The Atlanta Falcons are headed to Super Bowl 51 after a highly impressive 44-21 victory over the Green Bay Packers in the final game of the Georgia Dome, capping off a 2016 journey guided by the one of the NFL’s most prolific offenses in NFL history.
The win marks redemption for an organization that has been through a lot since the last time they squared off against the Packers in the playoffs five years ago. Back then the Falcons were on the opposite end of an embarrassing defeat by the Packers by a score of 48-21.
After that game, the Falcons attempted to revamp their identity from a physical, ball-control offense to an explosive one, signaled by the massive trade for wide receiver Julio Jones in the 2011 NFL Draft. Riding the latter to a Super Bowl seemed inevitable at the time of that decision, but the Falcons brass that made such a pivotal decision probably didn’t know it would take half a decade to accomplishment thanks to subsequent missteps.
The team nearly got there just two years later, but suffered a disheartening defeat at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game in 2013. After a brilliant start by Jones, whose first six catches went for 120 yards and two touchdowns to prompt a 17-0 early lead by the Falcons, the 49ers would eventually come back to steal a 28-24 win.
Despite the daunting loss to the 49ers, that was expected to be the first of several attempts for the Falcons at winning the highest title in professional football with Julio Jones leading the offense for years to come. However the Falcons quickly went into a downturn over the next few seasons, sporting an 18-30 record from 2013 through 2015.
That downturn cost former head coach Mike Smith his job, but the architect of the Jones trade in general manager Thomas Dimitroff was able to retain his spot despite many questioning whether he should.
But Dimitroff’s teflon-like job status has just proved fruitful, finally able to watch the Falcons get to the Super Bowl that seemed to be just beyond the team’s reach for those many early years in Atlanta.
This 2016 Falcons team was able to succeed where others failed because they truly embraced the explosive mentality that previous ones did not.
Ironically, it took the additions of other assets beyond Jones that led to the Falcons achieving this type of success.
Supporting Cast Guides 2016’s Explosive Offense in Atlanta
The Falcons finished 2016 with 84 plays that gained 20 or more yards, the most of any team in the NFL this past season. It helped guide a Falcons offense that finished the regular season with 540 points, tied for the eighth most in NFL history.
Of course Jones paced the team with 27 big plays this year, but it’s not as if Jones was incapable of this in the past. He had 31 such plays in 2014, yet that team wound up with just 68 such plays that season.
That latter figure was still good enough to rank among the top 10 teams in the league during 2014, but the Falcons were able to take things to a brand new level in 2016 thanks to a stronger supporting cast of playmakers beyond Jones.
In 2014, the Falcons got 14 big plays of 20 or more yards from their No. 2 wide receiver Roddy White. This year’s secondary option beyond Jones in Mohamed Sanu only had six such big plays. But what explosiveness Sanu lacked was more than made up for by the play of reserves Taylor Gabriel and Aldrick Robinson. The pair combined for 15 big plays, with nine and six, respectively. That’s much more than what 2014’s third and fourth receivers in Harry Douglas and Devin Hester had, who combined for 11 big plays.
Another big difference in the boost in explosiveness seen in 2016 came from the tight end position. Back in 2014, Levine Toilolo had just one 20-plus-yard reception. This year, Toilolo’s production improved to four, supplemented by four from Austin Hooper and one from Josh Perkins, giving the 2016 tight ends a total of nine.
The Falcons also saw a massive increase in big plays from the running back position. In 2014, Antone Smith, Devonta Freeman and Steven Jackson combined for 10 big plays, including a pair each as rushers.
This year, the Falcons had 11 such big plays from Freeman and Tevin Coleman in the passing game, but an additional 12 from the pair as rushers, not counting two more added by third-string runner Terron Ward.
These improvements are the result of significant investment by the team to add more explosive playmakers around Jones and quarterback Matt Ryan, that were not there in previous years.
It can be easily summarized by the statement: you reap what you sow. And simply, the Falcons did not sow the necessary seeds to produce a truly explosive team in previous years.
The team put all their eggs in the basket that contained Jones, expecting him to single-handedly elevate the team from a unit that tied for a league-low 44 big plays in 2010, a year before they made the big trade.
That low ranking was hardly improved upon in subsequent years because the Falcons did not add much more beyond Jones to help them become more explosive. The team only paid lip service to the idea of becoming an explosive evidenced by their lack of investment in explosive players in subsequent drafts and free agency following the 2011 offseason.
Falcons Looked to Get More Physical Rather Than Explosive After 2011
In 2012, the team instead invested in beefing up their offense by using their top three draft selections on blockers: center Peter Konz, offensive tackle Lamar Holmes and fullback Bradie Ewing, none of which worked out for them.
Their only real noteworthy investments in becoming more explosive that offseason was the undrafted free-agent signings of wide receivers Cody Pearcy and James Rodgers, the brother of 2011 draftee Jacquizz. Pearcy didn’t even make it to training camp before he was cut by the Falcons and Rodgers spent two years languishing on the Falcons practice squad before being cut loose.
In 2013 the Falcons failed to make up for that lack of investment the previous year by making their biggest offseason addition declining 30-year old running back Steven Jackson. At that point in his career, Jackson was known more for his physical running style, once again signaling the team’s true desires to get tougher rather than sleeker with added speed.
In the draft that same spring, they selected Toilolo in the fourth round. While Toilolo did have success during his days at Stanford stretching the seam, evidenced by his 15.3 yards per reception during his career, he was not a great fit in the style of offense the Falcons were running then.
That became abundantly clear when the Falcons scrapped the “F” tight end position helmed by future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez the very next year after he retired following 2013.
In reality the Falcons probably were more interested in Toilolo’s blocking ability than his vertical potential in the passing game, just a continuation of the previous offseason themes.
The Falcons didn’t make a clear move to add a more explosive offensive weapon until they signed Hester in 2014’s free agency period. Yet the Falcons likely had an ulterior motive, hoping to upgrade a weak return group a year after relying on Jacquizz Rodgers and Robert McClain the previous year, rather than trying to maximize Hester’s ability as an offensive weapon.
The team did draft Freeman that same offseason in the fourth round, but the Florida State running back wasn’t known for his homerun-hitting ability. His 4.58-second 40-yard dash time according to Mock Draftable.com gave him below average long speed.
Despite the 2014 Falcons featuring the most explosive passing game ever seen under head coach Mike Smith, the defensive woes that led to a unit that gave up a historic amount of yards, cost him his job. It was simply too little, too late, and that team’s offense wasn’t explosive enough to overcome the defensive deficiencies.
Quinn and Shanahan Understand Need to Become More Explosive
Yet things changed upon the arrival of a new coaching staff helmed by Dan Quinn in 2015. That staff brought along a new offensive coordinator in Kyle Shanahan, both of whom weren’t strangers to the need to be explosive.
Quinn came from a Seahawks team that was defined by an outstanding defense, but also subtly featured one of the league’s most explosive offenses. In 2013 and 2014 while Quinn coordinated one of the league’s premier defenses, the Seahawks offense generated 134 big plays of 20 or more yards, the sixth most of any team during that span.
Shanahan coordinated a Washington Redskins offense in 2012 that proved explosive with 69 big plays, tied for eighth most in the league that season. That season marked the only season in which the Shanahan-led Redskins went to the playoffs, thanks to the heavy dose of big plays off play-action passing under dynamic rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III.
Both coaches could directly link their greatest successes to teams that were capable of getting yardage in large chunks.
Thus why it could be deemed a bit of a disappointment when the team did not fully invest in explosive playmakers in 2015’s offseason. The Falcons drafted Coleman in the third round of the 2015 draft, but besides the speedy former running back out of Indiana, there was little else in the form of dynamic playmakers added that offseason.
Wide receiver Justin Hardy was drafted a round later with the team also adding receivers Leonard Hankerson and Nick Williams that offseason to help facilitate a group that was familiar with Shanahan’s offense. The team also signed tight ends Jacob Tamme and Tony Moeaki, neither of whom were known to be particularly dynamic.
Although to be fair to both Tamme and Moeaki, they proved to be far more explosive than Toilolo had been in 2014. Tamme had six catches of 20 or more yards during his last full season as a starter in 2012 prior to joining Atlanta. And despite only having eight catches overall in 2014 with the Seahawks, Moeaki still doubled Toilolo’s total of big plays that season with two.
So while those moves didn’t quite move the needle to the degree hoped for, they did mark stronger attempts than the Smith-led regime under Dimitroff.
Not surprisingly the Falcons struggled to generate big plays in 2015 during their first year under Quinn and Shanahan. They saw the play of White fall off a cliff, Hankerson missing from the lineup throughout the second half of the season due to injuries, and Jones himself also being slowed by injuries.
2016 Marks Falcons First Fully Immersive Investment in Explosiveness
But unlike the previous Smith-led regime, the Falcons made a notable swerve this past offseason by investing into the playmakers that were avoided in 2015.
The signing of Sanu rather than Travis Benjamin initially looked like a whiff by the team in terms of signing an explosive weapon opposite Jones, leading to many individuals, including myself, to decry the move. But quietly the team added Aldrick Robinson less than a week later. And unlike Hankerson, Robinson specialized in getting vertical during his shared days with Shanahan in Washington.
The team added another Stanford tight end in Austin Hooper via the draft, but one better known for his athleticism and pass-catching ability than his blocking. Even a minor investment in a kickoff return specialist like Devin Fuller in the seventh round of the 2016 draft, reflected a mindset more focused on adding speed.
But perhaps the biggest move came in the form of the signing of Taylor Gabriel off the street at the outset of the regular season when the Cleveland Browns cut him loose. Gabriel had produced as a vertical weapon for the Browns during Shanahan’s lone season there as a coordinator in 2014, and the reunion has paid off in a major way for the Falcons in 2016.
Unlike the 2014 team, additionally this year’s Falcons were more than explosive enough to compensate for a lackluster defense. It helped that while the team was working to add explosiveness on offense, they were also investing in a defense that had been equally neglected following the 2010 season.
After all, that Packers playoff game five years ago featured a Falcons defense that was unable to force a single punt in that contest. This year’s Falcons defense at least managed to force two in the rematch, in addition to two turnovers. But I’ll leave the lengthy recap of the Falcons more successful defensive investments by the Quinn regime for another column on another day.
The moves made by this current Falcons regime over the past two years, starting with Coleman and ending with Gabriel finally paid off for the Falcons, as they rode their explosive offense all the way to a point where the team is now going to play a football game in February.
The previous Falcons regime under Smith, but also copiloted by Dimitroff made the fatal mistake of thinking that Jones alone would be able to instill explosiveness to the Falcons offense. But where their true vision lied was in “toughening up” the team to remain that physical, ball-control type of offense that they had been throughout the early portion of Smith’s tenure. Perhaps that could have worked had the team made better investments than Konz, Holmes, Jackson and Toilolo.
However Dimitroff got a second chance, deservedly or not, and made the most of it thanks to the presences of Quinn and Shanahan, asserting a new vision for what the Falcons offense had the potential to become.
It ultimately took the Falcons five years before learning that most important lesson from the Jones trade. That being that the trade alone only marked a brilliant start to becoming more explosive, but was by no means the end of that process.
There’s one final hurdle to the end of that process, hoisting a Lombardi Trophy two weeks from now in the afterglow of Super Bowl 51.