The Atlanta Falcons’ playoff chances are evaporating right before their very eyes, following a third consecutive loss on Sunday when they blew a 14-point third-quarter lead to lose to the Indianapolis Colts by a score of 24-21.
The team may become the sixth team since 1978 when the league went to a 16-game schedule to start a season 5-0 and miss the playoffs. In that span, 54 other teams have started as impressively and managed to avoid the late-season collapse to make the postseason. Do the math and that means that six weeks ago, the Falcons’ chances of making the playoffs stood at 92 percent.
Now that the team has fallen to 6-4 those chances have decreased to 61 percent based off the past success of teams with the same record. Also worth noting is that 7-4 teams make the playoffs 71 percent of the time, while 6-5 teams make it 44 percent.
A win against the Colts would have given the Falcons a significant cushion down a home stretch of games that is fairly tough. Of the nine NFC teams sporting a 4-6 record or better in the wildcard race, the Falcons have the toughest remaining schedule.
Tougher Road Ahead Hurts Falcons Playoff Hopes
Their next six opponents sport a combined record of 40-20, thanks in large part to a pair of upcoming matchups against the the 10-0 Carolina Panthers.
The Falcons are one game ahead of the 5-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers for second place in the NFC South standings, although thanks to their head-to-head Week Eight overtime loss to the Bucs, it’s essentially a dead heat due to tiebreakers. The Bucs’ remaining schedule has a combined record of 33-27. Not to mention their 2-1 divisional record gives Tampa Bay a huge leg up since it essentially means that Atlanta really can’t afford to drop anymore divisional games.
The Falcons two other toughest wildcard contenders are the Minnesota Vikings (7-3) and Seattle Seahawks (5-5). The Vikings, who the Falcons play next week, have a combined opponent record of 34-25 over the next six weeks. The Seahawks have a lax schedule, as their remaining opponents sport a 30-30 record.
If the playoffs started tomorrow the Falcons would hold the sixth seed. But since the postseason doesn’t begin for another six weeks, their one-game cushion could quickly dissipate given relatively weaker schedules for the remaining contenders and the Falcons are slipping behind the eight ball on too many tiebreakers.
The Falcons are in a position where it’s going to be extremely unlikely that they make the postseason if they don’t win their next two games against the Vikings and Buccaneers. The next two outcomes for the Falcons will play a pivotal role in tiebreakers at year’s end in the fight for playoff seeding and it’s unlikely that the Falcons can afford a single slip-up.
Falcons Playoff Hopes Disappearing After Blown Opportunity Against Colts
The Falcons really blew a golden opportunity against the Colts, given they were well-rested and healthy coming off their bye week. The Colts were sporting backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck under center. Hasselbeck now remains undefeated as a starter so far in 2015 with wins over the Falcons, Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans. Given their recent performances, it’s fair to say that the Falcons have more in common with those latter teams than some of the playoff contenders that their overall record might otherwise suggest.
What makes things worse is that the Falcons’ performance against the Colts was their best since their blowout win over the Texans in Week Four, and yet it was still not good enough. The Falcons by no means played a great performance, but their ability to take an early 14-0 lead was in stark contrast to the sort of early offensive production the team had shown over its previous five outings.
The Falcons held the lead against the Colts for 35 minutes, nearly matching the combined 39 minutes that the team held a lead in their five previous outings.
A pair of costly turnovers really killed the Falcons’ chances on Sunday. The first came on the final play of the third quarter where running back Tevin Coleman tried to sneak through a hole but was met by Colts outside linebacker Erik Walden, who managed to pop the ball loose with a perfect hit on the running back.
Coleman’s Fumble Signifies Improvement Rookie Must Make Moving Forward
It marks Coleman’s second fumble of the season despite the fact that’s carried the ball a total of 57 times. That of course works out to a fumble every 28.5 carries. That’s by no means the worst rate in football, but it’s much closer to the bottom than one would hope. Interesting enough fellow rookies Ameer Abdullah (rate of 26.7 carries per fumble), Matt Jones (22.5 carries) and Melvin Gordon (32.3 carries) have been equally fumble prone this season.
When scouting Coleman after the draft, I noticed that ball security was a relatively minor issue. It was more noticeable that Coleman always carried the ball in his left arm regardless of whether it was the inside arm or not. On his fumble on Sunday, it was another example of Coleman toting the ball with his left arm despite running to the right. Walden was able to shed Jacob Tamme’s block and put a hit squarely on the ball with his helmet that jarred it loose.
That wasn’t the case on Coleman’s first fumble of the year against the Saints five weeks ago, where he correctly had the ball in his right arm while running to the right side. Ultimately it’s going to be a habit that the Falcons will need to break the young running back of over the course of his career. Unfortunately it’s probably something that won’t be seriously addressed until the offseason.
Fortunately, Falcons did not suffer too much from Coleman’s turnover. The Colts started with great field position at the Falcons 21-yard line on the ensuing series after the fumble and the Falcons defense made a big stop of their own. Safety Ricardo Allen snagged a goal-line interception, making an excellent play in coverage.
Hasselbeck attempted to hold him in the middle of the field by looking left at the outset of the play, but Allen never bit and perfectly read the quarterback’s throw when he looked right to try and hit wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. Even if Allen hadn’t jumped the throw, it’s likely that cornerback Desmond Trufant was in position to break it up as he too undercut Hilton’s route.
However the Falcons failed to capitalize on the turnover, which has become an all too consistent trend over the past six games. The Falcons scored no points on Sunday off three Colts turnovers. After starting the season scoring 40 points off eight turnovers in the first four games, the Falcons have scored just nine points on their last nine in the six games since.
Ryan’s Pick-Six Sets Off Barrage of Criticism
On their very next offensive possession the Falcons suffered another costly turnover, with Matt Ryan throwing a “gimme” pick-six over the middle to Colts linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. The Falcons were backed up on their own one-yard line thanks to the excellent job by wide receiver Donte Moncrief to down a Pat McAfee punt there. The Falcons ran a play-action fake on first down, but Ryan did not see Jackson drop into coverage off the backfield fake. The veteran Colts linebacker dropped right into the throwing lane on Ryan’s toss to Tamme, snatching the ball out of the air. He only had to run six yards before scoring the touchdown that tied the game 21-21 with 10 minutes to go.
It was the most glaringly bad play of Ryan on what proved to be another middling performance on Sunday for the eighth-year quarterback. There have been too many of those this year, prompting a deluge of criticism on twitter after the game in Ryan’s direction.
Ryan is certainly deserving of all the criticism he’s received this year. He might be in the midst of his worst season since 2009, when a six-game midseason stretch saw him throw 11 interceptions, prompting the Falcons to dial back their offense and embrace the conservative, dink-and-dunk style that became a hallmark of the Mike Smith era.
Criticism of Ryan Goes Too Far When Pushing For His Exit from Atlanta
However when the criticism of Ryan crosses into hyperbole occurs when any suggest that the Falcons should part ways with the quarterback after this season.
There’s no denying that Ryan is having a rough season and is in the midst of a slump of mediocrity. But it would be all too much of a knee-jerk reaction to suggest that because of that fact, suddenly the Falcons need to look for a new quarterback.
Carson Palmer and Philip Rivers both went through comparable slumps around the same point in their careers. While Kurt Warner was much older than Ryan is when he was benched for rookie Matt Leinart in Carolina after a 1-4 start in his eighth season in the NFL.
In the case of Palmer, a change in scenery and for the others, a change in coaches and/or coordinators helped resurrect them from the lulls they experienced. A successful transition under new head coach Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan hasn’t been immediate for Ryan, but more patience is merited.
Carson Palmer’s Cincinnati Exit a Good Comparison For Ryan
Perhaps it’s worth noting the parallels between Palmer and Ryan when discussing the latter’s potential departure. At age 31, Palmer led a struggling Bengals team to a 4-12 record in 2010. Immediately following that year, Palmer requested a trade out of Cincinnati and the Bengals management declined. He then took a hardline stance that he would retire rather than play another game for the Bengals and did just that once the Bengals refused to cop to his trade demands.
After the Bengals used a second-round pick on quarterback Andy Dalton in the ensuing draft, the Bengals traded Palmer to the Oakland Raiders midway through the 2011 season for first and second-round picks in the next two drafts. Palmer was middling in two seasons in Oakland before being dealt to the Cardinals a few weeks before the 2013 draft for a pair of late-round picks. Since arriving in the desert, Palmer is 24-8 as a starter and is in the midst of an MVP-caliber season in Arizona in 2015.
What’s ironic about how Palmer’s stint in Cincinnati ended was that one of the driving forces behind his desire to leave the city was due to all the poor personnel decisions the team had made over the years. However starting in 2011, the Bengals began to net much more positive results from their draft picks.
2010 draft picks like Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins quickly began to assert themselves as top-level starters on the defense. The Bengals 2011 draft netted them Dalton, wide receiver A.J. Green and guard Clint Boling to establish a foundation on offense. The following drafts netted other offensive difference-makers in guard Kevin Zeitler, tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard.
The Bengals were able to surround Dalton with the young, up and coming pieces that had been sorely missing around Palmer in 2010 when the offense was chock full of veterans like Cedric Benson, Reggie Kelly, Chad Johnson and Terrell Owens along with backup-level starters like Nate Livings, Kyle Cook and Dennis Roland on the offensive line.
With Dalton under center, the Bengals are 48-25-1 and will likely make their fifth consecutive trip to the postseason this year. In Palmer’s last 74 starts in Cincinnati, the team sported a 33-41 record and had two postseason appearances.
Yet the Bengals are still looking for that elusive first playoff victory under Dalton. One could at least attempt to argue that Palmer’s experience might have served Cincinnati well over the past four years rather than the young Dalton in January and potentially could have netted at least one win in that span.
Those that advocate moving on from Ryan after this season are probably hoping for a Dalton-esque scenario where the Falcons can nab a quality young passer in the middle of the second round and build around him much in the same way that the Bengals did. And also hope that the Falcons new, young quarterback will be able to avoid the postseason flameouts that have plagued Dalton the past four seasons.
There is a certain amount of logic to it, especially when you consider that trading Ryan would relieve the Falcons from committing the nearly $51 million in their cap space through the 2018 season at the quarterback position. Last year’s 50th pick (Buffalo Bills cornerback Ronald Darby) is set to count roughly $3.75 million against his team’s salary cap between 2016 and 2018.
The logic is that the $47 million in cap space you free up, coupled with the high draft picks will give you much more latitude to build up the young talent. The Bengals used the two high picks they received in the Palmer trade on cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and Bernard.
Chances of Falcons Finding Better Quarterback Than Ryan Very Low
However what the people using such logic are missing is just how hard it is to find a quarterback of Dalton’s caliber. Despite the Bengals current 8-2 record, few would call Dalton a “franchise” quarterback up to this point. But even considering that, Dalton is historically one of the best second-round quarterback success stories of the past few decades. But for every Dalton, Drew Brees, Derek Carr or Jake Plummer that gets mined in the second round, there are four or five passers that turn into Chad Henne, Jimmy Clausen, Quincy Carter or Charlie Batch.
Once one dives into draft history, the chance of finding a second-round quarterback as good as Dalton is at best 25 percent. The probability that a team finds a quarterback in any round that has a career on par with Ryan has done over the past eight years is less than 10 percent.
Rather than looking at the selection of Dalton as some sort of historical course correction for the Bengals, instead one should look at their successful drafting over the past five years as the real cause of their success.
That’s even further evidenced when one looks at what the Bengals have bought in free agency with the extra space that trading Palmer and his $118 million contract netted. Since letting go of Palmer, the Bengals biggest free-agent additions have included linebackers Manny Lawson and James Harrison, cornerbacks Nate Clements and Terence Newman and running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. None of which exactly filled huge roles on either side of the ball in their brief stints in Cincinnati.
Superior Drafting Led to Bengals Improvements Under Dalton
Much like Palmer, Ryan has been forced to play on a Falcons team that has not done a particularly great job drafting over the past five years. While the Falcons “won” the 2015 draft, that ostensibly was their first really strong draft in a number of years. In a one-to-one comparison, the Falcons’ 2015 class is equivalent to the Bengals’ 2010 class that started to get the ball rolling in the right direction as opposed to the more finished product that has occurred with steady drafting by Cincinnati over the past five-plus years.
While their 2015 record may suggest otherwise, the Falcons are basically beginning full-fledged rebuild of their roster. As I’ve reiterated multiple times over the past year, the reason why the Falcons struggled the past two seasons had just as much if not more to do with poor drafting as it did with bad coaching. While Dan Quinn has mostly been deemed to be an upgrade on the sidelines, it doesn’t mean that he can wave a magic wand and erase the multiple years of poor drafting and bad free-agent moves that have plagued the Falcons front office in recent years.
The Falcons need to buckle down and reach a point where the good personnel moves far outweigh the bad ones, which hasn’t been the case since the earliest years of general manager Thomas Dimitroff.
It was notable on Sunday that after the Falcons went up 21-7 in the third quarter, Ryan dropped back to pass 20 more times in that game. By my count, he saw significant pressure on half of those dropbacks. The Falcons offensive line really struggled to handle the Colts blitz, which may or may not be a side effect of having an inexperienced center in Mike Person anchoring the line. Too many free rushers were able to tee off on Ryan and it led to some bad throws.
Falcons Have Too Many Issues to Focus Solely on the Quarterback
That’s not an excuse for Ryan, who deserves most of the criticism he’s already received this season and will continue to see over the next several days or weeks. But it’s hard to imagine very many quarterbacks succeeding when pretty much every blitz the opposing team throws at them successfully creates pressure.
Ryan may or may not have the sort of late-career resurgence that we’re currently seeing with Palmer and have seen with Rivers and Warner. But I would certainly bet that the odds are much higher of that occuring than the Falcons stumbling upon a better version of Andy Dalton in next year’s draft should they decide to find a new starter as many advocate.
Getting rid of Ryan won’t fix the offensive line’s protection issues. Nor will it cause Coleman to hang onto the football or prevent Jalen Collins from getting beat on slants. It also won’t make the Falcons sack the opposing quarterback any more or stop the team from gifting opponents a series of third-down conversions thanks to bone-headed penalties. It also won’t stop the team from giving up a 31-yard gain on a screen pass to Frank Gore to set up a game-winning field goal.
All of those issues contributed to the Falcons losing to the Colts on Sunday in addition to Ryan’s issues. If or when those issues get resolved and Ryan still is playing poorly, then that might be the time where it’s worth entertaining the idea of trading him.