In what has become an all too characteristic performance in recent weeks, the Atlanta Falcons lost again on Sunday to the San Francisco 49ers in a dull, listless 17-16 effort. The Falcons’ 2015 record now stands at 6-3 after an impressive 5-0 start with the team looking uninspiring since their Week Four blowout win over the Houston Texans.
The Falcons now have five consecutive weeks in which they’ve been at best competitive with some of the league’s weakest teams. Their opponents sported a combined 8-20 record in prior games going into their matchups against the Falcons, yet the Falcons have lost more than they’ve won.
However unlike past weeks the Falcons don’t have a multitude of untimely turnovers to blame for this week’s loss, having won the turnover margin against the 49ers on Sunday by snagging a pair of interceptions.
But the team was only able to turn those into three points, epitomizing their recent reversal of fortune. There was a time where the Falcons were among the league’s top units when it came to scoring off turnovers having scored 40 points off eight takeaways through the first four games of the year. Over the past five that has been just nine points on six turnovers.
Faced with the reality that not even turnovers can jump start the Falcons lackluster offense against the 49ers, there isn’t a ton of hopeful and inspiring words I can offer you going into the bye week. The team will simply have to do some soul-searching in their week off and hope the extra time will allow some key players to heal from injuries that limited them on Sunday.
Wide receiver Leonard Hankerson, safety William Moore, cornerback Robert Alford and linebacker Justin Durant were all forced to sit out against the 49ers after missing practice last week. All four players were missed on Sunday, once again exposing one more of the increasing number of flaws the Falcons have shown this year: a lack of depth.
But it would be too easy, if not downright naive, to suggest that the Falcons lost to the Niners because they were missing four starters. That would excuse the poor performances that many of their healthy players had on Sunday.
Running back Devonta Freeman was bottled up for just 12 yards on 12 carries. His performance was not as bad as his yards per carry suggests, as he was successful on four (or 33 percent) of his runs. But that still is not cutting it and a far cry from what the Falcons have gotten from him in their previous six contests where he’s been successful on roughly 51 percent of his 130 rushing attempts.
While quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones didn’t play poorly, they did not exactly play particularly well. As was the case with last week’s game, their box scores look far more impressive than what the eyeball test indicates. Besides the 54-yard bomb at the end of the first half, there isn’t a single memorable moment from either’s performances on Sunday.
Quinn Blows Late-Game Decision By Opting For Field Goal
The aforementioned bomb helped set up the Falcons’ lone touchdown of the game. Unfortunately the team’s two other big plays of 20 or more yards led to a pair of field goals rather than touchdowns. Both of the latter two drives stalled in the red zone with a batted pass by 49ers defensive end Tony Jerod-Eddie breaking up a Ryan pass on third down on the first of the pair midway through the second quarter. Then a questionable decision by head coach Dan Quinn essentially cost the team the touchdown on the second drive late in the fourth quarter.
Given the stream of questionable coaching decisions made by former head coach Mike Smith in recent years, it should be no surprise that I like many Falcons fans am sensitive to these scenarios.
Frankly calling it questionable is being generous to Quinn, who opted to settle for a 19-yard field goal on 4th-and-goal from the 49ers one-yard line with less than three minutes to go in the fourth quarter with the Falcons down four points. Quinn, believing that his defense would be able to get a quick stop to give the team another chance to get the game-winning score, got conservative and the team paid for it.
He made the all-too-common error in thinking that kicking two field goals in addition to getting a quick defensive stop was a much easier proposition than scoring a touchdown from the one-yard line.
Quinn’s error in judgment was in no ways justified, but for a second let’s step into his brain and try to figure out why he did what he did. The Falcons first-year head coach was likely confident in his defense given that they had gotten stops on all four of the 49ers’ previous offensive possessions in the second half, two of which ended in turnovers.
The 49ers had only converted one of four third-down attempts up to that point in their four second-half possessions and had a combined time of possession of 9:46, or just about 2:26 per series. So there was reason to believe that with three minutes to go that the Falcons could get the ball back with roughly 30 seconds to go and have a handful of plays to get into field-goal range so kicker Matt Bryant could nail a game-winner with time expiring.
So Quinn wasn’t out of his gourd then and there with his decision to settle for the three points, but it was still the wrong call.
Quinn’s Bad Challenge Proved Costly
Compounding the issue was what had occurred five minutes earlier in the fourth quarter when Quinn made another poor decision to challenge the 49ers 4th-and-1 conversion on a fullback dive by Bruce Miller. While it certainly appeared that the officials gave Miller a favorable spot on the call, Quinn and the Falcons should have been well aware that there was very little chance that the call would be reversed upon a second look. Miller dove into a pile and it’s nearly impossible to get a clear angle with so many bodies in the way to see incontrovertible visual evidence to reverse that spot. I don’t have the exact figures in front of me, but I’d be willing to bet since the modern system of replay challenges was introduced in 1999, I could count on one hand how many times such a play has been reversed by officials.
In both instances, Quinn should simply know better. That lost timeout only appeared more wasteful when defensive end Vic Beasley snagged an interception on Blaine Gabbert’s underthrown pass two plays later. That timeout would have become useful at the end of the game when the Falcons were trying to get a defensive stop under three minutes as well as extremely valuable if the team had managed to do so and gotten the ball back with under a minute to go.
That’s what makes Quinn’s fourth-and-goal decision to kick worse. Had the Falcons possessed all three timeouts, settling for the field goal still wouldn’t have been the right call, but it would have at least been less bad of a call. Three timeouts plus the two-minute warning is a lot more favorable for the Falcons defense to give the offense another chance to score than two.
Ultimately the decisions in retrospect are completely backwards. Quinn’s decision to challenge the fourth-down spot was in essence him trying to win the game then there. Had the officials reversed their initial ruling, the Falcons could’ve taken over at the 49ers 46-yard line with roughly eight minutes to go in the game down four points. They would have had prime field position to score and retake the lead.
Then on the later fourth-down decision, Quinn essentially opted against winning the game outright by settling for three points with a four-point deficit and hoped that he’d get another opportunity down the line.
Neither thought process makes sense because there’s no reason to think that you’re going to outright win the game with eight minutes remaining. Even if the Falcons had gotten the ball back then and gotten the go-ahead touchdown, the Niners were likely to have at least one more possession to respond.
Instead the point where Quinn should have been in win now mode was with three minutes to go at the goal line. Thinking the Falcons were going to get another possession at that point was an iffy proposition at best. Better to go for it and even if you don’t get the score, the defense still has a chance to get a stop with the 49ers backed up on their goal line.
Had it been 4th-and-4 or 4th-and-6, perhaps Quinn’s decision to kick would have been a bit more defensible, but on 4th-and-1 it is inexcusable. With a $100 million quarterback, a $70 million wide receiver and the NFL’s leading rusher, the fact that Quinn didn’t have enough confidence in his offense to get one single yard is damning about the state of that side of the ball.
Quinn’s Decision Making Shows Lack of Confidence in Offense
So even though Quinn’s poor decision is going to be analyzed ad nauseam for the next two weeks before the Falcons face the Indianapolis Colts after the bye week, it’s that last point that is perhaps the biggest takeaway from this game.
Once you really begin to take a peek inside Quinn’s head, you can’t but to realize that he currently lacks confidence in this team’s offense. And despite the high profiles of Ryan, Jones and Freeman, it’s hard to blame him.
While on paper the offense has done some good things, the old eyeball test tells a different story. Over the past five weeks since the team has been on their slide, the Falcons have gained the sixth most amount of total yards per game on offense with 401.4. The Falcons have also possessed the ball the third most in that same span, averaging a time of possession of 33 minutes and 41 seconds.
But their 12 offensive turnovers are the worst in that span. Their 68.6 penalty yards per game over the past five weeks ranks as the tenth highest total in the league. Completing the set is that the Falcons have converted just eight of their 19 red-zone trips into touchdowns, a rate of just 42.1 percent, which is the sixth worst in the league since Week Five.
Those stats are telling because it paints the picture that most observers already know: the Falcons are moving the ball but not finishing drives with necessary points. The latter three categories are worth noting because a high rate of turnovers and penalties coupled with the inability to finish drives are all the hallmarks of an undisciplined and poorly coached team.
It may seem unfair to say that about Quinn in his first year as a coach, especially given that the team has a 6-3 record. And that statement is not meant to be a referendum on Quinn’s tenure as a whole, just an objective observation about how the team has looked the past five weeks. If I quoted the above stats without revealing the team, you’d probably presume that coaching and discipline might be a glaring issue.
Quinn will have plenty of opportunities moving forward to display his coaching prowess and no championships were ever won in the first nine weeks of the regular season.
But the frustration within the Falcons fan base is tangible given that much of the reasoning behind the dismissal of Smith at the end of last year was because of his inability to get the team out of their midseason rut. That team went on a similar six-game skid at this
same point last year, but managed to come out of the Week Nine bye with a palpable pulse in the second half of the season.
That didn’t ultimately save Smith’s job and it’d be ridiculous to suggest that Quinn’s job is on the line halfway through his first year in Atlanta. But for many of Smith’s biggest detractors, any flaw that the Falcons showed in 2014 was either a distant second to or a mere symptom of the coach’s poor decision making and leadership.
Through the first month of the 2015 season, those beliefs seemed validated. Fast forward five weeks later and those declarations seem a lot more tenuous and now whatever issues plague the Falcons seem to go beyond just the coaching.
Regardless of what is ultimately to blame, doubts are beginning to creep in on whether the Falcons are on the verge of squandering their 5-0 start in 2015. Since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, only five teams have begun a season at 5-0 and failed to make the playoffs.
The pressure will be mounting on Quinn for the next eight weeks to do his best to prevent the Falcons from becoming the sixth.