Instead of watching the Atlanta Falcons fight back, the wheels have fallen off. The Falcons have lost five of their last six games. They cannot score against any defense, even though the team is healthy, the defense is good, special teams has been consistent, and the run game is great.
The passing offense has been been atrocious for weeks. Turnovers, inaccurate throws, and predictability have haunted this team. While Atlanta's supporting cast could use some improvement, the passing offense has taken a decidedly swift step back since last year. How can a Pro Bowl quarterback and a Pro Bowl wide receiver look so ordinary, so quickly?
In my opinion, the problem has to originate with one of either two people: QB Matt Ryan or OC Kyle Shanahan.
Simply put, Ryan is having his worst year as a pro. He looks uncomfortable playing, and his mechanics have been a mess all season. He has been asked to do a number of things he has never excelled at, such as throwing on the run, and a lot of bootlegs. Ryan has always been at his best running an uptempo offense, but oddly he is only able to run those in the last few minutes of a half. That is also usually the only time the Falcons are able to quickly score.
That is not to say that Ryan does not deserve blame for the state of the offense. His decision-making has been terrible. His deep ball has been laughable. He looks as if he has regressed, painfully so. He is either falling apart at an irregularly early time in his career, or he is being forced into an offensive scheme that doesn't match his strengths.
Another week has passed, and the Falcons attempt to execute the same basic, inefficient pass game. If there have been any changes made to improve the passing attack, I have not noticed it. Neither had Captain Munnerlyn, the Minnesota Vikings defender who picked off Ryan on Sunday. According to Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Munnerlyn knew exactly what to expect.
Munnerlyn: "I knew if I was getting leverage on the outside, they run inside routes. If I’m inside, they run outside routes. I just kind of anticipated the routes since I had outside leverage and I read (Ryan’s) eyes and I read the play."
Munnerlyn said after studying tape of the Falcons during the week, "There’s different tendencies that I read with this team. I just felt like (Nick Williams) was going inside and I jumped the route."
While the run game has been nearly unstoppable, opposing defenses figured out the pass game in just a few weeks. It feels like not even two months ago I wrote about the Washington Post discussing Shanahan as a "once-in-a-generation" coach.
Now the problems at Shanahan's prior coaching stops, previously shrugged off due to the personnel and ownership, feel frighteningly familiar.
Remember the very public skirmish between Shanahan and QB Donovan McNabb in 2010? Shanahan apparently did not want McNabb. The situation was mismanaged, albeit a bit on both sides, and created a divide in the locker room. There were leaked reports than McNabb could not grasp the offense.
Pro Football Talk wrote about McNabb's agent responding these reports.
"While Donovan’s feelings about Washington remain the same, the Shanahans — both Mike and more specifically Kyle — have made this an extremely difficult relationship to maintain," the lengthy statement began. "Their comments have been beyond disrespectful and unprecedented for a six-time Pro Bowl quarterback such as Donovan."
The meat of the statement takes aim at "leaked reports" that McNabb couldn’t grasp Shanahan’s offense.
"I believe there is tension between Donovan and Kyle that’s rooted in the fact that Donovan has suggested modifications to Kyle’s offense based on intricacies Donovan has learned in his NFL career," Smith writes. "For example, Donovan has asked all year that the team run more screen passes to help manage the pass rush more effectively. Ironically, Kyle decided to employ Donovan’s suggestions after he unceremoniously benched him on Sunday.
"After Donovan quickly led the Redskins down the field and scored what appeared to be the game saving drive against Tampa Bay, Kyle was quoted as saying ‘He’ll [McNabb] never take another snap for me again.’ Remember that statement came after Donovan led the Redskins on one of their best drives of the entire season."
I wanted to trim down on that quote, but there is so much there that is reminiscent of the rumor that Shanahan started the Colts game with three straight passes to Roddy White to quiet the critics. The entire drive was allegedly wasted just so fans, and Roddy White, would stop asking for Roddy to be more involved in the offense.
According to Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com, McNabb discussed Shanahan last season around when he was named the Browns offensive coordinator. He generally supported his old coordinator during this interview, but importantly had the following to say:
"He's very knowledgeable about the game and knows his offense. But will he be willing to adapt his offense to whichever quarterback [the Cleveland Browns] draft? That's what he'll have to do to be successful.''
The same article highlighted McNabb's prior, consistent critique, and how he believed Shanahan may fit in Cleveland.
McNabb has been very vocal about his discord with Kyle and Mike Shanahan, saying that they tried to change his mechanics and force him into their scheme instead of vice versa. McNabb ripped the two as recently as a 2012 in a interview with ESPN's FirstTake, saying they'd put their egos ahead of what was best for quarterback Robert Griffin III.
McNabb said Shanahan, 34, could be a good selection for the Browns, but questioned if he has enough experience to run the show for a first-time head coach in Mike Pettine and a defensive one at that.
I am starting to wonder who fits in a Shanahan offense. He has succeeded in developing an elite run game with limited talent, but has otherwise had a shaky (at best) track record with quarterbacks. In his first two years as an offensive coordinator, he helped Matt Schaub put up impressive numbers (for Matt Schaub) on Gary Kubiak's Houston Texans. However, Schaub had similar numbers after Shanahan left. Shanahan crafted together an impressive rookie season from RGIII, but that did not last long, and did not end well.
In fact, occasional reporter Jason LaCanfora blamed the dysfunction in Washington almost entirely on Kyle Shanahan. Below are a few quotes relevant to the state of the Falcons offense.
"[Kyle Shanahan] has no relationship at all with (quarterback Robert Griffin II). So how could it work?"
Furthermore, Kyle Shanahan has long had a very strained relationship with Griffin, sources said, with one staff member saying Shanahan treats Griffin like, "a JV quarterback."
Shanahan appears to have a pretty limited list of successful relationships with his starting quarterbacks. While it is hard to know how Ryan's relationship is with Shanahan, the slow, predictable pass offense was the main reason behind last month's player summit. The offensive game plan has, of course, not changed since then.
"Kyle is a big problem there. He is not well liked."
Several members of the organization said Kyle Shanahan was a cause of internal strife, surrounding himself with young coaches with inferior experience, and allowing for no checks and balances of outside voices in the offensive coaching rooms.
This is concerning, as Shanahan is likely given wide latitude with Atlanta's offense, as Quinn probably sticks to the defense. And if the following is true, the rumors about Shanahan making a point with those Roddy White targets should not be surprising.
"Kyle knows ball, but he is just so petty and he picks fights and holds grudges over small stuff," the source said. "He's a mountain out of a molehill guy, and he's got entitlement syndrome. That's why we ended up hiring all of his close friends and buddies, so no one can challenge him. But it makes you worse in the long run, because there is no accountability."
After Shanahan forced his way out of Cleveland, Tom Reed of Cleveland.com got the following quote regarding friction throughout the team.
Browns general manager Ray Farmer said it's natural for friction to exist between coaching staffs and front offices and "really, really good teams . . . work through those things."
Shanahan of course, asked to be let out of his contract after only one season with the Browns. Shanahan appears to have had a toxic impact in both Washington and Cleveland, and things are off to a stumbling start in Atlanta. If we are debating whether the problem is either Matt Ryan or Kyle Shanahan, I think Shanahan's prior stops should be considered. Shanahan trying to make Ryan fit into his offensive scheme and running into trouble would make much more sense than Matt Ryan forgetting how to play quarterback at a high level.
What is Shanahan's plan? To at some point get a quarterback to act like 2010 Matt Schaub? He seems to outright refuse to correctly utilize Ryan, and is wasting away prime years for Ryan and Julio Jones. Based on his history, the only fix can be made by Dan Quinn. Will he get rid of Shanahan? He appears to have turned the offense entirely over to someone who refuses to adjust his scheme to the team's veteran quarterback. This looks to be a bad hire, and Quinn needs to fix this sooner rather than later. With the early returns on Shanahan, Quinn may still be in the learning process as a rookie head coach.
If Quinn has got what it takes to win over the long-term, he will jettison Shanahan.