Atlanta Falcons Takeaways From Last Week – January 26, 2015

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Dan Quinn

Barring an event that only exists in the mind of Roland Emmerich, the Atlanta Falcons will be hiring Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn next week to be the 16th head coach in franchise history some time next week.

A formal announcement is predicted to be next Monday according to D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Meanwhile, the Quinn is starting to assemble his staff. We know that Kyle Shanahan will be calling plays for the offense. And it appears that while Quinn will be handling defensive play-calling duties, Raheem Morris will be helping him in some capacity according to a report by the Washington Post.

Quinn appears to be set to retain Keith Armstrong to continue to lead the Falcons’ special teams units, while assistants Wade Harman, Bryan Cox and Terry Robiskie will also be retained from Mike Smith’s staff.

It’s likely that Quinn will pilfer a couple of assistants from Pete Carroll’s Seahawks staff to journey across the country to become assistants in Atlanta. Don’t worry about the Seahawks, as they can afford to have a little less crowding along their sidelines. Not counting the strength and conditioning staff, there are currently 21 assistant coaches including Quinn on the Seahawks’ payroll. In contrast, the Falcons only had 16 assistants under Smith this past season.

Not to mention, the Seahawks are likely on the verge of being the first team to repeat as Super Bowl winners in a decade. Perhaps losing a handful of assistants could help level the playing field a bit.

Regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s game, one can certainly make the argument that the Seahawks have been the most impressive team in the NFL for three years running. Football Outsiders has them as their top-ranked team in overall team efficiency rankings the past three seasons, a feat that hasn’t been done since the 1992-94 Dallas Cowboys teams. That feat becomes even more impressive when you consider it has been done in the parity-driven era with 32 NFL teams and free agency that didn’t exist during the Cowboys’ heyday. Frankly, no team has managed to finish two consecutive years atop Football Outsiders’ rankings since the ’96-97 Packers.

The Falcons will hope that Quinn can bring some of that mojo down to Atlanta. And while Quinn is expected to improve the coaching in Atlanta, the real key will come via the front office.

I’m a firm believer that the rise and fall of NFL teams has less to do with coaching and more to do with good personnel decisions over multiple season. They aren’t mutually exclusive of course, but there is no amount of coaching that can overcome poor personnel decisions. And the latter has plagued the Falcons for several years now.

Complacency Has Doomed Falcons in Recent Years

In my takeaways column following last year’s Seahawks Super Bowl win, I outlined some of the reasons why the Seahawks were a well-run organization and the Falcons were not. One of the points I made then was how the Seahawks were anything but complacent when it came to making moves to try and become a better football team. It was a point I made again last week, but I’ll go into greater detail this week.

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Peter Konz

Last year, I pointed out the Falcons’ decision to continue to start Peter Konz at right guard late in the 2013 season as an example of their complacency. Despite the fact that Harland Gunn outplayed him in those games, the Falcons refused to bench Konz.

We can fast forward to the 2014 season and see the same thing happening again. With the hirings of Mike Tice and Harman as offensive line coaches, the Falcons brought in a blocking scheme this past season that required more movement and pulling from its blockers. Konz’s limited athleticism made him a very poor fit in that blocking scheme, yet the Falcons kept him on the roster despite the fact that he was very much a square peg in a round hole.

As I explained in a takeaways column this past November, this contrasts to a similar situation with the Seahawks and a former teammate of Konz in guard John Moffitt. The Seahawks moved on from Moffitt when it was clear his future was going nowhere during the summer of 2013. The Falcons did not this past year with Konz, and that lack of a move epitomizes the Falcons complacency.

Another prime example of the Falcons complacency is their decision not to try and upgrade the tight end position this past year. It became clear during the preseason that Levine Toilolo wasn’t ready to be an NFL starter. Yet the Falcons stood pat. They signed no tight ends off the waiver wire, nor did they make any trades at the trade deadline.

I devoted a large portion of one of my columns last August to pointing out the team’s need to make upgrades at tight end as well as the pass rush. Yet again, the Falcons stood pat once again showing their complacency.

This willingness to ignore needs and weaknesses on the roster in the hopes that they could develop a guy for a role ended up being the downfall of Mike Smith. There are several other examples of the team’s complacency, but their treatment of Konz, Toilolo and the pass rush are three prominent examples that stick out.

Obviously, there have been times when the Falcons have shown a willingness to address problem areas. Trading for Brian Williams was a time when that seemed to work in the Falcons favor. While the T.J. Yates trade didn’t net positive results, I at least applauded the Falcons for recognizing a deficiency and trying to get better. These sort of moves shouldn’t happen once in a blue moon as they have in Atlanta over the years. I should be able to rattle off several more examples of times where the Falcons at least attempted to get better at areas of weakness, yet I cannot.

I’ve noticed over the years that the Falcons rarely work out free agents unless there’s an injury. The Falcons rarely ever shuffle their practice squad unless they’re promoting someone to fill in for an injured player. Essentially, the only thing that prompts the Falcons to actively look to upgrade and modify their roster is injuries. Otherwise, they’ll sit idle.

And when the Falcons do decide to make a move mid-season to pick up some depth, those players mostly sit idle on the inactive list as have Charles Godfrey, James Anderson, Sean Locklear, Kirk Chambers, among others in recent seasons.

During the Falcons year-end press conference, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff had this to say:

This is a very collaborative organization. We work closely with the coaching staff, which is the only way it should be. A general manager should never force-feed talent on a staff.

Dimitroff will now be expected to collaborate with Quinn now. And I hope the latter brings a bit more of the Seahawks’ brand of doing business, which is essentially to be as proactive as possible when it comes to trying to improve one’s roster.

Seahawks Do It Differently Than Falcons

In the past I’ve pointed out the Seahawks’ decisions to dump quarterback Matt Flynn and wide receiver Percy Harvin. It’s an easy argument to make that the decision to bench Flynn in favor of Russell Wilson is the primary reason why the Seahawks have been the league’s best team three years running.

Harvin was a bold splash which the Seahawks were going to build a large portion of their offense around. Yet, injuries prevented that from happening in 2013 and apparently a lack of team chemistry conspired against Harvin in 2014.

Ask yourself, would the Falcons have done the same if in the same shoes?

In regards to Flynn, the answer is probably no. When it comes to who earns more playing time, often the paycheck is the determining factor in Atlanta. This is evidenced by just looking at how the Falcons have handled their defensive line rotation in recent years. Also, look no further than Konz. As a second-round pick, he earned “first dibs” the past two years over a pair of undrafted free agents in Gunn and James Stone, despite the latter two both outplaying him when given the opportunity.

In the case of Harvin, it’s possible that the Falcons would have moved on if the locker room problems were true. After all, it was something similar that prompted the team to finally dump Ray Edwards in 2012.

However I find it fascinating that despite giving up first, third and seventh-round picks to acquire Harvin in 2013, the Seahawks dipped right back into the wide receiver well in 2014. They used their top pick in 2014 on a wideout in Paul Richardson and three picks later used another on Kevin Norwood. It’s likely Seahawks were buying insurance because they figured that the Harvin deal wasn’t working in their favor. But it still shows a lack of complacency on their part.

Unlike the Falcons, who basically stopped addressing their wide receiver position after giving up several high picks for Julio Jones in 2011. As I pointed out last June, the average NFL team has invested three times as many picks in the wide receiver position as the Falcons over the years.

Falcons Missed Prime Opportunities in 2011 and 2012 Drafts

While most are focused on the things that Quinn will bring on the field to the Falcons, it’s really these sort of off-field issues that could really determine whether the Falcons have the sustainable long-term success that they did not achieve under Smith.

The bottom dropped out for the Falcons after the 2012 season because the team basically failed to add talent to their roster starting in 2011 thanks to the trade to acquire Jones.

I can’t be too upset at the Falcons for going “all in” in the 2011 offseason. They took their shot and almost made it to the Super Bowl in 2012. That’s why one cannot say that the Jones trade was either good or bad since it had both pros and cons. Their 2012 success was the pro, as they certainly would not have made it as far as they did without Jones. but the past two years where the team went 10-22 have been the cons of that trade. The players the Falcons acquired in those 2011 and 2012 drafts besides Jones and punter Matt Bosher haven’t amounted to much.

Akeem Dent, Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes were the three players selected with their remaining picks on the first and second days of those respective drafts. However, within three years all three players were outplayed and surpassed by undrafted free agents in Paul Worrilow, James Stone and Ryan Schraeder, respectively.

That’s not an issue of development (or lack thereof), but rather an issue of talent (or lack thereof). Either the Falcons have been exceedingly lucky with acquiring three very unique and rarely gifted undrafted free agents, or the players that the Falcons thought were worthy of second and third-round picks just weren’t particularly good enough.

While Worrilow, Stone and Schraeder are certainly better than your average undrafted free agents, I’m not exactly sure they’re going to be reminding anyone of London Fletcher, Jeff Saturday and Jason Peters anytime soon. So that probably answers the question.

Quinn Must Establish New Identity in Atlanta

What should help the Falcons make better personnel moves is if Quinn can come in and establish an identity. It’s no secret that a big reason for the Seahawks’ recent success has been due to their pass rush. I suspect that on Sunday, we’ll see that group once again tip the scales in their favor against the New England Patriots.

That speaks to their identity. The Seahawks have one and the Falcons have not for a very long time. Early in the tenure of Smith and Dimitroff, the Falcons possessed a physical ground attack and were a disciplined and opportunistic team that would capitalize on their opponents’ mistakes. That was one of the reasons why the Falcons were so good at winning close games.

Yet that all changed after 2010. The Falcons wanted to get more explosive, but went about it the wrong way. Trading for Jones should have been merely a start, not the end of those efforts. The Falcons failed to continue to invest in surrounding Ryan with explosive playmakers at the offensive skill positions, expecting Jones to be a one-man wrecking crew when it came to generating big plays. Certainly no one can deny that when Jones is on his game, he can certainly be that player. But it’s too tall an order to ask one player to carry an offense, even one as talented as Jones.

After the 2011 season exposed the team’s lack of toughness up front, the Falcons devoted a significant portion of the following offseason to try and beef up their blocking. They signed guard Vince Manuwai anddrafted Konz, Holmes and fullback Bradie Ewing. None of those players really have made any significant impact on this team.

Then after the 2012 season where the team reached the NFC Championship game, most of the ensuing offseason dealt with making lateral moves such as swapping out Michael Turner, John Abraham, Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson for Steven Jackson, Osi Umenyiora, Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. Again, the Falcons were showcasing their complacency. While that 2012 Falcon team was “10 yards from the Super Bowl,” they also were one of the weaker teams in the league in a wealth of categories including: rushing offense (29th), rushing defense (21st), third-down defense (26th) and sacks (28th).

And of course the bottom fell out in 2013, but once again the Falcons failed to make substantial improvements in 2014. In those same aforementioned categories, the Falcons ranked 24th, 21st, 32nd and 31st this past season.

If you contemplate what is the Falcons current identity, there really isn’t a firm answer. What is the one thing they do well? Their identity has always revolved around particular players. In the past, their identity rested on the thick thighs of Turner. Then it morphed into being able to dink and dunk their way down the field with Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. Now, their identity rests on getting the ball to Jones.

Contrast that to Seattle, who have built identities that go beyond individual players. While players like Wilson and Marshawn Lynch are instrumental pieces to their offensive success, they’ve at least attempted to build depth behind them that at least resembles their same skillsets.

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Falcons offense revolves around Julio Jones

This past summer, the Seahawks had Tarvaris Jackson, Terrelle Pryor and B.J. Daniels competing for backup quarterback spot behind Wilson. None are as good as Wilson, but similarly are athletic, big-armed quarterbacks that can make plays with their legs. While there certainly would be significant dropoff should any of them be forced to replace Wilson, the Seahawks won’t be compelled to completely revamp their offense and playbook.

The same goes for running back. Robert Turbin and Christine Michael aren’t on Lynch’s level as runners, but offer similar skillsets at lesser levels.

Can the same be said about the Falcons in the event that Jones misses time? There isn’t a receiver on the roster that is anywhere close to offering what Jones brings on a weekly basis to the Falcons offense. That was ultimately the downfall of the Falcons 2013 season when Jones missed the final 11 games of that season. Yet, the Falcons failed to learn their lesson the following offseason. Adding Devin Hester was better than nothing, but the Falcons missed a prime opportunity to draft one of several talented wide receivers last May to at least have someone to develop that could be a “lesser version” of Jones.

One hopes that the Falcons won’t make that same mistake again this offseason. One hopes that Quinn will establish a firm identity for this Falcons team moving forward, and that Dimitroff will do a better job collaborating with him than he did with Smith in building a roster that features 53 guys that are all designed to fit that identity. And that includes not keeping a player like Konz on the roster despite knowing that he is a poor fit.

Hopefully Quinn instills an identity that includes excelling at rushing the quarterback. In today’s passing-driven league, it’s hard to see a team achieve success at the highest levels if it cannot reliably get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Falcon fans have been waiting for the better part of the decade for the Falcons to invest significantly in upgrading their pass rush. We haven’t seen that sort of effort since 2006 and 2007 when the Falcons used consecutive top picks on Abraham and Jamaal Anderson.

Falcons Identity Problems Won’t Be Solved in One Offseason

But upgrading the pass rush isn’t as simple as some would suggest it. It won’t boil down to the Falcons signing some big name free agent(s) this offseason and then using a high pick or two on pass-rushers. Establishing an identity will require continuing to dip into that well. The New York Giants did that for years with premium picks being used on Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, Mathias Kiwanuka, Jason Pierre-Paul and Damontre Moore.

Even though the Seahawks have had Lynch for a number of years, it hasn’t stopped them from drafting other running backs in Turbin and Michael, because their offensive identity is built around running the football.

Establishing an identity is essentially continuing to build upon a strength. Once upon a time the Falcons’ strength were the talent of their skill position players. But they’ve let that strength crumble in recent years because they’ve invested so many resources in trying to upgrade offensive line and defensive play.

It’s a tall order for Quinn, who is well respected as a coach, but whether or not he has that sort of keen insight into personnel remains to be seen. Frankly, that was supposed to be a strength of Smith when he first arrived in Atlanta.

But hopefully Quinn has been taking mental notes. And he’ll do a better job importing success from Seattle than Dimitroff has been in doing the same from New England. If Quinn is up to the task, then the Falcons have a very bright future ahead of him. If not, then at some point in the next several years I’ll be writing another column detailing the past failures in light of another regime change.


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Aaron Freeman
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