It wasn't supposed to end like this. Following their outstanding performance against Carolina, everyone expected the Falcons to end their season with a bang. Rumors have been circulating about Drew Brees and Sean Payton not being back next season, and nobody had forgotten about New Orleans soundly defeating them back in October. This was supposed to be another morale boosting win against the worst New Orleans team in the Brees-Payton era.
Matt Ryan ends down year on a disappointing note
Instead, Matt Ryan wasted several opportunities and Drew Brees consistently made impressive downfield throws. It was another classic Falcons-Saints game, where Ryan couldn't take full advantage of a dreadful defense. He missed a wide-open Julio Jones downfield for an easy touchdown on the first drive. There have been some games that an opposing defense's pass rush was too overwhelming. This wasn't one of the games, as Ryan had time to make proper reads and throw precise passes.
Overthrows continued to plague him, as he missed Jones and Roddy White in the first half on what could have been multiple thirty-yard passes. After putting together his most impressive performance of the season last week, Ryan reverted back to missing excellent opportunities and making one fatal mistake by throwing his sixth interception in the fourth quarter this season. It was another odd decision, as Ryan wasn't being pressured and should have recognized that Devonta Freeman was already well covered. Jamarca Sanford read his eyes and caught him staring down the Pro Bowl running back. This was another head-scratching mistake that a veteran quarterback can't be making in critical situations.
Underwhelming performances across the board
There weren't many standout players from yesterday's lackluster performance. Almost everything that occurred against Carolina vanished on both sides of the ball. Roddy White was anonymous, until he dropped a wide-open pass that would have been a big completion. Justin Durant appeared to be two steps behind on several plays. Although the entire pass-rush doesn't fall on his shoulders, Vic Beasley faded after forcing one hit on Brees in the first quarter. Travaris Cadet laid a nasty blindside hit that may have affected him.
They didn't capitalize on a Saints offensive line that didn't have stud left tackle Terron Armstead or rookie right tackle Andrus Peat. Brees was never forced out of the pocket and kept completing downfield throws with relative ease. While Benjamin Watson didn't quite have a repeat performance, he still made his presence known. Charles Godfrey filled in admirably for Ricardo Allen, but that still wasn't enough to keep Watson out of the end zone. Once again, it can't be stressed enough how comfortable Brees looked inside the pocket. His throws were accurate all game long, getting the likes of Cadet and Brandon Coleman involved. That's what happens when you can't create pressure on a future Hall Of Fame quarterback.
Atlanta's defense simply couldn't get off the field. New Orleans converted six of ten attempts on third down. When no pass rush is generated, Atlanta's defense gets notoriously torched because Payton constantly utilizes play-action and always wants to target the middle of the field. His game plan will always feature running backs in the passing game as well. Paul Worrilow played almost every snap, which seemed like a strange decision. Last week's performance showed how much faster and reactive the defense was with Nate Stupar alongside Durant. It wasn't surprising to see the defense struggle with Worrilow marshaling the defense again.
Looking towards the future
While Dan Quinn deserves credit for implementing new philosophies, he's done some odd things with snap counts. Charles Godfrey went from being inactive against San Francisco to playing 31 snaps against Indianapolis. Stupar would make a few impressive plays in 25 to 30 snaps of action, and then only play special teams on the following week. After saying younger players will receive more playing time, Malliciah Goodman, Jalen Collins, and Roberson Thereize failed to receive a single snap. With better talent on the roster next year, Quinn will need to be more consistent with his rotations.
There are many things to be relieved about going into 2016. Not having to endure Kroy Biermann and Tyson Jackson, as edge rushers within Quinn's base defense should be refreshing. That played a big role behind Atlanta's19 total sacks this season. Even against backup tackles, neither player made an impact from a pass-rushing standpoint. Whether they sign a disgruntled veteran like Mario Williams or break the bank for an outstanding pass rusher such as Olivier Vernon, the pass rush can only improve going into next season.
Regardless of how well the run defense played this season, everyone knows the NFL is a passing league. That is why the signings of Soliai and Jackson received minimal applause.They produced the fourth fewest sacks in the 2013 season. Not signing or drafting any edge rushers played a pivotal role behind being them being one of the worst defenses ever in 2014 and failing to make the playoffs in 2015. It has left Thomas Dimitroff burning on the hot seat.
Front office changes to improve a flawed roster
The idea of signing several players for depth purposes proved to be largely ineffective for 2015, as the free agent class did not make a major impact. When they decided to spend some money, it was on Brooks Reed, whose playing time has dramatically decreased over the past few weeks. The draft will always be the most important element towards building a successful roster. Free agency needs to be viewed as more than a supplement. It can change the landscape of certain teams. Quinn should know that from Seattle's brilliant decision behind signing Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. They have become one of the most lethal duos in the league.
Drastic changes are going to be needed across the board. Replacing underwhelming players such as Worrilow and Andy Levitre will be crucial for next season.
Gino Gradkowski didn't do anything overwhelming to stake his claim as a starter, sadly. His past stints at Baltimore and Denver won't inspire any confidence either. Edge rusher, linebacker, and center have to be considered as the biggest priorities.
It was another bizarre season for Atlanta that featured incredible highs (victories over Carolina and Philadelphia) and demoralizing lows (losses to San Francisco and Indianapolis). For the fourth consecutive season, they finished with a loss inside the Georgia Dome, leaving a drab pall over Dan Quinn's first season. To go 1-5 in the division and get swept by a mediocre New Orleans team won't be forgotten. What appeared to be a "Quinndrella" beginning (credit Grant Harrison for the phrase) ended up becoming another season of questioning the front office. When any general manager's job security is examined at the end of two consecutive seasons, it should be a revealing sign that changes need to be made immediately.
Weekly amateur mistakes of botched snaps and blown coverages across the middle showcase a lack of overall talent. Someone needs to take responsibility for the Falcons losing seven out of their last nine games. Kyle Shanahan deserves another season to work with actual playmakers at wide receiver and a starting-caliber center. That leaves Dimitroff as the only other culprit. Quinn has done his share of changing the Falcons' culture, but a culture change can only be fully implemented by removing all the pieces of a failed process.