The Atlanta Falcons were finally able to snap their six-game losing streak with a 23-17 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday. During that span of losing that has dominated the past two months of the Falcons season, nobody within the organization took as much heat as offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
Yet Sunday’s performance gave us a glimpse of the offensive identity that Shanahan hopes to build. That glimpse came on the team’s opening drive, which marked the first time all year that the Falcons ended their initial possession with a touchdown.
One nine called plays (with one wiped out by penalty), the Falcons utilized “21” personnel eight times and used a pair of tight ends in “22” personnel once. For those that don’t know, the numbers “21” and “22” refer to the number of running backs and tight ends, respectively, in the personnel grouping. “21” indicates two running backs and one tight end (and subsequently two wide receivers) while “22” indicates two backs and two tight ends (with one wide receiver).
On the opening possession the Falcons showed some semblance of balance, running the ball three times versus six called passes. One of those runs was nullified by a holding call, making the official count two runs versus six passes. That seems overwhelmingly pass heavy, but it’s notable that it didn’t stop the Falcons from utilizing play action on three of their called passes. The team gained 46 combined yardage on those three play-action passes, an average of 15.3 yards per attempt. Compare that to the other three passes, which gained 26 combined yards or 8.7 yards per attempt.
The Falcons have struggled to generate big plays this year, with their explosive potential predicted on play-action passing. The team’s lone play of 20 or more yards on the opening series came off a play-action bootleg where quarterback Matt Ryan hit wide receiver Julio Jones on a cross for a 23-yard gain.
To what should no one’s surprise any longer, the Falcons’ chances of scoring a touchdown dramatically go up when they are able to get such big plays. So far this year, drives that include a 20-plus-yard play lead to scores 67 percent of the time versus 20 percent on drives that do not include an explosive play. So it should not be a coincidence that the Falcons’ two other 20-yard plays came on separate drives later in the game that generated 10 more points for the team.
While the opening series was a positive step for Shanahan’s offense, it will only prevent the wolves from circling for a few days. After all, many will point out the discrepancy between the Falcons’ ability to score on that opening series and their struggles to generate points on subsequent drives. Simply put, if Shanahan can do that to start the game, why can’t he keep doing it?
Lack of Execution Problematic For Falcons Offense Under Shanahan
But to be fair to Shanahan, often times offenses stall due to poor execution as opposed to poor play-calling. This is a known fact once you start to dive into more tape over the years. This was evidenced on the Falcons’ two subsequent first-quarter possessions.
The Falcons rolled out their “21” personnel to start their second possession on the first two plays, gaining three yards on a check down to Devonta Freeman before being followed up by a missed opportunity on a throw to Jones. The Falcons’ star couldn’t nab a throw over the middle from Ryan. It should’ve easily been a first down on a 13-yard gain if Jones caught the ball but also could’ve been much more. Jones had a pathway to get many more yards after the catch if he managed to snag the ball in stride, which was a blown opportunity to get another big play on consecutive drives. On third down the Falcons used “11” personnel to increase pass protection with seven blockers but tight end Jacob Tamme whiffed on a blitz pickup of Jaguars safety Jonathan Cyprien, drawing the hold which forced Ryan to throw it away.
The next Falcons possession started with “21” personnel on a toss to Freeman that gained four yards. It could’ve been more if right guard Chris Chester didn’t get turned around off the snap and fail to hit his assignment to spring Freeman on the second level. On second down, the Falcons split fullback Patrick DiMarco out wide in their “21” package, dialing up a naked bootleg and rollout to Ryan’s right. But the Falcons quarterback missed an open Jones on a cross that should’ve been an easy 16-yard completion. On third down with “11” personnel, left tackle Jake Matthews was bull-rushed by defensive end Chris Clemons, forcing Ryan to step up in the pocket. But when he looked for the check down to DiMarco, the Falcons fullback was still engaged in pass protection and Ryan was forced to tuck it and run before Clemons tackled him from behind after a two-yard gain.
Lack of execution plagued the Falcons on those two drives and has been too often a culprit for this offense all season long. But that doesn’t completely absolve Shanahan from blame for the offensive stagnation in 2015.
One of the biggest criticisms of Shanahan’s offense stems from the belief that is not a perfect fit for the skills of Ryan. That criticism is fair to a certain extent, as the aforementioned rollout is indicative of some of the problems Ryan is having this year. On that play, Ryan did not do a great job setting his feet to throw an accurate pass to Jones. The Shanahan offense has asked Ryan to roll out quite a bit this year and it hasn’t consistently led to positive gains for the team. It may be fair to say that Ryan isn’t at his best when he’s asked to constantly throw on the run.
However it’s difficult to put too much blame on Shanahan. Moving Ryan out of the pocket wasn’t a huge problem earlier in his career under former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey. In fact, the big knock back then had less to do with Ryan’s inability to throw on the move but rather that Mularkey’s rollouts too often cut the field in half, limiting the number of targets Ryan had to throw to in critical throwing situations. The majority of Shanahan’s called rollouts and bootlegs come on first or second down when the Falcons are trying to sell the run.
Ryan’s continued inaccuracy while throwing on the move due to sloppy mechanics fuels speculation that he’s been dealing with an undisclosed injury this year. I can’t say for certain, but at this point, it would not be surprising if that is indeed the case. Yet regardless, if Shanahan is back in 2015, then improving his mechanics while throwing on the move is something the eight-year veteran quarterback is going to have to clean up this offseason.
It’s a key aspect of Shanahan’s offense, like it or not. There is nothing inherently wrong with Shanahan’s offense when it’s executed properly. It’s not flashy as it is built on a balanced attack and play-action passing to generate those explosive plays. But while Shanahan continues to face score and scrutiny from the fan base, few have factored in how head coach Dan Quinn figures into the equation.
Shanahan’s Offense a Fit With Dan Quinn’s “Seahawksian” Philosophy
There are no frills in Shanahan’s offense, but I doubt Quinn would have it any other way. During his days in Seattle under head coach Pete Carroll, the Seahawks weren’t a team that tried to out-scheme their opponents. Their success always tended to boil down to executing better than their opponents, with an offense largely built upon the back and thighs of running back Marshawn Lynch. The Seahawks’ passing game was built off that strong running game thanks to quarterback Russell Wilson’s mobility and ability to extend plays inside and outside the pocket, allowing the team’s lesser receiver talent to break open to generate plays down the field.
While few would consider the Seahawks to be an explosive offense, many might be surprised to know their 258 explosive plays of 20 or more yards is the sixth most of any team in the NFL since 2012. Their 206 explosive pass plays are tied for ninth with the New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers for the most in the league over the same span. Meanwhile the Falcons’ 220 explosive plays since 2012 are the fifth lowest total in the NFL.
Unfortunately Ryan isn’t like Wilson and won’t be as effective extending plays with his legs to allow his receivers more time to break open. Thus why it’s important that he gets better receivers than Wilson requires to be successful. Ryan will need wide receivers that can create on their own, generating that initial separation and then doing damage after the catch if the Falcons intend to reach to the upper echelons of the league in explosive potential.
Quinn’s overall offensive philosophy is no different from his defensive one, which is built upon a simplified scheme that asks players to rely less on their brains and more upon what they have from the neck down. The Seahawks are a testament to how such a “conservative” approach on either side of the ball can work when you have the right caliber players on the roster.
Thus it should be no surprise this week that rumors continue to swirl that the person likely to get ousted in Atlanta after this season is not the offensive coordinator but rather the general manager. After all, the Seahawks managed to build much of the core of their roster during the 2011 and 2012 drafts when the Falcons were among the league’s worst drafting teams.
Atlanta’s Impending Roster Turnover Could Mirror Seattle
Upon his arrival in Seattle in 2010, Carroll inherited a number of quality players including center Max Unger and defensive linemen Brandon Mebane and Red Bryant. But he quickly unloaded a number of the last few remaining holdovers from that 2005 Super Bowl team in quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, offensive tackle Sean Locklear, center Charles Spencer, defensive tackle Craig Terrill, cornerback Marcus Trufant, safety Jordan Babineaux and linebacker LeRoy Hill.
It took Carroll four years to build up that roster to a point where the Seahawks were competing in the Super Bowl thanks to a large number of successful draft picks, trades and free-agent acquisitions. The Falcons hope to copy a similar blueprint under Quinn, but it’s going to take a bit of time and patience as evidenced by the fruits of Quinn’s initial offseason in Atlanta.
Many might look at the team’s free-agent haul from this past spring as a lackluster group. But they would also forget that despite all the positive gains the Seahawks made initially under Carroll, not every roster move they made proved to be successful.
Many might not remember that the Seahawks signed wide receivers Mike Williams and Reggie Williams, tight end Chris Baker and guards Stacy Andrews and Ben Hamilton during Carroll’s initial free-agent signing period in 2010. They also acquired running back LenDale White and defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson in draft-day trades and also traded for defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer in August. Reggie Williams, White and Vickerson didn’t even make it to training camp before the Seahawks parted ways with them. Both Williamses, White and Balmer were early-round picks that the Seahawks hoped they could reclaim and all failed to produce. Even Mike Williams, who was relatively a success compared to the others, only managed to snag 83 receptions and three touchdowns in two years as a starter for the Seahawks. Yet their most infamous move of that offseason was a spring trade for Charlie Whitehurst, dubbing him their franchise quarterback.
After the lockout ended the following summer, the Seahawks signed wide receiver Sidney Rice, offensive guard Robert Gallery and defensive tackle Ryan Sims along with quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. Sims, another attempt at a reclamation project of a former first-round pick, lasted just a few weeks before he was cut. Jackson was added because the team had already soured on their franchise quarterback in Whitehurst in little more than 12 months.
The point is that not every move will be a home run, but a key for the Seahawks was their steady ability to draft well while their free-agent moves proved hit and miss. Another was their lack of complacency in churning over the roster, a subject I’ve written about many, many times before.
That overall complacency is likely what will be blamed as dooming Thomas Dimitroff’s eight-year run as the team’s general manager, prompting him to become the “fall guy” this offseason stemming from the Falcons’ recent slide over the past two months. Yet despite being one of Dimitroff’s biggest critics, I must again stress that his dismissal indicates that the Falcons will automatically start to get every move right.
New GM Candidates Paton and Kirchner Could Provide Front Office Shakeup
According to CBS Sports, his potential replacements are Minnesota Vikings assistant GM George Paton and Seahawks assistant director of pro personnel Trent Kirchner. Should either get the gig, they will face an equal amount of scrutiny moving forward.
Paton might be the front-runner, based purely off experience and the fact that he’s been a hot GM candidate for a number of years that might be finally due. He was the first person connected to the vacancy for the New York Jets GM spot last year but ultimately turned them down. Initial reports indicated that Paton was the guy that Quinn had pegged as the guy he wanted calling the shots in the front office, had the latter been hired as head coach. Later reports also indicated that Quinn had an eye for former Tampa Bay Buccaneers GM Mark Dominik. Paton also turned down an opportunity to interview for the GM vacancy with the Chicago Bears last year as well.
Those weren’t the first times Paton turned down GM opportunities over the years, as he passed up chances with the Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns and was also on the Carolina Panthers’ radar back in 2013. He was also in the mix for the St. Louis Rams’ vacancy that ultimately went to Les Snead in 2012.
Paton has spent the past nine years with the Vikings, starting out as director of player personnel (2007-11) before being promoted to his current gig as assistant to GM Rick Spielman in 2012. Paton’s connection with Quinn comes from their shared time in Miami when Paton was director of pro personnel for six years (2001-06) while Quinn was a defensive line coach under Nick Saban from 2005 to 2006. Paton got his start in pro scouting back in 1997 with the Chicago Bears, spending four years in their pro scouting department.
Kircher has a similar scouting background that leans more towards scouring the NFL rather than the college ranks. He got his start in the NFL as a scouting intern with the Seahawks in 2000 before becoming college scouting coordinator for the Washington Redskins in 2001. He moved onto to work as a pro scout for the next eight years in Carolina before taking his current gig as assistant director of pro personnel in Seattle in 2010.
The lack of a rich background in college scouting for either candidate could make for an interesting dynamic in the Falcons personnel department in the coming months. Certain should either get Paton or Kirchner get the job, they will be afforded the opportunity to hire their own people to fill any front-office vacancies. But most front-office turnover occurs after the draft in May, which means several current Falcons front office members could potentially hang onto the current roles for several more months even if Dimitroff is fired.
Assistant GM Scott Pioli, director of player personnel Lionel Vital and director of college scouting Steve Sabo would be the most pertinent names to keep an eye since they are the most prominent members of the scouting department. The former two have very close ties to Dimitroff and Sabo joined the team in 2010. Given his current capacity, Sabo should have the most job security at least through the 2016 NFL Draft.
Regardless of GM Change, Falcons Roster Still Need Work
Whatever upheaval the Falcons undergo this offseason won’t change the reality that everyone within the organization will face greater scrutiny next year. The win over the Jaguars should help the Falcons regroup somewhat from their six-game slide but with two games left, Quinn hopes to avoid becoming the first head coach in NFL history to start a season 5-0 and wind up with a losing record.
Should he earn that dishonor, it will only put greater pressure on him to get things turned around sooner rather than later, regardless of a change in offensive coordinator, general manager or wherever. With the Falcons opening a new stadium in 2017, owner Arthur Blank’s bottom line simply can’t afford to be too patient waiting for a turnaround.
Like the Seahawks, the Falcons will feature a lot of new faces on next year’s as they purge much the remaining handful of holdovers from the 2012 in the next few offseasons. Ryan, Jones, Jonathan Babineaux, Kroy Biermann, William Moore, Matt Bryant and Matt Bosher are all that remain from that team that reached the NFC Championship three years ago. It’s likely that only Ryan, Jones and Bosher will find themselves on the team when the new stadium opens up in less than two years.
The key moving forward for the Falcons will be if this upcoming offseason and in future ones prove to be as fruitful as they did for the Seahawks in Carroll’s first few years. If that is the case, one can expect things to only get better under Quinn’s guidance. If not, then it’s inevitable that someone else will be tasked with the assignment eventually.
I noted last November that Dimitroff should be shown the door along with former Falcons head coach Mike Smith. Now it seems the Falcons are a step closer to making this move come to fruition. But as I noted then, firing a guy doesn’t suddenly fix all the remaining problems on the Falcons roster, whether that person is Smith, Dimitroff or Shanahan.
At the end of the day, the Falcons’ salvation still rests with whoever is in charge of the team being able to properly identify and address the many holes that still remain.