The Atlanta Falcons officially hired Dan Quinn last week as their new head coach, replacing Mike Smith. He finally got to work last week following his introductory press conference to start and really break down film. He didn’t quite get that opportunity before considering most of his time was spent trying to figure out the New England Patriots for Super Bowl XLIX.
What will Quinn see when he looks at the Falcons’ film from 2014? There will be some good, but probably a lot more bad especially when he focuses on the side of the ball that is his bread and butter: the defense.
I don’t need to detail exactly what the good versus bad will be as you can probably guess. The good is Desmond Trufant. The bad is everything else.
The big question is going to be how much of a roster shakeup will the Falcons undergo as Quinn looks to build on that side of the ball? Will he try and make it work with many of the team’s current players, or will there be some form of a housecleaning?
I’ve written quite a bit in recent weeks about the difference between the Seattle Seahawks’ method of addressing problems and that of the Atlanta Falcons. The Seahawks are a team that constantly will shuffle different players through the door until they find the right piece, while the Falcons have the tendency to stand pat and hope someone emerges internally.
I’ve argued that sort of philosophy has been a significant factor in the problems that have faced the Falcons over the past two years and it will be interesting to discover whether or not that changes under Quinn. I suspect it will.
Falcons Can Expect Significant Roster Turnover in the Coming Months
The Seahawks basically blew up their roster in 2010 in Pete Carroll’s first year on the job. By the middle of the 2010 season, the Seahawks had only retained 43 percent of the players that were on their roster at the end of the 2009 season, the lowest in the league at that point. And to no one’s surprise, the Falcons were at the polar opposite of that spectrum with the least turnover with 81 percent roster retention from the previous year.
Although to be fair to the Falcons, the team did undergo quite a bit of roster turmoil at the outset of the Smith Era in 2008. Using the stipulations used in the above link, the Falcons roster retention would have been a much lower 60 percent when factoring which players were on the team at the end of 2007 versus midway through 2008.
If judging by 2010 standards, that would be a fairly high rate of roster turnover. That was understandable at the time, since Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff were desperately trying to cleanse the stink of the 2007 out of the building.
Given the sort of rhetoric out of Flowery Branch today, where Falcons owner Arthur Blank considers the team’s talent to be “tremendous,” it seems less likely that the team will be as quick to blow things up this time around.
Yet Quinn will have final say over the Falcons 53-man roster, which was one of the major revelations during last Tuesday’s press conference. So if he so chooses, then the Falcons could have significant roster turnover between now and the start of the regular season.
However, that shouldn’t signal that the Falcons are going to start gutting the roster in the offseason. More than likely, if Quinn prompts some serious roster reshaping, it will come in August and September as opposed to March and April. That won’t mean the Falcons will be quiet this offseason, but don’t expect things to start off with the huge bang that they did under Dimitroff when the team dumped a bunch of players including Alge Crumpler and Rod Coleman.
One of the hallmarks of the Seahawks’ way of doing business involved a lot more in-season moves as opposed to offseason moves. It’s more likely that you’ll see more moves reminiscent of those like the Falcons adding Brian Williams, Domonique Foxworth and James Sanders before the season. Those were instances where the Falcons saw weaknesses on their roster (coincidentally, all in the secondary) and opted to shore up spots with veteran cast-offs from other teams.
That way Quinn will actually get the opportunity to see many “bubble” players in camp and gauge whether or not they have value moving forward. The “Seahawkian” style leans towards the belief that if the team feels like they can get a better player, then they will try to do so. The “Falconian” method took much more of a “wait and see” approach. And generally speaking, it was an injury that usually compelled the Falcons to make a move rather than a perception of weakness.
Quinn Likely to Create Greater Competition in Camp
The former philosophy and approach should create a much more competitive 2015 training camp than we’ve seen in recent summers. While Smith commonly preached about competition in camp, the reality was that the number of open roster spots shrank each and every year. The common phrase is to “pencil somebody in” for certain roster spots, but the Falcons often were writing in permanent ink.
While there were always a few surprises on the back end of the Falcons roster, most of the starters and key role players were pretty much locked in each spring and summer under Smith. That probably won’t be the case with Quinn, at least this year.
Outside a couple of truly prominent players such as Julio Jones, Matt Ryan and Trufant, very few players should feel safe as they enter training camp. Even if a player is penciled in as a starter going into the summer, should said player get outperformed by someone behind him on the depth chart, he might find himself seeking employment elsewhere.
A good example is how things might change is to examine the roster battle went down along the defensive line last summer. Players like Malliciah Goodman, Travian Robertson and Cliff Matthews were among the team’s best performing defensive linemen in last year’s preseason. Had playing time and starting roles been based around which players performed the best, that trio along with Paul Soliai and Jonathan Babineaux would have opened the 2014 season earning the bulk of snaps along the interior of the defensive line.
However that wasn’t the case since Tyson Jackson retained his starting job and Ra’Shede Hageman was a key part of the rotation come Week 1. While I won’t argue that Quinn would’ve cut Jackson and/or Hageman at the end of camp, I will say that there was at least a much greater possibility they would have seen smaller roles than they ultimately did when the regular season began.
There Will Be Few Sacred Cows Under Quinn
We saw a similar dynamic under another Carroll protege in Gus Bradley in Jacksonville this past year. The Jaguars cut a pair of starters in offensive tackle Cameron Bradfield and safety Winston Guy before the month of September was over simply because neither guy was getting the job done.
Could you imagine the Falcons cutting players like Levine Toilolo, Kroy Biermann or Paul Worrilow based off their poor performances through the first few games of last season? I’m sure there are many fans that would have happily imagined such scenarios, but it goes to show the sort of “sacred cow mentality” that has plagued the Falcons in years past.
Another one of the biggest changes that should occur now that Quinn has control over the roster is how quickly the team will decide to move on if a move doesn’t work. Long gone will be the days where the team signs veteran players like Kirk Chambers, Sean Locklear or James Anderson and chooses to make them inactive every week.
This was apparent when the Seahawks scooped Robertson off the Falcons’ practice squad this past November. Robertson played in one game, then was inactive for four straight weeks and the Seahawks cut him prior to Week 17. The Seahawks carried only 52 players on their active roster for the final game of the season, indicating their decision to dump Robertson had to do with him simply not getting the job done.
That is a radically different approach to how the Falcons have managed their roster the past few years. Another change could come in the form of the Falcons reemphasizing a “draft first” approach. While the organization has consistently insisted that they’ve tried to build through the draft, they haven’t been practicing what they’ve preached in recent years.
So many of the last few offseasons have been geared towards finding that “final piece” that would get the team over the hump from a postseason also-ran into a Super Bowl. The 2011 draft-day trade to get Jones epitomizes that sort of mentality. This speaks to the sort of complacency that the team has had in recent years because that focus caused a lot of other issues to get ignored.
2015 Offseason Essentially a Do-Over for Falcons
It’s only this past offseason where the Falcons finally started adding the pieces that they should have been looking to add in 2011 and 2012. But a big reason why they couldn’t was because they traded away several premium picks in both those drafts in order to get Jones.
One of my bigger beefs is when folks contend that the Falcons’ problems are primarily caused by poor coaching the past few years. There’s no doubt that poor coaching had a significant impact on the win-loss record the past two years, but one cannot overlook and underestimate the poor front-office decisions that were made in previous years. The fact that Tyson Jackson might have gotten too much playing time or others not getting enough isn’t nearly as impactful as the Falcons’ inability to sign an impactful free agent for four consecutive offseasons from 2010 to 2013.
One only has to look at the team’s biggest needs currently, and you’ll see that the team either ignored or whiffed on a player at that position at some point in the last few years.
At running back, you can count the signing of Steven Jackson as a whiff, as well as the team’s focus on drafting third-down backs like Jacquizz Rodgers and Devonta Freeman instead of a true replacement for Michael Turner.
Wide receiver is a position that the team basically ignored after drafting Jones. There have been 95 wide receivers drafted over the past three years and the Falcons are the only team in the league that hasn’t drafted at least one of them.
As I explained last week, tight end was a position that the Falcons mostly ignored for years but then seemingly whiffed on Levine Toilolo with their 2013 selection.
Anyone can point to the free-agent whiffs on Ray Edwards and Osi Umenyiora coupled with the team’s reliance on late-round “talent” like Lawrence Sidbury, Jonathan Massaquoi, Cliff Matthews, Stansly Maponga, etc. as to why the team has a glaring need for an edge-rusher going in 2015.
At inside linebacker, the team failed to replace Curtis Lofton when they drafted Akeem Dent in 2011. Then they seemed to luck into Paul Worrilow as an undrafted free agent a year ago, but any hope for the future lessened by his poor play in 2014.
Nickel cornerback has been problematic for years in Atlanta outside Robert McClain’s excellent 2012 campaign in the role. It’s simply been a revolving door of draft picks (Chevis Jackson, Chris Owens, Dominique Franks, etc.) and veterans (Kelvin Hayden, Josh Wilson, Javier Arenas, etc.) over the years to no avail.
Last year’s successful offseason moves included Jake Matthews and Jon Asamoah. Matthews replaced Sam Baker, a player that had a relatively solid 2012 campaign. However that season was sandwiched between three injury-riddled and poor seasons. The Falcons probably should have known that Baker was not in the team’s long-term plans following 2010 when he finally managed to stay healthy for a full season and yet did not see a significant uptick in performance.
While I believed that retaining Harvey Dahl over Justin Blalock was the smarter call in 2011, the Falcons compounded that mistake by continually trotting out the likes of Garrett Reynolds among others at right guard as Dahl’s replacement for three years before finally landing Asamoah.
Ideally, the Falcons will find continued success addressing the aforementioned needs this offseason. But whether or not they stop becoming weaknesses will be determined by the team’s ability to draft better. And that doesn’t boil down to one good draft and all the Falcons problems go away. Because next year, you may be in a position where left guard, outside linebacker, defensive tackle and free safety are prominent needs.
Will Blank Let Quinn Build Long-Term Via Draft?
It in fact reveals one of my bigger fears about the team is that should Quinn find early success, the team could easily revert back into that mentality of trying to get over the hump instead of building long-term.
The Falcons really need to build up their defense and it’s going to take time to do so. One only has to look at the New Orleans Saints to see how unlikely such a quick turnaround is. The Saints gave up more yards than any team in NFL history in 2012, and then seemingly did a complete 180-degree turn in 2013 with the hiring of Rob Ryan and shooting into the top 10 defenses. But then the bottom fell right back out again in 2014 as they were among the league’s worst units.
The Falcons underwent something similar more than a decade ago when they hired Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator in 2002. The previous year, the Falcons were among the worst defenses in the league, finishing 30th in yards allowed and 24th in points allowed. In Phillips’ first year, they improved to 19th and eighth, respectively, in those same categories. But then the bottom fell out in 2003 as they put together one of the worst defenses in franchise history. And much of that had to do with a poor 2003 draft and a quiet offseason that saw the team make minimal improvements to that 2002 defense.
It’s certainly possible that Quinn’s new energy and different philosophy could cause a drastic improvement on the defensive side of the ball in 2015. But the Falcons should avoid falling into that trap of complacency and think that eliminates needs on that side of the ball.
The ideal approach for the Falcons is to believe that they are at least three good defensive drafts away from having a good defense. Such an approach would allow the team to add a first-round caliber playmaker at all three levels of defense: defensive line, linebacker and defensive back. Ideally, those three players will be foundation pieces that this team can build around for the next decade much like Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed were with the Baltimore Ravens over the past decade-plus.
Unless the team is looking to address the offensive line again, the Falcons really shouldn’t be in a position to use another first-round pick on an offensive player for some time. Having a stable quarterback in Ryan is extremely beneficial in that regard. coupled with the fact that the team should have it’s No. 1 receiver locked up for many years to come in Jones. Running backs and tight ends are relative rarities in the first round in today’s NFL as well. So the Falcons could truly devote their top pick in the next three drafts to defensive players, not to mention other picks in the second, third and fourth rounds.
I’ve mentioned in the past how twice since Blank took over as owner the Falcons have veered off track due to their desire to chase initial success. The first occurred in 2006, and most recently in 2011 when the Falcons forfeited a bunch of draft picks to add those “get over the hump” pieces. And it raises questions as to whether the team’s owner becomes more problematic than the general manager and/or coach.
I certainly won’t get answers to those questions this offseason, but I’m at least more optimistic that as far as the general manager and coach are concerned, things are moving in the right direction for the Falcons.