Perhaps it was portentous that the last game of the Atlanta Falcons’ disappointing 2015 season came down to an interception thrown by quarterback Matt Ryan.
The fourth-quarter interception by Ryan was not the only mistake made by the Falcons in their 20-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday that cost the team a chance at a winning season under first-year head coach Dan Quinn. But it certainly crushed any hopes that the team would begin the calendar year of 2016 with a momentous win to carry over into a critical offseason.
After generating a defensive stop, the Falcons took over at their 24-yard line with 1:47 remaining in the game with all three timeouts for a chance to drive down the field and set up a potential game-winning field goal from kicker Shayne Graham.
This was a scenario that Ryan has found himself in many times before. Seven times over the course of his first five years in the NFL, Ryan and the Falcons found themselves in similar circumstances and were able to march down the field for the game-winning play. Six times their fate hinged on the leg of Matt Bryant and their “money” kicker didn’t fail them.
All of it went a long way to fuel the mystique behind Ryan’s moniker of “Matty Ice,” thanks to his ability to remain cool, calm and collected in clutch moments.
Ryan and Falcons Plagued by Recent Struggles in the Clutch
But in recent years when the Falcons have found themselves in similar clutch situations, their quarterback hasn’t reliably delivered. Since 2012, the Falcons have found themselves in such clutch situations in the final two minutes four times, but only managed to pull off a win once.
That came in the team’s season-opening overtime win over the Saints in 2014. In that game, Ryan led the team down the field in the final 80 seconds to set up a 51-yard field goal from Bryant to send the game into overtime. They pulled off the win in extra time thanks to a fumble by Saints wide receiver Marques Colston, gifting the Falcons with favorable field position to allow Bryant to hit a game-winner from 52 yards less than three minutes into overtime.
They were in a very similar situation just two years ago in their season-ending loss to the Carolina Panthers. Ryan connected on a quartet of throws to wide receivers Roddy White and Harry Douglas to start that drive, but a botched snap by center Joe Hawley with 31 seconds to go killed any chance of the Falcons to set up a potential game-winning kick from Bryant.
Earlier this season against the Indianapolis Colts, Ryan had a chance to lead the Falcons in the clutch with 47 seconds left in the game as the Falcons once again saw themselves down a field goal. However two critical drops by wide receivers Leonard Hankerson and Julio Jones (albeit the latter “drop” was really just a great defensive play by Dwight Lowery) coupled with poor pass protection ruined that drive. Ryan heaved up a desperation hail mary in the final seconds, which was picked off by tight end Coby Fleener, sealing the Colts victory.
Ryan’s Interception Versus Saints Emblematic of 2015 Struggles
On Sunday against the Saints, the Falcons looked for a quick and easy profit to start their potential game-winning drive, leading to the interception. Running back Devonta Freeman leaked out of the backfield over the middle, preparing for a quick check down that should have netted the Falcons four or five yards. However Saints safety Jamarca Sanford read the play beautifully, undercutting Freeman and jumping in front of Ryan’s throw to pick it off.
Freeman probably could have done a better job attacking the ball rather than letting both Sanford and linebacker Ramon Humber converge on the throw. Even if Sanford hadn’t picked it off, Humber was in prime position to break up the throw. It appeared that Freeman was trying to split the two defenders to get downfield and get maximum yardage after the catch.
But regardless of whether Freeman didn’t have ideal position on the play, the responsibility of the turnover still lies exclusively at Ryan’s feet. He locked on Freeman from the start, staring him down and throwing a moment too late. That allowed both Sanford and Humber to read the quarterback’s eyes and make successful breaks on the throw. Even if Freeman had better position on the check down, it was a throw that Ryan shouldn’t have made.
Ryan’s 2015 season has been marred by turnovers as Sanford snagging the quarterback’s 16th interception, putting his season total for turnovers at 21. That matches a career-high set by Ryan in 2013. Then, Ryan turned the ball over 17 times (14 interceptions, three lost fumbles) over the final 11 games of the season when he lacked his primary target in Jones.
After the team’s 4-0 start this season, Ryan turned the ball over at least once every week with the sole exception being their Week Nine loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Ryan was reprieved that week as most of the blame of that loss rests at the head coach’s feet.
Although to be fair to Ryan, his turnover last week against the Panthers probably should have been officially credited to center Mike Person due to a high snap rather than the quarterback. Nonetheless after suffering two turnovers in the opening week and then zero over the next three games, Ryan has been credited with 19 turnovers over the past 12 games.
Ryan has been on stretches in the past where his turnovers came in bunches, notably in 2009 and 2013. But those previous bouts of inconsistency never were as prolonged as his 2015 struggles were. This year too many of Ryan’s interceptions came on errant throws and poor decisions, and too often at critical, game-defining moments.
Shanahan Easy Target Given Offensive Changes and Subpar Results
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan became a quick scapegoat to focus on as the cause of Ryan’s problems. If for nothing more than the simple logic that Ryan’s turnover problems seemed nonexistent until Shanahan’s arrival in Atlanta this year. Coupled with the team’s low point totals and red-zone inconsistency since their fast start in September, Shanahan became an easy patsy to pin much the offensive problems on.
It’s certainly true that Ryan often looked uncomfortable and indecisive in the first year in Shanahan’s system. There were many times where Shanahan’s frequent rollouts, bootlegs and limited usage of the no-huddle looked ill-fitted for Ryan based on his past. Throw in a less-than-gleaming resume and numerous contentious relationships with previous quarterbacks he had worked with in the past, it only took an effortless connection of the dots to labele Shanahan a “quarterback killer.”
But the lack of comfort should have been expected from the start. Ryan was adapting to a brand new system for the first time in his career. Yes, 2015 was not the first time that Ryan had to deal with a new offensive coordinator coming to Atlanta. But previous play-caller, Dirk Koetter, only tweaked the system of his predecessor, Mike Mularkey, rather than opting for the complete philosophical overhaul Shanahan is attempting at Quinn’s behest.
There have been growing pains as Ryan tries to adapt to this new system that puts more emphasis on the physical such as his arm strength and mobility rather than the cerebral with frequent audibles and Ryan dictating the offense from the line of scrimmage.
Mularkey discovered early on that Ryan’s greatest asset was his acute mind, often turning to the no-huddle offense in key situations such as the end of each half for Ryan to get the team out of slow starts. It’s why the Falcons ranked among the top-scoring teams in the second quarter in 2010 and 2012. Under Mularkey and Koetter, the no-huddle became the team’s trump card, something they could turn to whenever they needed to get out of any lull.
Shanahan largely took that power away from Ryan this year and it resulted in an offense that hasstruggled to score points throughout the season. And when the Falcons did find themselves in favorable scoring position, too often they blew those opportunities with untimely turnovers and mental mistakes.
That was the case once again on Sunday against the Saints with Freeman fumbling the ball at the goal line to start the fourth quarter, potentially taking points off the board. On their next possession, Falcons left guard Andy Levitre was flagged for unnecessary roughness penalty while taking a shot at a Saints defender downfield after the whistle on a critical third down. Instead of being in position for Graham to kick a 46-yard field goal to give the Falcons a three-point lead with less than three minutes to go in the game, they were backed up 15 yards and forced to punt it back to the Saints. Then of course, their next possession resulted in Ryan’s interception. The Falcons had three opportunities to potentially win Sunday’s game, yet each time they had the rug yanked out from under them.
Eliminating Mistakes and Instilling Discipline Offseason Priorities
It might be easy to chalk up their bad luck to the esoteric “Football gods” determining that the elusive bounce of the ball would go against the Falcons, as the divine arbiters of all things pigskin are well known to be fickle. But this isn’t a one-time occurrence, it’s been systemic throughout the 2015 season. Once a pattern repeats enough times it becomes clear that the fault lies solely with the Falcons, not the Football gods.
This weekly occurrence proved the downfall of a season that began with five consecutive wins and overwhelming odds to appear in the postseason. Of course those playoff hopes quickly evaporated after the team lost seven of their next eight games, culminating in the worst loss in recent memory when they were shut out by the Panthers in Week 14.
But the Falcons seemingly regained their footing the next week against the Jacksonville Jaguars, reclaiming divine favor when Blake Bortles’ potential game-winning touchdown pass sailed over the head of wide receiver Allen Hurns. That seemed even more apparent when the Falcons avenged their previous loss to the Panthers by beating them in Week 16, handing the best team in the league their first loss of the year after a 14-0 start.
With a chance to build off their late-season resurgence, the Falcons fell short to the Saints this past weekend. It will cause the team to regroup this offseason, prompting significant roster turnover and potentially more within the front office.
Improvements to personnel on both sides of the ball go without saying in terms of helping the Falcons reach the postseason next season. But other changes must also be made.
Hopefully one will be Shanahan adopting his predecessors’ proclivities to rely more on the no-huddle, uptempo attack that Ryan shined in previous year. That might help get Ryan more comfortable and hopefully help reduce the amount of turnovers to a more acceptable level next season.
It’s all part of the biggest improvement that Quinn and his staff must facilitate next year: instilling more discipline in the team. That was a hallmark of Mike Smith’s early days in Atlanta and he routinely got results as the Falcons were one the least penalized and turnover-prone teams in the league during Smith’s first five years in Atlanta.
That run ended in 2013 and 2014 where the Falcons moved much closer to the middle of the pack in terms of turning the ball over and being penalized. But things got demonstrably worse in the former category this year as the Falcons’ 30 turnovers finishes the year tied for the fifth-most in the league.
Improving ball security on the part of both the quarterback, runners and receivers will be prioritized during the offseason. If the Falcons can find ways to cut down on the drive and game-killing mistakes, there’s hope to believe that by the end of 2016, they will be in a much better place than where they are at the year’s outset.