to play out over the course of the next few months. That was the increasing criticism for the Falcons’ quarterback and offensive coordinator.
Falcons’ Past Roster Issues Obfuscated Ryan’s Struggles
As someone that doesn’t expect the Falcons to make the playoffs this year, I believe that 2016 will be ultimately defined by whomever people decide is most responsible for that shortcoming. It’s likely to be either Ryan or Shanahan, with many fans drawing lines in the sand over feeling that one has to be ousted after the season due to a belief in their inability to coexist.
The incompatibility seemed to be on display throughout last season as well as this past Thursday with Ryan still not looking fully comfortable in Shanahan’s offense. Rather than taking a more patient approach that suggests that relationships such as these might take time as seen in other situations around the NFL over the years, instead there is an immediate push to suggest that one has to go.
One common belief is that Ryan was perfectly fine before Shanahan arrived in Atlanta in 2015. Therefore it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out which of the two is the variable prompting Ryan’s decreasing effectiveness.
However I think that belief is very much overstated. I don’t think Ryan was perfectly fine prior to Shanahan’s arrival and had his fair share of struggles in the preceding years. This was something I pointed out many, many, many, many times throughout the latter portion of the 2014 season when reviewing the film of Falcons games.
Honestly I believe that Ryan’s play in 2015 did not drop off all that much from the two previous years. But in those previous years, the Falcons had much “bigger fish to fry” in terms of the other numerous problems that obfuscated the reality that Ryan’s performances weren’t often up to par.
Back in 2013 and 2014 the Falcons were dealing with a non-existent running game, a bad offensive line and/or an impotent defense that were easily blamed for why the Falcons lost games in those years.
The one thing that changed in 2015 was many of these areas improved and suddenly Ryan’s penchant for untimely turnovers too often became cause, or at least was blamed as such, for many losses.
Ryan’s Numbers Didn’t Dip that Much in 2015
Often people defend Ryan’s performances in 2013 and 2014 by touting how productive he was in those years. But if numbers are a defense of a pre-Shanahan Ryan, then it should be known that the numbers suggest that Ryan’s play in 2015 wasn’t significantly worse than it was in 2013 or 2014.
Matt Ryan's Passing Stats (2013-15)
There isn’t much difference looking at the stats in that table? Ryan’s completion percentage, yards per attempt, interception rate, and passer rating are pretty similar in all three years.
About the only thing that really stands out as being significantly off is the lower number of touchdowns in 2015. A lot of that is owed to how much more the Falcons ran the ball in the red zone in 2015 than they did in two previous seasons.
Over the course of 2013 and 2014, 37.8 percent of the team’s red-zone offensive snaps were run plays. During that span, 38 of their combined 161 red-zone pass plays resulted in touchdowns, a rate of 23.6 percent.
In 2015, 50.3 percent of the team’s red-zone play calls were runs. Of the 75 pass plays, 17 were touchdowns for a rate of 22.7 percent, which is similar to the previous years’ combined numbers. If the Falcons had run the ball on just 38 percent of their red-zone plays in 2015, that would have given the team an additional 19 red-zone passes, which at the same touchdown rate should have resulted in 4.3 more touchdowns.
Ryan also had a league-leading four red-zone interceptions in 2015. In 2014, he had no such picks and just two in 2013. If one simply converted those four interceptions into touchdowns (which isn’t realistic but bear with me), Ryan finishes 2015 with a passer rating of 93.9, which is identical to his posting the previous year.
This all just goes to show that Ryan’s much-ballyhooed decline in 2015 was due to a handful of plays either not being called or winding up in the hands of the wrong player.
And it’s for this reason why I believe a lot of the criticism that is directed at Shanahan tends to get greatly exaggerated. However some of the criticism is more than fair in regards to Shanahan’s stubborn refusal to utilize more no-huddle, which is hurting Ryan.
Unlike Ryan, Shanahan doesn’t have a great body of work that suggests he’s particularly good at his job. Thus it’s much easier to see him as a bad variable when he has far less established success prior to his arrival in Atlanta.
Shanahan is certainly open to much criticism and deserves much of it but there is often a tendency to imply that he alone is the thing holding back the Falcons. This sort of reductionist thinking is just flat out wrong.
It’s much easier to focus blame on one issue than the multitude of problems and obstacles the Falcons are likely to face in 2016. Which means the story of this upcoming Falcons season (should it go awry) will likely be defined by whether you believe the quarterback or the coordinator is the overriding problem on offense.
But that will only blind people to the reality that the Falcons’ problems are much bigger than that. I’ve written about these issues several times over the past few months.
Play Action Critical to Falcons’ Offensive Success
The fact that the team’s running game disappeared midway through the 2015 season is a much bigger concern than either the quarterback or the play-calling. That’s because this offense’s foundation is built upon th ability to run the ball effectively.
If the Falcons want to put more points on the board, they have to get more big plays. And their ability to get big plays is tied to their ability to run an effective play-action passing game.
According to Football Outsiders’ data, Shanahan’s offense is far more effective the past two years running off play action than it has been running typical drop back offense. Last year the Falcons had the 10th highest DVOA on plays utilizing play action, but that fell to 23rd on non-play-action plays.
A year before during Shanahan’s lone year as the Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator, the rankings were similar with the Browns being the 14th best team using play action but fell to 27th on other plays.
One only has to look at Football Outsiders’ play-action numbers in 2013 and 2014 to see that the Falcons in those years were much better on “traditional” pass plays than play action. Of course that would lead many to conclude that it’s a mistake to try to make Ryan into a play-action quarterback. But those people would be forgetting that Ryan was the league’s best play-action quarterback in 2012 based off passer rating according to Pro Football Focus.
That partly illustrates the flaws of the reductionist mindset that looks for a simple and easy solution. It would be easy to say that Ryan cannot function properly in a play-action-heavy offense and thus Shanahan’s implementation of one here in Atlanta is “ruining” him, but that wouldn’t be factually true.
Ryan can and has been successful running a run-based offense that featured ample play-action passing (see 2008). If he is not in 2015 or 2016, it’s likely because of a multitude of other issues that the team is having to deal with today versus yesteryear which may or may not include the play of the other 10 guys on offense, the coaching staff and the possibility that the landscape of the league has changed significantly over the past eight years.
Falcons Keep Chasing the Past To Their Own Detriment
If I myself can take a moment to be reductionist, I believe that a big part of the problem is the still-pervasive mentality of being “10 yards away from the Super Bowl” that has hung over the head of this organization and its fan base since end of the 2012 season.
That doesn’t necessarily have to explicitly be in reference to winning a championship as it could be “10 yards away from” a winning season, or playoff berth, or a division crown. The point is that there is this deeply embedded belief that the Falcons are basically one or two missing components away from reaching whatever goal that is currently targeted.
That has ruled this organization’s approach the past few offseasons and even goes back to before the 2012 NFC Championship game against the San Francisco 49ers. Think back to the 2011 offseason when the issues that were exposed against the Green Bay Packers were the lack of explosiveness on offense and a pass rush on defense, leading to the acquisitions of wide receiver Julio Jones and defensive end Ray Edwards.
After the Falcons failed to be convert several short-yardage situations against the New York Giants the following postseason, they opted to beef up their blocking with their first three selections in the draft: center Peter Konz, offensive tackle Lamar Holmes and fullback Bradie Ewing. Not to mention the oft-forgotten signing of guard Vince Manuwai in free agency.
Then following the loss to the 49ers, the team seemed to believe that having a functional running game would have made the difference and signed running back Steven Jackson as their chief free-agent acquisition in 2013.
2014’s offseason brought about a “toughening up” by investing heavily in their lines with acquisitions of Jon Asamoah and Jake Matthews on the offensive line and Tyson Jackson, Paul Soliai and Ra’Shede Hageman on the defensive side.
After former head coach Mike Smith failed to produce a playoff berth that same year, he was ousted and the overriding belief was that the team was a good head coach and competent defensive scheme away from being back in the saddle of success. That of course explained the hiring of Dan Quinn, who was fresh off producing the league’s best defense in back-to-back years with the Seattle Seahawks in 2013 and 2014. It also partially explains why the team didn’t make too many other “splash” moves that offseason besides the drafting of defensive end Vic Beasley due to the belief that Quinn alone would correct much of the issues.
It appeared that belief of the Falcons being “a good coach away” was buoyed by the early 5-0 start last season. But things quickly fell apart thanks to several issues including increased turnovers, a disappearing running game, a nagging injury to Jones and an overmatched defense.
This past offseason there were many narratives. One popular one was that the team was “a center that could snap the ball away” from making the playoffs in 2015, thus justifying the expenditure for center Alex Mack. Another one was that the team really needed a secondary receiver, which explained their desire to get wide receiver Mohamed Sanu as an upgrade to Roddy White. Another one focused on the grievous inability to cover the middle of the field on defense, thus why the team invested in safety Keanu Neal and linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell in the draft to add more youth, athleticism and speed.
Assuming these holes and issues were on the verge of being fixed, it was understandable that heading into this summer people expected the Falcons to be much-improved and back on the path to the postseason in 2016.
But the greatest flaw in that sort of thinking is forgetting that you’re fixing 2015’s issues and it’s now 2016. Each new year presents a new set of challenges, many of which are hard to see coming. The beauty of the NFL is in part based on how unpredictable it is. That’s why there’s a phrase called “any given Sunday.”
This “chasing last year” mentality that has permeated this organization and its fan base for the past several years is not only restrictive but ultimately destructive. It’s already led to the ousting of one head coach and could easily lead to the dismissal of the current one sooner rather than later.
Falcons Need Reset and Lowering of Expectations
An interesting factoid that you may not have quite realized is that since owner Arthur Blank purchased the team in 2002, no Falcons head coach has ever survived more than two years without missing the playoffs. Neither Jim Mora nor Smith were able survive consecutive non-playoff seasons in Atlanta.
It’s likely that if the Falcons should miss the playoffs in 2016 that Quinn will break that streak and be retained. But one can be fairly confident that if Quinn and the Falcons don’t reach the postseason come 2017, then it’ll be time for Blank to start looking in a new direction.
With a new stadium set to open next season that needs to put butts in seats and a health scare this past year that reinforces his own mortality, it’s unlikely that Blank will show a ton of patience moving forward.
While that desire to win is certainly admirable, it might inhibit this team to a certain extent because they’re constantly chasing the past rather than building towards the future.
Essentially what the Falcons might need more than anything is a hard reset. That’s not referring to firing the coaching staff or gutting the roster as you see with an organization like the Browns. Instead the reset needs to be in regards to the expectations that are placed on this team moving forward.
The prevalent post-2012 mentality needs to be scrubbed away and there needs to be an understanding that it may take a lot more time before the Falcons are in a position to compete for an NFC Championship Game again.
Because let’s for a moment imagine the scenario where the Falcons make the playoffs in 2016 and lose in the first round. Then in 2017, there will be an expectation that they’ll improve by making it to the second round. By 2018, the Falcons will have to improve by going to the conference championship game and so on and so forth until they are winning a Super Bowl in 2019 or 2020.
Yet should there be a hiccup or two in any of the intervening years, there’s a high probability that Quinn is going to get fired like Dan Reeves, Mora and Smith before him simply because he couldn’t sustain an unrealistic upward trajectory.
What it winds up creating is an illusion of stability when there really isn’t any. That instability isn’t as obvious as it is for an organization like the Browns, but it definitely puts the Falcons in a position where they aren’t as stable as they pretend to be. It’s places undue pressure on whomever is in charge to win sooner rather than later, which can have dire results long-term because of the tendency for this organization to go “all in” because people are trying to save their jobs. This has happened before.
The Falcons traded away future assets in 2006 for defensive end John Abraham, Chris Crocker, Wayne Gandy and Ashley Leslie, along with signing veteran free agent like Grady Jackson, Lawyer Milloy and even pulled kicker Morten Andersen out of retirement. Only Abraham proved to be a long-term asset for the team, but fortunately the Falcons had already laid the groundwork for some solid young players acquired such as Tyson Clabo, Roddy White, Jonathan Babineaux and Brent Grimes in the previous years that would prove far more enduring.
Then of course again the Falcons went “all in” in 2011 with the acquisition of Jones, which helped the team reach the heights of 2012, but also contributed to the lows of 2013 and 2014 because the team had not done quite as good a job at acquiring young talent in the intervening years.
What this organization probably needs more than anything is an unspecified period of time, perhaps two or three years, where expectations aren’t too high and they can just focus on acquiring talent without the expectation that if the team doesn’t hit a certain win total or production level, that it result in firings or dismissals.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to win. But that desire can be problematic when it inhibits an organization from really moving forward. I doubt few were thinking about the Seahawks getting back to the Super Bowl from five years earlier when the team hired Pete Carroll in 2010. Or when Ron Rivera was hired by the Carolina Panthers in 2011, there wasn’t this onus that they had to win the NFC South or else like they had done three years earlier.
But of course the Seahawks that Carroll inherited had a declining 35-year old quarterback in Matt Hasselbeck and Rivera’s Panthers used the No. 1 pick on a raw, but talented passer named Cameron J. Newton. The Falcons don’t have those same luxuries because they have a 31-year old Matt Ryan, who should be in the midst of his prime rather than playing out what superficially appeared to be the worst season of his career.
After leading the Falcons to the playoffs in four of his first five years, expectations are that Ryan should continue to do so as he’s aged. Although it’s not that uncommon for a quality quarterback to have some setbacks in their thirties versus their twenties. Eli Manning led the New York Giants to the playoffs in each of his first four seasons as a full-time starter but has only been back once in the past seven years. The Dallas Cowboys experienced a similar drought after a promising start to Tony Romo’s career upon his turning 30 years old.
Even though both Manning and Romo are two of the most scrutinized quarterbacks of the past decade, the former at least managed to get his team two Super Bowl rings despite his rare playoff appearances and the latter at least can partially blame injuries as why the Cowboys haven’t sustained success over the past several years.
Ryan isn’t insulated from his critics thanks to hardware or durability concerns. And thus it’s easier to point fingers at home as a significant factor in why the Falcons haven’t shown any progress over the past three seasons. Should that extend into four, five or more years then one can expect there will be even more criticism directed at the quarterback. If there’s anything positive working in Ryan’s favor is that most who are unwilling to point fingers at him already have a ready-made scapegoat that will draw the brunt of their anger in the meantime.