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On Expectations, Success, and the Future

The Falcons have made franchise history on the back of a magical season. How did we get here, and where can we go in the future?

NFC Championship - Green Bay Packers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

I’d been thinking of writing this piece for a long time, even before I realized how special this Falcons team was. Initially, I thought I’d write it after the season had ended. Once the team made the playoffs, I decided I’d wait until they were eliminated from contention.

Fast forward to now, and they haven’t been eliminated. They’ve made it all the way to the big dance. These Falcons are in the Super Bowl.

Let’s say it one more time for emphasis, because it was hard for me to believe it at first.

The Atlanta Falcons are in the Super Bowl.

It’s a surreal experience to type that sentence. It’s an even more surreal feeling to know that it’s true.

This is only the second Super Bowl appearance for this franchise. Atlanta hasn’t enjoyed much postseason success throughout the years. But at long last—after the 1998 debacle, the numerous first round exits from 2008-2011, and the collapse in 2012—this team has another shot at claiming their first Lombardi Trophy.

People everywhere are all of the sudden talking about our Falcons, which is strange for us. We are used to being ignored by the NFL at large and by fans at large. Atlanta is generally an afterthought—and if you ask many casual fans on the street, they probably couldn’t tell you much about the team other than that Matt Ryan and Julio Jones are on it.

But make no mistake, this is an incredibly dangerous team that is capable of waxing any given opponent at any time. They didn’t just defeat their opponents in the Divisional and Championship rounds, they outclassed them.

Seattle hung with the Falcons for about one-and-a-half quarters before Atlanta’s offense took over the game. The Seahawks executed a picture-perfect opening drive and drained a ton of time off the clock. That didn’t save them from getting blown out in the second half to the tune of 36-20.

Green Bay fared even worse. They missed a field goal on their first possession, and Atlanta followed that up with a TD. The Packers then fumbled in the red zone on their next drive, and Atlanta scored again. It was 24-0 at halftime and the Packers would fall behind 31-0 before they even got on the scoreboard. This was with the great Aaron Rodgers at the helm, on a so-called “team of destiny”. It ended 44-21, with the Packers’ back-ups taking the final snaps.

Seattle and Green Bay are two media darlings: teams with decorated histories and loads of playoff success. Despite the Falcons’ historic season and unbelievable statistical pace, many continued to view them as little more than “lucky” or the infamous “regular season team”. They were used to the Falcons continuous playoff ineptitude under old head coach Mike Smith.

Well, Dan Quinn is not Mike Smith, and these are not like any Atlanta Falcons we’ve witnessed before. We can say it with confidence now: this is the best team the Atlanta Falcons have ever assembled, and they are great.

Expectations coming into this season were understandably low. Atlanta impressed out of the gate in 2015, only to implode in the most devastating way possible and miss the playoffs after starting 5-1. Historically, they were one of the only teams to ever do so. Fans were embarrassed and disheartened. People were calling for Kyle Shanahan’s head.

Then we were hit with the knowledge that Atlanta would be facing the most difficult schedule in the league in 2016. We also knew that Carolina was (supposedly) a juggernaut that could not be stopped, Tampa Bay would undoubtedly improve, and the Saints would be the annoying thorn in our side that they’ve always been. An infamous season prediction was made claiming that the Falcons would go 5-11. A post was made calling Matt Ryan the 4th best QB in the NFC South.

Myself, being somewhat of an optimist, predicted a 9-7 season with a possible Wild Card berth. I believed the team would show improvement on the field this season, but because of their difficult schedule would not show a huge improvement in the win column.

Only the biggest homers in the world were saying Atlanta would make the Super Bowl in 2016, and even they didn’t really believe it. Nobody saw this season coming, except perhaps Matt Ryan. His belief that the offense could score 30+ points every week was met with derision. Well, it turns out Ryan wasn’t just blowing smoke, he was telling us the truth.

Here we are, 18 games later. The mighty Panthers completely fell apart (because that’s who they are, a completely streaky team), the Bucs improved but not enough to seriously contend, and the Saints defense continued to hold them back. Atlanta dismantled them all, sweeping Carolina and New Orleans and finishing with a 5-1 divisional record. Their 11-5 overall record secured them the number two seed and a first round bye.

Atlanta averaged an astounding 33.8 points per game. They were historically efficient in the passing game and had a dangerous running attack to boot. The Falcons were the most deadly offense in the league: 1st in scoring, 3rd in passing, and 5th in rushing. They were balanced and had a dizzying array of weapons that made them nearly impossible to defend.

Atlanta’s 540 total points tied them for 8th-best of all time, sharing that title with the Greatest Show on Turf. Despite all that, the media was largely skeptical of the Falcons, and even we as fans were nervous. We’ve faced so much heartbreak and so much disappointment over the years that it’s hard to break free of that lingering doubt.

Little did we know that the Falcons would erase our doubts in the most spectacular way possible. By not just winning, but by dominating.

Success is a tricky thing. Too much makes you complacent, and too little makes you apathetic and depressed. Atlanta fans were certainly in the “depressed” category after a series of embarrassing playoff defeats in the Matt Ryan era.

The other part about success is that it’s fun. It’s enjoyable to succeed, and to watch those you care about succeed. As luck would have it, Falcons fans would get to enjoy postseason success earlier than any dared to dream.

Atlanta rode their historic offense to a rout of the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round, and then a complete and utter domination of the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship. It was only the second NFC Championship in team history, and you could feel the joy and exuberance from the crowd at the Georgia Dome.

All of the sudden, Atlanta wasn’t known for postseason failure anymore. Matt Ryan now has one of the highest passer ratings in postseason history. His streak of 4 postseason games with 3+ TDs is an NFL record. Only weeks ago, people were looking at his 1-4 record and calling him a playoff choker. His record is now 3-4, with a chance to break even in Super Bowl LI.

Despite much of the mainstream media’s (and Patriots fan’s) ignorance about the team, the Falcons are a legitimate contender. Ryan is clearly playing like an elite QB, and his offensive weapons are the most versatile in the entire NFL. They are buoyed by a young and improving defense that generates turnovers and plays physical football. What they lack in experience they make up for with effort—and after shutting down the #2 (Saints) and #4 (Packers) offenses for long stretches of their respective games, they can no longer be dismissed.

I’m not going to sit here and wax poetic any longer about the greatness of this offense. If you’re a Falcons fan, you know just how dangerous this unit is. But here’s a tidbit for any Patriots fans that might be lurking: do not sleep on this team. You can talk about Brady’s four rings and how much experience you have and yadda yadda yadda. That isn’t going to save you against an all-time great offense, and a defense that can no longer be considered a liability.

To be clear, I’m not predicting or calling for a Falcons blowout. But you’d be wise to look at what happened to the last two decorated teams we faced. Assume you’ll just coast to a Lombardi at your own peril.

Instead, the Falcons have a tough match-up against a very sound and well-rounded Patriots team in the Super Bowl. They have arguably the greatest QB of all time in Tom Brady and arguably the greatest coach of all time in Bill Belichick. Still, I’m not quivering in fear—and neither should you.

This is the inevitable clash between the old guard and the new kids on the block. The Patriots are the titans of the last decade, but Brady is in the twilight of his career. The Falcons are here earlier than anyone expected, and with the way the team is constructed, they’re likely to be contenders for several years yet.

New England is trying to cement Tom Brady as the best QB in NFL history by getting him his fifth ring. Atlanta is trying to legitimize itself as an upper-tier NFL franchise for years to come by getting its first Super Bowl victory ever.

Success is coming to one of these teams. I, of course, hope it’s the Falcons. We’ll see what happens next week.

The future is bright for this Falcons team. That much is abundantly clear.

Because of how early the Falcons have found success, the roster is in fantastic shape for the years ahead. Four of the defensive starters are rookies (LB Deion Jones, LB De’Vondre Campbell, SS Keanu Neal, CB Brian Poole) and several others are in their second or third year (DE Vic Beasley, DT Grady Jarrett, FS Ricardo Allen). That’s 7 of 11 starters all still on their rookie contracts for years to come.

On offense, the starters will be kept almost entirely intact going in 2017. Of those not under contract, RG Chris Chester and FB Patrick DiMarco are the only two that are full-time starters. WR Taylor Gabriel is a RFA and the Falcons can likely keep him with a second-round tender or an extension if they so choose.

Even with all these pieces locked up, the Falcons continue to have flexibility in free agency. Due to Thomas Dimitroff’s excellent cap management, Atlanta has the ability to re-sign any impending free agents that they’d like to keep around. That led to RT Ryan Schraeder and CB Robert Alford getting extensions during the season, and CB Desmond Trufant is likely to follow this offseason.

They’re also capable of signing outside players to bolster the offense or defense, if they so choose. While some of Dimitroff’s contracts have been less than ideal, he’s put the Falcons in an excellent place for the future—year after year. Just look at teams like the Panthers and Saints, who have been forced to cut ties with their top FAs because they’re in cap hell. Atlanta is under no such pressure.

Instead, this is a team that is being built for the long haul. This is a team that is being built to contend, year in and year out. They just happened to contend a lot earlier than any of us could have imagined.

The main factor for concern is the seemingly imminent departure of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. His scheme has transformed the offense, and his game plans and play calling have turned this unit into one of the most difficult to defend of all time. His loss will certainly be felt, but there’s reason to be hopeful.

Matt Ryan clearly has an in-depth understanding of the offense, and it’s possible that Quinn simply hands the reins over to him going forward. Early indications are that the Falcons wish to promote one of Shanahan’s top assistants—someone like Mike McDaniel or Matt LaFleur—to keep the offense largely the same next season.

While the offense is unlikely to ever be this flat-out dominant again, they aren’t likely to fall off a cliff either. The Falcons are poised to be, at worst, a top-10 offense next season and beyond. That, coupled with an average to above-average defense, should be more than enough to keep them in contention going forward.

This team is a lot different than that 2012 squad. That team was “peaking”, with several players on the verge of retirement. Todd McClure, Tony Gonzalez, and others were clearly nearing the end of their respective careers. When the Falcons returned in 2013 to try and recapture that momentum, they dealt with that sobering reality immediately.

Regardless of what happens next weekend, this Falcons team is not “peaking”. In fact, I don’t believe they’ve even reached their ceiling. This team is young. Sure, the offense may not ever put up all-time great numbers again, but this team has a lot of room to improve. That, perhaps, is the scariest prospect of all for other NFL teams: these Falcons will be back, and they might actually be better.

So, coming off a sound defeat of his former mentor’s squad, and obliterating a so-called “team of destiny” with an all-time great at QB, Quinn’s Falcons are poised to make franchise and league history in Super Bowl LI. If they win, they’ll become the highest scoring champions ever, and bring a Lombardi Trophy to Atlanta for the first time.

The pundits were right: there was a “team of destiny” in the NFC Championship. They were just wrong about which team it was. The 2016 Atlanta Falcons are that team—and next Sunday, they’ll prove it to the world.