Takeaways from Championship WeekendI was late in posting the recap of the Falcons-49er game partially because of my attendance at the game didn’t really give me access to a computer afterwards. That was followed up by my car breaking down Monday on my return trip to North Carolina, which consumed all my energy then and the following day. All in all, it was not a great weekend for me.
But I really needed some time and energy to digest the loss. I was never distraught over it, but it was highly disappointing. While some may label the Falcons as chokers, I don’t see it that way. Did they blow the game? Yes. They had a lead, didn’t hold it, but they had an opportunity at the end of the game to win it. They just didn’t. I’m not going to sit here like many have done over the past 72 hours and try and find a scapegoat. The 49ers were widely considered to be a better team than the Falcons, and thus their win over the Falcons is not a surprise. The Broncos were 10-point favorites over the Ravens. Their loss was a chokejob especially given the outright impossibility of the now infamous Rahim Moore blown coverage. The Broncos played uncharacteristic in that game. Peyton Manning looked a little gun shy, Champ Bailey looked old, and they even got a pair of special teams touchdowns, which had never happened in a playoff game. Teams with a pair of special teams touchdowns since 1970 are 31-7 in games. That was a chokejob.
With the Falcons being the underdogs in the game, I don’t think they choked. They had ample opportunities to win the game, they did not.
It’s more disappointing because of what I wrote about in mid-November. This was likely the Falcons best chance to be in the Super Bowl in the foreseeable future. I still believe that. Matt Ryan played the best football we’ve seen him play. What’s interesting to me is that after posting that piece, I think we started to see a significant decline in Ryan’s game, and he sort of “reverted” back to his older self as opposed to playing at the MVP level he was for the first half of 2012. I think that reversion began with his 5-interception performance against the Cardinals. Now don’t get me wrong, a “reverted” Matt Ryan is still a Top 10 quarterback, so if you hear or see any Falcon fans complaining about Matt Ryan, then my suggestion is to punch them in the face. Matt Ryan may not be as good as Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, or Tom Brady, but anybody that is unsatisfied with his performance over the past five years or this past season is a lunatic. Anybody that is still questioning Ryan’s ability to win in January, should only look at those four quarterbacks and their recent playoff success (or lack thereof). Even the great ones play poorly in January, and Ryan certainly outperformed those elite guys this past January.
Ryan certainly deserves to get a big-time extension this off-season. And my expectation is that it will make him one of the five highest-paid quarterbacks in the league. That likely will exceed $16 million per year, and possibly approach $18 or $19 million per year, which would put him just behind Drew Brees ($20M/yr.) and Peyton Manning ($19.2M/yr.) (per Spotrac) as the highest paid QBs in the league. His guaranteed money will probably be in the $40 to $50 million range. It’s a very high premium, but when you think about the stability it potentially provides the Falcons for the next 5-7 years it is well worth it in my opinion. And it actually should help alleviate cap space for the Falcons as Ryan’s cap hit of $10 million in 2013 could potentially be cut in half if the Falcons structure the new deal appropriately.
The downside of such a deal means that the Falcons cap space will be limited in future years, and thus they will have to recommit to the draft which they have not done in recent years. They have traded a first or second round pick in each of the past three drafts. That can’t happen, as the Falcons won’t be able to spend as much on the open market in future years due to the high price that will be annually paid to Ryan. But that is not too much of a downside, because I think that’s exactly how Thomas Dimitroff likes it. It just means that the margin for error grows even smaller, and the Falcons can’t have any more Peria Jerry picks.
As for what the Falcons do in the off-season, nothing really has changed in terms of assessing how the year ended. We’ve known all year long that the Falcons need to become a more balanced offense by improving the ground attack. Michael Turner is likely gone. The Falcons should look to replace him with some fresh legs in the draft. The offensive line held up better down the stretch than I certainly expected after a fairly lackluster regular season. So the Falcons don’t need to make sweeping changes there. They should look to get a new right guard, as I still think Peter Konz is better suited to playing center. Maybe they can find someone in free agency, such as Buffalo’s Andy Levitre. They need to find a young replacement for Tony Gonzalez, which we’ve known for several years was a move that was inevitable.
Defensively, the Falcons need to upgrade their pass rush. Their inability to cover tight ends probably also means they need to look into getting a good coverage linebacker. Stephen Nicholas did an admirable job, but similar to Curtis Lofton he’s just not cut out to be an everydown player. But ever since Darren Sproles made Sean Weatherspoon look silly, we’ve known we needed upgrades there. And the Falcons will need to make a decision about the relative futures of Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes. Grimes is a free agent and Robinson is due a high $8 million salary, $3 million of which becomes guaranteed if he’s on the team as of the fifth day of the new league year (approximiately March 16). Do the Falcons want to keep either one or go in a new direction with another young corner? I think Robert McClain had a good season, but I don’t think the Falcons should turn over a starting position to him just yet. Considering that Asante Samuel is also up there in age, I think McClain instead should be groomed as his long-term replacement. McClain is a restricted free agent following 2013, and dependent on his performance this upcoming season will determine if he’s in the long-term plans of the team. Again, given Samuel’s age, probably the smart strategy is try to get younger. The free agent market isn’t overly strong, so it probably behooves the Falcons to look for a corner on either the first or second day of the draft come April.
Of their own free agents, William Moore and Sam Baker are the two guys that they probably cannot afford to let walk. Alongside Spoon, Moore is the only impact player on the defensive side of the ball that is in the prime of his career. Baker has played well enough to earn a new contract. I’m not 100% sold that he won’t revert back to his subpar pre-2012 form, but I think his play certainly merits a new deal. And the Falcons can still develop Lamar Holmes as an insurance policy, and give him the much-needed time I believe he needs before he’s ready to be a starter.
Those are basically the needs the Falcons need to address this off-season. Will they be able to solve all of those problems this off-season? Probably not. I personally would prioritize upgrading the offensive line at right guard, but it would not surprise me if the Falcons instead opt to make additions at running back and tight end bigger priorities offensively given they could probably live with a combination of Konz, Hawley, and/or Mike Johnson at center and right guard next year. Defensively, their priority is going to be upgrading the pass rush which could be either by adding a young edge rusher as the heir apparent to John Abraham, or an interior presence to succeed Jonathan Babineaux. Babineaux and Corey Peters are both entering the final years of their contracts, while both Abraham and Biermann have two years left. So don’t be surprised if the Falcons are more interested in defensive tackles this spring in the pre-draft process than edge rushers.