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On Kyle Shanahan’s complex legacy with the Atlanta Falcons

Kyle Shanahan put the pieces together for the Falcons’ historic offense. Will fans remember him for it?

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Atlanta Falcons Practice Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Unlike previous coordinators, Kyle Shanahan was on the verge of leaving Atlanta on a high note. He orchestrated one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history. From Matt Ryan earning the NFL’s most prestigious award to nearly every skill position player contributing to their success, Shanahan cemented his status as one of the best offensive minds in the league.

After enduring countless disappointing performances in 2015, the Falcons’ underwhelming offense transformed into a complete juggernaut. Ryan and Shanahan got on the same page following prior friction. Adding key free agents to address critical needs made a drastic difference. A few shrewd low-key signings at wide receiver provided much-needed explosiveness. All of these players helped create a magical season, which somehow ended in the most brutal manner imaginable.

The Falcons blew a 25-point lead in the Super Bowl, and Shanahan’s aggressive play calling was widely criticized. When analysts dissected their crushing loss, he was the center of every conversation.

“Why didn’t they run the damn ball” replaced “Rise Up” as the most commonly used expression in Atlanta. An enraged fan base welcomed his departure, similar to how they were happy to see Mike Mularkey, Dirk Koetter, Brian Van Gorder, and Mike Nolan go elsewhere. While that’s understandable, Shanahan’s short history in the Falcons

Public Enemy

Whenever a team starts 6-1 and finishes the season at 8-8, major changes are bound to happen. Besides Thomas Dimitroff possibly being fired, there was some speculation about Shanahan’s future in Atlanta. How did one of the most consistent quarterbacks in the league suffer the worst season of his career at 30 years old?

An offense featuring Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman averaged 21.2 points a game. Although the lack of quality receiving options played a significant part in their failures, someone was going to be held accountable for the Falcons losing seven out of the last nine games, especially with them having the easiest schedule in the league.

The organization decided not to make any high-profile changes. Shanahan remained as their offensive coordinator, which secured his label as the most unpopular person in Atlanta. Most fans weren’t viewing the franchise quarterback, new head coach, or rebuilding defense as the biggest detriment to the team. The self-assured, persistent offensive coordinator that feuded with Roddy White was their main target. It even meant starting a petition to have him fired. How things changed so quickly.

Road to Redemption

Shanahan faced several challenges going into 2016. After being presented with the easiest schedule last season, they were given the most difficult schedule in the league. Facing six playoff teams wasn’t ideal for a team lacking playmakers on both sides of the ball. It also didn’t help that their franchise quarterback was facing a pivotal stage in his career. Shanahan needed to be more open-minded with Ryan. Spending more time together in the off-season was vital for the offense’s progression.

Ryan talked about their relationship in an interview with SB Nation. "We both understand our working relationship better. You’re going to have experiences with new people that are good and bad. He has a way about him that I like, a perfectionist, and I am, too. We both want the same things. We’ve figured out how to go get them. It’s about winning. Once you get that right, it’s a great thing. One thing we’ve come to learn — we know he is always coming from a great place."

The first six games truly showed Shanahan’s brilliance. With the Falcons playing four away games and facing three playoff teams to start the season, he made his mark against notable opponents. An impressive performance against Oakland followed by decimating New Orleans and Carolina in consecutive weeks provided some optimism. Featuring Tevin Coleman as a multidimensional weapon was the first of many excellent decisions. Shanahan made sure to get him involved in the running game, but knew his ability as a receiver would create another dangerous element to a slowly evolving offense. Denver found out the hard way in another impressive road victory.

Not everything went smoothly for Shanahan. He failed to make adjustments at times against Seattle and San Diego, which were both crushing defeats. Running too many empty sets and not calling quicker play designs to counter blitzes hurt the offense. Their preferred balance deteriorated during those losses, as Jones was receiving far too many targets. Other players had to step up, but Shanahan needed to utilize them more effectively.

Where everything started to align

After blowing a 17-point lead against San Diego that made them fall to 4-3, they were scheduled to face the Packers and Buccaneers in an eleven day span. Scoring a combined 76 points during that stretch erased fears of another mid-season collapse. Ryan completed 53 of 69 pass attempts, which included seven touchdowns and zero interceptions. It set the stage for what became an incredible run of winning seven out of their last nine games.

Pinpointing an opposing defense’s weaknesses isn’t difficult for offensive coordinators. Creating a game plan and executing it with their own personnel is the ultimate challenge. Shanahan recognized how Green Bay and Tampa Bay both struggled at covering the middle of the field. Neither defense had great speed at cornerback either. With the offensive line playing up to their high standards and Ryan grasping the offense, they started to “kill people with it.”

Each wide receiver (excluding Jones) started to find their niche in the offense. Taylor Gabriel developed into a reliable, explosive threat that tortured defenses with his blistering speed. Mohamed Sanu became their main possession receiver to move the chains and exploit mismatches in the slot. Justin Hardy’s great hands and above-average blocking made him a valuable role player. The same applied to Aldrick Robinson, who was another speedy downfield weapon.

To have strong depth at wide receiver is a nice advantage. For an offensive coordinator to insert them into suitable roles can dramatically boost an offense’s productivity. Ryan never had the luxury of having a wide variety of talented wide receivers. The front office rarely pursued wide receivers in the draft or free agency. Changing their philosophy did wonders for the offense. Shanahan’s previous ties to Gabriel and Robinson helped them acquire both players.

After ranking 26th in pass plays of 25 yards or more in 2015, they produced the second most pass plays of 25 yards of more in 2016. Adding speed to compliment the best wide receiver in the league, along with Shanahan’s play calling were the biggest reasons behind their massive improvement.

Taking over the league

The Falcons’ offense has been moderately successful over the past decade. The five consecutive winning seasons from 2008 to 2012 deserve appreciation, especially without having an above average defense during that time period. Despite their success, they were never really dominant. The offense had some great moments in 2012, but an aging Michael Turner and shaky offensive line limited them to a certain extent.

They haven’t been anywhere close to dominant since the 2004 season. The infamous DVD trio of Warrick Dunn, Michael Vick, and T.J. Duckett ran over countless teams during Jim Mora Jr.’s first season as head coach. They could only take over games in one aspect, as their anemic passing game eventually caught up to them. It wasn’t anywhere close to being as diverse and productive as Shanahan’s extraordinary offense.

Atlanta scored 30 or more points in 11 games, along with 40 or more points in five games. Both stats are incredible, considering the plethora of top ten defenses on their schedule. Potential roadblocks didn’t derail them for more than a game. Whether it was red zone inefficiency against Kansas City or pass protection breakdowns against Philadelphia, these setbacks didn’t turn into extensive issues. That is the mark of not only a great offense, but a resilient one as Dan Quinn loves to highlight that phrase at every press conference.

The Ringer’s Robert Mays noted this in their dominant playoff win over Green Bay. “It took 27 plays and almost 21 minutes of game time for Atlanta to repeat a formation. Tight ends, running backs, and even fullback Patrick DiMarco could set up in the slot or out wide. Receivers bounced around to nearly every spot on the field.”

Putting players in favorable situations is one of Shanahan’s specialties. Using personnel groupings in bunch formations created memorable plays against stout defenses. My colleague Charles McDonald did an excellent break down of Jones’ 36-yard touchdown against Seattle. When do you see the Seahawks’ defense with Earl Thomas commanding the field allow big plays? Although the Falcons ended up losing in controversial fashion, they made a major statement in a hostile environment.

When Thomas suffered a season-ending injury and couldn’t play in the playoffs, they were hopeless against the future San Francisco 49ers head coach. Cian Fahey analyzed Shanahan’s dissection, which essentially solidified his place in San Francisco. His play designs left a usually organized defense in complete disarray.

As previously mentioned, exploiting the biggest weakness against an above average defense was crucial in their success. Instead of overly testing Patrick Peterson, they targeted Arizona’s smaller, slower cornerbacks. It led to big games from Gabriel and Sanu in a convincing victory. No defense has a better cornerback group than Denver. Why bother playing with fire, when Coleman had a clear advantage against their linebackers?

To keep defenses guessing, the Falcons used play action more than any other team in the league. Pro Football Focus’ Mike Renner examined their success by incorporating big plays, fascinating images, and notable stats into a great piece. Utilizing outside zone run concepts and Jones’ presence opened up plenty of big play opportunities. What really stands out is Shanahan’s commitment to play action. By using play action on 27.6 percent of his dropbacks, Ryan averaged a staggering 11.3 yards per attempt.

For someone who gets labeled as being arrogant, Shanahan is the exact opposite as a play caller. He knows how to keep a steady balance (on most occasions), yet still manage to ruthlessly attack an opposing defense. From using play action, the dynamic duo of Freeman and Coleman in multiple ways, other receiving options, or making a disrespectful defensive coordinator pay for leaving a cornerback on an island against Jones, the list is endless on what Shanahan did last season.

That is what made Shanahan’s tenure so special. The Falcons were used as a stepping stone in far too many games under Mike Smith with Koetter and Mularkey. Who can forget what the Saints did to them on Monday Night Football in 2011? As shootouts ensued, they couldn’t keep pace. That would leave their mediocre defense on the field. Teams imposed their will without much resistance

Things eventually changed in 2016. While Quinn deserves major credit for turning around the defense, Shanahan created an offensive monster. The notoriously bullied victims became bullies right before our eyes. Not everything was perfect, but nobody can ever forget how the Falcons conquered the NFC by embarrassing opponent after opponent in December and January.

Not shying away from the pain

As Shanahan finalized his deal with San Francisco, many Falcon fans celebrated his exit. A few aggressive play calls in the Super Bowl turned an offensive mastermind into Atlanta’s biggest villain again. To disregard his yearlong success because of some unfortunate moments on the biggest stage seemed harsh. For all the outrage, it would be naïve of me to not think of Atlanta as a city.

As a resident of New York, I’ve witnessed a few championship parades. Nothing brings a city together more than the local team winning a championship. Even if you don’t necessarily care about the team, it’s great to see people celebrate together. Lifelong fans have spent thousands of dollars towards supporting them. So much time and emotion has been dedicated. To lose this opportunity in such a cruel way makes it completely understandable for fans to be livid, especially in a championship starved city like Atlanta.

Losing a 25-point lead comes from a collection of mistakes. Even though Shanahan’s mistakes were avoidable, the same can be said about Jake Matthews’ holding penalties and Freeman’s failed blitz pickup. That can’t be stressed enough. Players are going to make mistakes. Coaches will make errors. Despite considering Shanahan as one of the best offensive minds in the league, it would be foolish for me to ignore his mistakes. Shanahan doesn’t ignore it either.

In Albert Breer’s MMQB feature, Shanahan addressed his reputation. “Everyone has their own opinion,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of people know me. There are misconceptions. I know it’s not all great. But I can’t control it. I’ve gotten better, trying not to worry about it as much. I know I’m a good person. I know I’m honest with people. As a coordinator, things don’t always go as well with every single play. I don’t hide things.”

He admitted that the Super Bowl collapse will never leave his mind. Instead of blaming certain players or the defense’s inability to get a stop, Shanahan handled the situation like a true coach. That may not matter to diehard Falcon fans. What should matter is how he set their favorite team up for a very exciting future.

Creating the foundation

Everyone expects the Falcons to be a perennial contender. Although two excellent draft classes has created genuine optimism about the defense, their championship aspirations will lie on the offense, which was mostly built under Shanahan.

Converting to a zone-blocking scheme has done wonders for the running game. Besides being the highest paid center in the league, Shanahan’s influence played a major role in Alex Mack’s decision to sign with the Falcons. Ryan’s career hinges on the center more than anyone would have anticipated. His record is significantly better when playing behind an experienced center.

Signing Gabriel in early September was another Shanahan influenced move. Although Sanu is a solid player, defensive coordinators fear Gabriel more as an overall player. The dynamic wide receiver’s agility, route running ability, and versatility proved to be a nightmare. When he scored a touchdown, they went 5-1. His emergence gave them an explosive option that can take some pressure off Jones.

From expanding Coleman’s role to creating plays for Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo to be wide open 30 yards downfield, Shanahan helped these young players grow into valuable contributors. They found confidence in his offense. The offense wasn’t relying on two or three players like they did in previous seasons. It was a collective effort to score as many points as possible.

Ryan’s transformation from being considered as the “fourth best quarterback in the NFC South” to the NFL’s Most Valuable Player will go down as one of the most unexpected turnarounds in NFL history. The once famed quarterback killer set the stage for Ryan’s resurgence. His renewed confidence came from seeing spots rather than fixating on coverages, which seemed like a bizarre statement at the time.

Everyone has praised Quinn for transforming an abysmal defense into one of the most promising units in the league. The same should be said about Shanahan elevating an underachieving offense that couldn’t average 100 rushing yards per game from 2012 to 2014. Coleman, Gabriel, Sanu, Mack, and Andy Levitre were all major additions over the past two years. Each player added stability or another dimension to help build an exceptional offense. When Mike Mularkey and Dirk Koetter left, the offense didn’t have an identity. Shanahan left an offense with not only an identity, but an unstoppable mentality.