By this team next week either the Carolina Panthers or Denver Broncos will be crowned the newest Super Bowl champion, prompting fans of the NFL’s other 30 teams to deconstruct either team’s success in the hopes of gleaning a way for their favorite team to repeat the same feat in the near future. Yet however tempting it might be to simply copy the success of the Panthers and/or Broncos with the expectation that it will eventually earn a Lombardi Trophy, fans and their favorite teams alike must be cognizant to establish their individual identities.
The Atlanta Falcons will have to work to establish a new identity under head coach Dan Quinn, who is now entering his second offseason as the team’s head honcho. It will be a critical offseason for him and the team, as it could wind up laying the foundation for Quinn’s ultimate success or demise in Atlanta.
Sophomore offseasons wound up being very important for both the Panthers and Broncos head coaches Ron Rivera and John Fox, respectively, both occurring in 2012. In Carolina, the team drafted linebacker Luke Kuechly and cornerback Josh Norman, two players that would be cornerstones of what is one of the league’s best defenses today. In Denver, it saw the acquisition of quarterback Peyton Manning along with defensive draft stalwarts in defensive end Malik Jackson and linebacker Danny Trevathan, all three of whom are now helping current Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak try to win his first championship. It’s difficult to imagine either team playing for the Super Bowl this Sunday if those moves hadn’t been made nearly four years ago.
One doesn’t even need to look beyond the scope of the Falcons’ own history to see another prominent example of second-year offseason improvement. Probably the best example of a said boost in Falcons history occurred in 1998 under head coach Dan Reeves. After finishing the 1997 season 7-9 after a 0-5 start, the Falcons were able to carry over their success into 1998 on their path towards a Super Bowl appearance against the John Elway-led Denver Broncos.
Slew of Second-Year Moves Helped Falcons Reach Super Bowl Under Reeves
While the Falcons ultimately lost that contest, it’s hard to imagine them not making that appearance if not for many of the roster-solidifying moves made in the spring and summer of 1998. Probably the two biggest moves that would have a major impact on the team’s 1998 season was the acquisitions of safety Eugene Robinson and wide receiver Tony Martin.
Robinson was signed at the outset of free agency, then a 35-year old free agent from the Green Bay Packers. At that time, he was the league’s active interception leader after picking off 49 passes since entering the league with the Seattle Seahawks in 1985. That had outpaced eventual Hall of Famers like Darrell Green (43) and Rod Woodson (41) up until that point. Robinson marked a massive upgrade at free safety over the likes of former first-round pick Devin Bush, who had been selected a few years earlier in lieu of future Hall-of-Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks in 1995. Bush spent two underwhelming years as a starter and the Falcons jumped at the chance to lure Robinson away from Green Bay to solidify their secondary.
Martin was acquired via trade from the San Diego Chargers later that offseason in June. The Chargers under general manager Bobby Beathard were looking to get younger with new rookie “phenom” quarterback Ryan Leaf, surrounded by younger receivers like Charlie Jones and Bryan Still. A soon-to-be 33-year old Martin didn’t figure into that mix despite the fact that his team-leading 63 receptions, 904 yards and six touchdowns in 1997 were more than Jones and Still had combined (56-747-1). Of course Leaf would go on to infamously become one of the biggest’s busts in NFL draft history.
Just because I find bad general managers so fascinating, Beathard probably deserves a 2,000-word essay on how remarkably bad his run in San Diego was from 1994 (when the Chargers lost in the Super Bowl) to 2000, when he retired. During that seven-year run, the Chargers only had a single first-round pick (you guessed it, Leaf) because Beathard was a huge fan of trading away future first-round picks to move up in drafts and also had a preference for players from small schools.
Of course, the next time the Chargers actually held a first-round pick in 2001, they managed to swap picks with the Falcons and grabbed running back LaDainian Tomlinson in exchange for the rights to select quarterback Michael Vick. Beathard would go on to be a advisor to Arthur Blank during his first year of owning the Falcons in 2002 when the owner was unable to lure Packers’ GM Ron Wolf out of Green Bay. But I digress.
As for Martin, he was picked up by the Falcons when he went on the trade market following the 1998 draft. The Falcons had failed to adequately replace starter Bert Emanuel, who signed a lucrative contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers just before the draft, when they used a third-round pick on Jammi German (instead of Hines Ward). When the Chargers subsequently shopped Martin a for a second-round pick in the next year’s draft, the Falcons jumped at the chance.
Martin joined long-time Falcons starter Terance Mathis as one of the league’s premier receiving duos in 1998. Four teams had a pair of receivers that each achieved 1,000 yards receiving that year with the Falcons joining the Minnesota Vikings (Randy Moss and Cris Carter), San Francisco 49ers (Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens) and Broncos (Ed McCaffrey and Rod Smith).
Martin’s ability to take the top off the defense off play action was so integral to team’s success that year. The Falcons led the NFL in big plays in 1998, with 77 plays that generated 20 or more yards, outpacing the Vikings and 49ers (76) and Broncos (65), who were of course the league’s other top finishers in that category. It’s not a coincidence that all four teams were also the league’s best that year, sporting a combined 55-9 record. It’s not as if I haven’t explained before why explosive plays matter in the league, which was clearly evident nearly two decades ago as well.
Trivial Additions Of DeBerg and Salaam Plugged Key Holes in 1998
Picking up Robinson and Martin weren’t the only moves that the Falcons made that offseason, as they found success in the draft outside the selection of German. They used their first-round pick on linebacker Keith Brooking, who served as a valuable role player in the team’s nickel sub-package in 1998 before eventually take the mantle from Jessie Tuggle as the leader of the defense the following season and beyond.The Falcons also scooped up return specialist (and fan favorite) Tim Dwight in that 1998 draft.
But it was the team’s seventh-round pick in offensive tackle Ephraim Salaam that had the most impact from that 1998 Falcons rookie class. He solidified a right tackle spot that had been a revolving door for the Falcons since 1995 when they moved Bob Whitfield to left tackle to replace a retiring Mike Kenn. Salaam replaced journeyman tackle Matt Willig, who is more praiseworthy for his post-football career in Hollywood than anything he did in over the course of a dozen seasons in the NFL.
Yet in fact the Falcons didn’t draft Salaam expecting him to start that year. They had signed ex-Buffalo Bills free agent Corey Louchiey to be their starter at right tackle earlier that offseason, but he was sidelined in camp with a groin injury that landed him on the injured reserve. Salaam is just a great example of the “next man up” philosophy.
That offseason also saw the Falcons do some last-minute shopping for their backup quarterback by luring a 44-year old Steve DeBerg out of retirement to replace Mark Rypien, who had understandably stepped away from football due to a series of unfortunate family tragedies. After a four-year absence in the NFL, DeBerg opted to give it one last go with the Falcons less than a month before the commencement of training camp.
DeBerg didn’t have a world-shattering impact in 1998, losing his lone start of the season against a 12-4 New York Jets team. But he did help deliver a victory a week before in relief for an injured Chris Chandler against the rival New Orleans Saints. He also salvage a win late in the season when the Falcons were without Chandler once more and started the ill-prepared Tony Graziani against the St. Louis Rams.
Without those wins against two divisional opponents, the Falcons would have finished in second place in the NFC West behind the 49ers and played the Packers in the opening round of the playoffs. San Francisco won their matchup against Green Bay thanks to a then 25-year old Owens making a touchdown grab in the final seconds to pull off the memorable 30-27 win. Who knows if the Falcons would have had the same luck? Even with a victory against the Packers, it would’ve still meant the Falcons traveling to San Francisco in the second round of the playoffs. At that point, the Falcons had lost seven consecutive road games to the 49ers dating back to 1991. So DeBerg’s meager regular-season contributions remained critical for the Falcons to achieve their lone Super Bowl appearance in the team’s 50-year history.
This humble history lesson is only meant to solidify the notion that personnel decisions matter in the NFL. It’s not to suggest that merely signing a player like DeBerg automatically would’ve guaranteed those eventual results, as ultimately players have to make plays and coaches have to coach when the actual games occur on Sundays. But something as simple as the Falcons settling with Graziani as their backup behind Chandler or not utilizing one of three seventh-round picks on the athletic Salaam could have had dire consequences for the subsequent season.
Personnel Moves Create Ripple Effects, Big and Small
The moral of the story is that all personnel decisions have ripple effects. Some being no more than a tiny dispersion in a puddle, while others create tsunami-like repercussions that will impact subsequent roster decisions over the course of a decade. These moves are not always negative, with the aforementioned positive moves made by the Panthers and Broncos back in 2012. As I noted last week, this is one of the reasons why I’m a firm believer in why personnel moves really matter in the NFL.
Another great example from the Falcons past is the devastation wrought from the selection of defensive end Jamaal Anderson in the first round of the 2007 draft. Anderson was expected to team with John Abraham to form a dominant pair of bookend pass-rushers in Atlanta, giving the team something they had essentially been missing since that 1998 Super Bowl team featured Lester Archambeau and Chuck Smith leading the “Bomb Squad” at defensive end.
After trying to develop Anderson for four years to little avail, the Falcons subsequently decided to dip into free agency to sign ex-Viking Ray Edwards in the summer of 2011 following the NFL lockout. Edwards also disappointed for a season and a half before he was shown the door. In 2013, the Falcons went after veteran Osi Umenyiora, hoping the 31-year old pass-rusher still had a bit left in the tank to help out a pass rush that was the league’s fifth-worst over the six-year period with Anderson and Edwards trying to complement Abraham.
However Umenyiora wasn’t just being asked to help Abraham, but in fact replace the 35-year old pass-rusher that was unceremoniously released earlier that offseason. Without Abraham leading the charge, the Falcons pass rush only got worse over the next two seasons, leading to the team using its top selection on Clemson edge-rusher Vic Beasley nine months ago.
There’s a clear-cut domino effect where one initial mistake (Anderson) impacts subsequent ones, leading to another consequential decision (Beasley) being made nearly a decade later. There’s no decision to kick a field goal, go for it on fourth down or call a timeout within the province of coaching on Sundays that has that resounding of an impact. Dan Quinn’s poor decision to settle for a field goal in the closing minutes of the Falcons’ Week Nine loss to the 49ers this past year won’t impact matters eight days later, let alone eight years.
My goal in writing this isn’t just another lead-up to my millionth criticism of current Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, although he won’t escape this column unscathed. But it’s merely a lengthy preamble to why the 2016 offseason is critical and why Quinn and his staff must succeed.
Quinn’s Future Saddled With Correcting Dimitroff’s Past Mistakes
Quinn’s biggest obstacle to success in Atlanta stems mostly from the missteps of Dimitroff and his predecessor on the sidelines in former head coach Mike Smith. All one has to do is look at several of the Falcons biggest needs on either side of the ball heading into the 2016 offseason and you’ll begin to uncover the ripple effects stemming from the past few years.
The Falcons pass rush still needs a lot of work as the team finished with a league-low 19 sacks in 2015. While there’s certainly hope that in 2016, Beasley and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett will produce more than the combined five sacks they had a year ago, the team is still suffering from the inability to solve its pass-rush woes with nearly a decade’s worth of roster moves. Any and every pass-rusher that the Falcons signed or drafted between the addition of Abraham in 2006 and (potentially) Beasley’s in 2015 failed to live up to expectations.
Linebacker is another prominent need on the defense, despite the fact that the Falcons drafted four players at that position during the 2013 draft. Only one still remains on the roster less than three years later in Tyler Starr, who is buried on the depth chart as a third-stringer. The inability to mine any meaningful linebacker talent from that draft class as well as previous ones leads into the team’s need to get younger and better there in 2016.
Safety is also another defensive need, which could have been somewhat mitigated if the Falcons had hit on third-round pick Dezmen Southward in 2014. Southward finished this past year on the practice squad of the Indianapolis Colts and now the Falcons are looking for a new starter to replace strong safety William Moore and/or potentially be an upgrade over free safety Ricardo Allen this year.
Offensively that Falcons blocking remains problematic, which was seemingly a black hole for the team’s drafting under Dimitroff. Particularly on the interior of the offensive line, the team is still paying for their missing on Peter Konz in the 2012 draft. Konz will turn 27 in June and should be hitting the prime of his career, but instead is out of football.
The tight end position was somewhat salvaged in 2015 by the likes of tight end Jacob Tamme, who proved a competent band-aid after the Falcons “punted” on the tight end position for several years as they idly waited for Tony Gonzalez to retire. Their one attempt to break that trend resulted in the selection of Levine Toilolo, who has permanent acreage on the team’s roster bubble from here on.
Another need on offense is to revamp a wide receiver corps that has gotten old over the years, largely thanks to the team’s refusal to draft and develop young talent, something I pointed out roughly 18 months ago. There is no ready-made replacement for veteran Roddy White, unless Justin Hardy makes a gigantic leap in his second NFL season this year. And even if he does, the team still lacks viable candidates to fill out the remainder of their depth chart at the position.
There were clear consequences to these past roster decisions and it certainly was telling when the Falcons invested significant resources in addressing or revamping many of these positions last year. Drafting Beasley, Jarrett and Hardy, signing free agents Tamme as well as linebackers Brooks Reed, Justin Durant and guard Chris Chester along with trading for guard Andy Levitre were only the first steps for Quinn’s staff to fixing these problems.
While Quinn and Dimitroff play nice in public, the proof is in the pudding as evidenced by the reality that Quinn’s duties moving forward are overwhelming geared towards making up for the other’s past mistakes. While neither ownership nor anybody connected with the organization is expected to use the dreaded “r word“, it’s abundantly clear that is what will exactly be happening over the next few years. And if the façade of Quinn and Dimitroff having a strong, working relationship is real, then it’s great for the Falcons moving forward. If there is turmoil behind the scenes, then it would make the rebuilding process substantially harder.
Even though Dimitroff still retains considerable influence over the roster, if the Falcons are going to reach a championship-level in the foreseeable future, Quinn will be the primary catalyst. Dimitroff now has the opportunity to correct the missteps of the past, and better hope that Quinn is gracious enough to allow passage on his coattails.
Established Identity Necessary to Falcons Rebuild
So how exactly do the Falcons succeed in rebuilding? They have to establish a firm identity. Things didn’t start to go off the rails for Dimitroff until 2011 when the Falcons tried to transform into an explosive passing attack by trading a slew of picks for wide receiver Julio Jones, which by the way was an idea germinated by Dimitroff rather than the coaching staff.
But the Falcons never were able to subsequently make up their mind as to what type of team they wanted to be. The very next year in 2012, the team utilized it’s first three picks on run-blockers like Konz, offensive tackle Lamar Holmes and fullback Bradie Ewing thanks to their inability to win in short yardage against the New York Giants in the 2011 playoffs.
After their 2012 NFC Championship Game loss, the team realized there was a sizable gap in the quality (and quantity) of athletes on the 49ers roster versus their own and started focusing on drafting players like Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford and Malliciah Goodman that had stand-out physical traits. That continued into 2014 with selections of Southward and defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman. Basically the years of trying to build a roster with character didn’t quite pay off as much as the team had hoped.
Quinn, Dimitroff and the rest of the organization are now tasked with finding their own identity. The trade for Jones was partially inspired by the team’s desire to match wits with the dynamic passing attack of the New Orleans Saints, only to see the team get physically manhandled in the trenches in 2012 by the 49ers.
That has been exactly what the Panthers have done to the Falcons in recent years, having sacked quarterback Matt Ryan a combined 31 times in their past eight meetings on 343 dropbacks for a sack rate of nine percent. Put in better context, the Falcons offensive line has given up a sack rate of just half with 4.4 percent in Ryan’s other 56 games since 2012. Even more context would show that the NFL’s worst offensive line in 2015, which belonged to the 49ers, gave up a sack rate of 9.2 percent.
Now the Falcons will likely feel compelled to try and chase the Panthers in subsequent years as they did the Saints not that long ago. One can also argue that a big reason why Quinn got the head gig in the first place was because the organization was looking to borrow a page from his former employer in the Seattle and bring it to Atlanta.
But the team can’t get too caught up in trying to mimic other teams at the expense of carving out their own identity. Essentially Quinn will have to envision what the team should look like two, three and/or five years down the road and build accordingly. I certainly don’t have the answers, but Quinn must and needs to continue to make the necessary strides to reach that end goal.
If the Falcons want to be a physical running team like their predecessors in 1998, who built their explosive potential off the play-action passing, then they must target the necessary components. That would mean that utilizing a first-round pick on a wide receiver in this April’s draft is probably less than ideal. If the Falcons felt tempted to use a first-round pick on any offensive player, such an identity would indicate that an offensive linemen might prove a better alternative.
If Quinn’s defensive scheme is built upon the front four being able to effectively pressure the quarterback rather than relying on blitzing, then a pass-rusher subsequently becomes more valuable than a linebacker. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Falcons should completely ignore the linebacker position, as they must strike a balance between filling more immediate needs and constructing long-term sustainability by focusing on their chosen identity.
This is where Dimitroff’s potential value lies. As someone that failed once before in this regard, he must show that he has learned from his mistakes and help keep Quinn on track. If he is able to do that, then perhaps there may come a day where I’m writing overly long columns that shower the Falcons GM with praise rather than criticism.