The Atlanta Falcons released 11-year veteran wide receiver Roddy White this past week and upon his exit, he was very candid and critical of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan in an interview with ESPN. It once again raises concerns about Shanahan, who faced a heap of criticism over the past year.
That criticism was somewhat deserved but came to be slightly overblown by many arguing that the 2015 Falcons suffered a sharp decline under Shanahan in comparison to previous years’ units. White brought up this exact point:
“We weren’t going out there and averaging over 20 points per game, which is bad. Prior to him being there, we could score 20 points sitting down. Our offense was never really a problem before.”
It’s certainly true that there was a decline in the Falcons offense in 2015, centering on their struggle to put points on the scoreboard. But again the disparity between this past season’s offense and that of previous years is somewhat inflated.
At least when looking at the 2014 and 2015 offenses, the main areas of decline for the latter came primarily in four areas: points scored, red-zone efficiency, big plays and turnovers. And it’s not a coincidence that all four areas are related to one another.
White also made note to distinguish between the success of the offense during the first five weeks of the season when the Falcons were undefeated and the last 11 weeks when they managed to win just three games.
Over those last 11 games the Falcons scored 177 points, which ranked as the fourth-lowest total in the league over that span. They also had the third worst red-zone efficiency in that span, converting just 45.5 percent of their red-zone trips into touchdowns. Not coincidentally, the two teams that finished worse in the red zone in the Cleveland Browns and Dallas Cowboys managed to finish 31st and 32nd, respectively in points scored over the final 11 weeks.
The lack of points scored can be directly correlated with the high number of red-zone turnovers and the lack of big plays.
Red-Zone Turnovers Costly for Falcons 2015 Offense
The Falcons had a league-high six turnovers in the red zone over the final 11 games, resulting in 18.2 percent of their red-zone drives ending in a turnover. The league average in that category over that span was 5.8 percent, which if applied to the Falcons 33 total drives, would’ve resulted in 1.9 turnovers. So that means that the Falcons committed four more turnovers than the average NFL team over the last three months of the season.
If those four turnovers turned into touchdowns instead, all of a sudden the Falcons improve to a conversion rate of 57.6 percent on their 2015 red-zone trips. That mark is just above the league average over the final 11 weeks of 56.7 percent, which is good enough to rank the Falcons 15th in the league instead of 30th.
Four more touchdowns wouldn’t do much for the team’s point totals, increasing it by just 28, moving them up into a tie with the Baltimore Ravens for 25th place with 205 points over the final 11 games.
Falcons Saw Dip In Big Plays Going For Touchdowns in 2015
That’s where the big plays would come in. In 2014, the Falcons generated 13 plays of 20 or more yards that went for touchdowns. This past year that number fell to six, with only three of them coming in the final 11 weeks of the season.
Through the first five games in 2015, the Falcons had three such scoring big plays on a total of 57 full offensive possessions. That’s good enough to indicate a rate of 5.2 percent of their offensive drives resulting in a big-play score. However over the final 11 weeks that rate dipped to 2.5 percent. Over the entire 2014 season that rate was 7.4 percent.
If the Falcons had been able to generate big-play touchdowns over the final 11 weeks at the same rate as they did to start 2015, that would’ve resulted in a total of 6.2 touchdowns. If it was the same rate as 2014, then it’s 8.7 touchdowns. Meaning up to six scores were potentially left on the field over the final 11 games last season if the team was equally explosive from 2014 to 2015.
Six more scores equate to 42 more points, which in addition to the aforementioned points added from the reversed red-zone turnovers, the Falcons could have potentially scored 247 points over the final 11 games instead of 177. That 247-point total puts the team closer to the middle of the pack, ranking 19th in the league just behind the Chicago Bears.
A counterargument might be that being average still isn’t quite good enough. But of course average is exactly where the Falcons were in 2014 over the final 11 games, where their 230 points ranked 18th in the NFL during that span.
The point should be clear by now that changing the outcomes of just 10 plays (six more big-play touchdowns and four less red-zone turnovers) could dramatically skew the production and thus the perception of last year’s Falcons offense.
A Few More Scores Could Have Changed Outcome of 2015 Falcons Season
That’s 70 more points over the final 11 weeks or 6.4 per game. That’s of course notable because the Falcons lost five games during that span by four points or less. All of a sudden, 10 plays might mean the difference between several wins.
If the Falcons won just three more games they would’ve earn the NFC’s fifth seed in the playoffs last year. If that happened they would’ve played the Minnesota Vikings in the first round of the playoffs. If they won that game then they would’ve faced the Carolina Panthers in the second round, a team they beat in Week 16 of the regular season. Who knows how either game turns out, but it should only solidify how just two handfuls of plays could’ve dramatically changed the narrative and course of the Falcons’ 2015 season.
Thus why I disregard the laments of Falcons fans that suggest the team or offense could never achieve at a high level as long as Shanahan is calling plays. White’s quotes only add fuel to that fire. However the evidence suggests that the offense isn’t that far away in capability, as a few more big plays and a few less turnovers could make a dramatic difference.
As things apply to 2016, it’s less a question of can they get better under Shanahan but rather a matter of will they?
Sitting here today it’s impossible to answer that question since the future is unpredictable. But it’s not just an optimistic viewpoint, but rather a realistic one in thinking the Falcons could make the necessary improvements this offseason to make that future a reality.
White Was Marginalized by Presence of Hankerson
Over the past few weeks my takeaways columns have focused much of their attention on the improvements the team will likely make on the defensive side of the ball, so now it’s time to turn our attention to the offense.
As illustrated above, the keys for success in 2016 are for the Falcons to become both more explosive overall and efficient in the red zone. Most of their moves must be made with those two ideas in mind. If they don’t help them in either or both regards, then it’s not really a worthwhile acquisition.
This is also why I believed that moving on from White was the right call for the team. White had long passed the time in his career where he was capable of generating big plays on his own on a regular basis. Much of his big-play success the past two years was due to the presence of Jones across from him, opening up easy opportunities for him to exploit.
The Falcons are too reliant on Jones to generate and facilitate most of their offense, which has become problematic given his tendency to get nicked up. It’s not a coincidence that the offense to start to decline right around the time where Jones became visibly limited by injuries starting in Week Four.
It’s probably also not a coincidence that was also around the same point that Leonard Hankerson started missing reps as well. Another criticism that White had for Shanahan was how he was marginalized for the offense in favor of other receivers:
“I expected to play a bigger role in the offense, and that’s what I wanted to do. But he didn’t have that in his desires. He had other people that he wanted to play my role, so he wanted me to be out of the [offense]. That was the whole thing. And it is what it is. I can’t do nothing about it. I can’t change his way of thinking or anything like that. I can just do what I did, which was just handle my business and get myself prepared for this moment.”
There’s almost no doubt that White is referring to Hankerson, who suffered a rib injury in Week Five’s win over the Washington Redskins before being sidelined long-term with a hamstring injury. After playing 62.7 percent of the offensive snaps during the first five games, those injuries kept Hankerson from participating in all but 16.6 percent of the snaps in the final 11 games.
It’s definitely fair to question why Shanahan was so insistent on utilizing Hankerson over White. But it’s moot now that both players are gone. The Falcons dumped Hankerson at the end of December with head coach Dan Quinn saying that he was no longer in the team’s future plans.
Clearly the same can be said of White after his release, making it critical that the Falcons find a wide receiver this offseason that Shanahan not only won’t marginalize, but will also be a reliable option on a weekly basis that Hankerson was not.
Travis Benjamin Would Add Big-Play Ability to Falcons
That’s where a player like Travis Benjamin comes in, whose vertical speed would be a major asset in regards to the team’s ability to generate more explosive plays.
Benjamin scored four touchdowns this past year on plays of 20 or more yards. White over the past three seasons has combined for three such scores, with none in 2015 and one in 2014. In fact, White hasn’t had a season where he had four or more such plays since 2010, when he had nearly 50 more receptions (and thus opportunities) than Benjamin did this past season.
However Benjamin likely won’t help the Falcons improve their red-zone efficiency. He scored just four touchdowns on 22 red-zone targets over the past four combined seasons. For the sake of comparison, Devonta Freeman scored the same amount on 20 red-zone targets the past two years.
Mohamed Sanu, another impending free-agent wide receiver that has been connected with the Falcons, scored eight touchdowns on 42 red-zone targets over the past four years. Of the 54 players that have been targeted at least 42 times over that span, only two (Hakeem Nicks and Brian Hartline) have scored less than Sanu.
So in looking across the free-agent landscape at the wide receiver position, the Falcons might not find a ton of help in the red zone. Instead a better strategy might be to target a tight end that can contribute there.
Upgrade at Tight End Should Help Falcons Improve in Red Zone
Over the years much of Matt Ryan’s red-zone success has come when targeting tight ends. From 2008 to 2014, Ryan turned 22.9 percent of his red-zone pass attempts into touchdowns while also completing 56.1 percent of his red-zone throws.
Tight ends accounted for 26 percent of those red-zone attempts with 47 touchdowns scored for a conversion rate of 32.4 percent. They also caught the ball on 60 percent of attempts.
Of course it might be easy to suggest that production is entirely due to the presence of future Hall-of-Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, who scored 33 touchdowns on 108 targets (30.6 percent conversion rate) and caught 58.3 percent of those passes in the red zone.
But six other tight ends over that seven-year span (including offensive tackle Mike Johnson) scored a combined 14 touchdowns on 37 red-zone attempts (37.8 percent conversion rate), with Ryan able to complete 64.9 percent of his passes to him.
When throwing to running backs and receivers, Ryan’s conversion rate dropped to 19.6 percent on 413 red-zone attempts with a completion rate of 54.7 percent.
Jacob Tamme was the only tight end the Falcons targeted in the red zone last season and he scored on just one of his eight targets while catching five passes.
Giving Ryan a more impactful red-zone target at the tight end position could go a long way to improving the team’s efficiency in that regard.
Among the free agents, the best available tight end in terms of red-zone success might be Dwayne Allen of the Indianapolis Colts, who scored 10 touchdowns on 22 red-zone targets over the past four years for a conversion rate of 45.5 percent. Next on that list could be a series of older veterans in Antonio Gates (39.7 percent), Vernon Davis (37.1 percent) and Ben Watson (36.1 percent).
By adding weapons in the passing game at wide receiver and tight end, the Falcons should enhance their ability to generate big plays and improve their efficiency in the red zone. Thus there’s the strong possibility that they can isolate their struggles in those areas to just 2015.
Shanahan and Falcons Have No Excuses For Non-Improvement in 2016
Yet the team must also improve up front on the offensive line. In order to maximize the vertical capability of a player like Benjamin, Ryan needs to remain upright in the pocket and the clean space to step into his throws. That means that the team must bolster the interior of their offensive line, which was a notable weakness in 2015.
Last year the Falcons were forced to go with several stopgaps at their three interior starting positions. Right guard Chris Chester was signed after the draft in May while left guard Andy Levitire was acquired via trade 10 days before the regular season started. Center Mike Person was plugged into the starting lineup when the team decided to move on from Joe Hawley less than a week before the regular season began also.
Frankly the Falcons need to find some long-term assets up front this offseason, whether they come at center or guard. Preferably the team can find two with one coming in free agency and the other via the draft. That should at least provide much-needed stability for the next few seasons.
Because the Falcons may find themselves focusing on upgrading the talent on their defense with early-round picks over the next two years, it’s critical that the team can supplement the offense via free agency in the meantime.
That’s another reason why this offseason is an important one for Quinn and his staff, particularly Shanahan. The 36-year old play-caller is extremely unpopular after his first year with the Falcons, with White’s comments opening up a wound that has not come close to healing. White’s agent only added gasoline to the already incendiary mix based on quotes made to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday.
Without significant improvements to the team’s offense in 2016, it’s difficult imagining Shanahan earning a third year in Atlanta.
Not simply because of fan pressure but without significant growth for the offense this upcoming season, it’s difficult seeing the Falcons earning the playoff bid that has proven elusive the past three seasons. Without that this year, the pressure will only begin to mount on Quinn come 2017.
Many of last year’s problems could be excused to a certain extent as the team lacking the ideal personnel to run Shanahan’s system. Not having a secondary receiver capable of generating big plays or an efficient red-zone option at tight end are two such personnel deficiencies. The third would of course be that the offensive line that was thrown together practically at the last minute.
There will be far less excuses in 2016 assuming the Falcons make the necessary upgrades in all three areas this offseason. Many will likely come via free agency given the desire to see immediate progress. Waiting two or three years for a draft pick to develop into a reliable big-play threat, red-zone option or starting offensive lineman just isn’t a smart strategy given the heightened scrutiny that White’s outgoing comments have put on Shanahan.
Facing a tougher schedule in 2016, the Falcons have to be better offensively this season. With the right moves, they certainly have the capability of doing so, but it once again boils down to will they?
As noted before, it’s impossible to answer that question right now. But if the Falcons don’t improve, White’s comments are only going to be the tip of the iceberg in regards to the added scrutiny placed on this coaching staff a year from now. At that point, Quinn could find himself just as much in the crosshairs as Shanahan.