The Falcons must look elsewhere on offense.
Jeff Schultz penned an article Sunday claiming the Falcons' problem on offense has been Matt Ryan. While that may be catering to his audience a bit, Schultz inadvertently (or perhaps not) painted a picture of what the real problem is by quoting Vikings CB Captain Munnerlyn, who said, in short, "We knew what they were doing before they did it." In the NFL, that kind of information can be all that is needed (See: Spygate). Every team has tendencies, but telegraphing them to that extent is systemic failure, and that starts with the OC. Combine that with a QB that is doing his best to throw his team to victory and you have exactly what the Falcons have become: a team that started out on fire but burned out once there was enough tape to dissect. The defense, while not perfect, has been everything this team needed. The offense? Well, here's hoping Devin Hester was holding the Allspark this whole time.
Simple issue, complex fix.
As frustrating as this Falcons season has been, the reality is there have been some improvements in key areas. The defense is playing well. They're not a dominating unit, but they are easily a competent one with the ability to keep this team in close games, instead of costing them. The running game is dramatically improved as well. The biggest issues killing this team are penalties and turnovers. While Matt Ryan is rightfully getting more than his fair share of criticism, he's not alone. Fumbles by Coleman have killed several drives this year alone. The penalties have also killed drives, maybe none worse than the clipping call on Sunday that took a TD off the board for the Falcons. If this team is going to turn the season around and sneak back into the playoffs, they simply have to be more disciplined. While the issue itself is that simple, I'm afraid that the fix is probably not.
Let Ryan loose.
Atlanta has two options for the last several games, and fire Shanahan is not one of them. They can either let Ryan loose and allow him to freely operate the offense, or they can slowly morph him into the west coast quarterback that Shanny wants with all of the growing pains that goes along with it. The transition almost looked seamless with a 5-0 start, but that simply bloated the expectations that we had from the beginning. If the Falcons are to make the playoffs after losing these last four games, we've got to #FreeMattRyan, get Freeman back, and continue playing stellar defense. But if we're being realistic, we're probably better off waiting until next year after another offseason of additional talent.
It's all execution.
How many times have we seen the Falcons gliding down the field, only to be stopped by a careless penalty, a bad fumble, or an errant Matt Ryan throw? How many times have we see a defender standing in the way of Adrian Peterson or glued to a receiver, only to fail on the tackle or fall a step behind at the wrong time? The Falcons need to be coached better, for certain, but ultimately it comes down to players turning their chances into worthwhile plays. The Falcons are losing a lot of games because of a small handful of truly bad plays, and if they eliminate those, there's no reason why they can't hang around in the playoff conversation until the end, Panthers' intimidating win streak and roster be damned.
The passing offense is pathetic.
Despite the existence of Julio Jones, Kyle Shanahan has failed to put together a consistent passing offense. He has always produced an unstoppable run game, but has only once or twice been able to produce so much as an average pass game. As Caleb mentioned, opposing defenses have figured out the offense. Kyle Shanahan has failed to allow Ryan do what he does best, and Falcons fans are now fondly remembering Dirk Koetter and even Mike Mularkey. The rest of the team is good enough to get to the playoffs, but Atlanta's best offensive connection has been schematically limited to ineffectiveness. The Falcons will not make the playoffs if Shanahan fails to tailor the offense to the personnel.