Leodis McKelvin was right. The Atlanta Falcons are, have been, and for the immediate future, will be front-runners.
Go back to 2016 with me, if you will. The Falcons had just lost to the Philadelphia Eagles, one of the team’s few 2016 regular season flops.
The game showed what happened when the historic offense met a fierce defensive front. The team was held to 15 points on offense and lost control of the game’s tempo, which sunk the explosive mentality the team thrived on way back when.
Post-game, McKelvin uttered the awful truth no one wanted to believe at a time where things were about to break even for Atlanta in the biggest way possible.
“I was telling the defense, this is the type of team, they are a front-runner. They are a front-running team,” he told reporters (via ESPN). “If you go out there and make some stops, they eventually are going to be dying down.”
The quote, at the time, was great bulletin board material for a team that surely used that moment to jettison to a better place (well, almost). But its the most telling observation about this franchise ever relayed by an opponent, and the defining problem of this team in the post-Michael Vick era.
The Falcons are front-runners. They do wilt at immediate adversity. Slow them down, knock them out of the fight. It’s how it’s always been, and 2018 is that in grand amplification.
Let’s go back to any big moment in recent team history.
The 2010 season ended in the divisional round with Aaron Rodgers coming out, guns blazing, to stop the Falcons after they got out to an early 14-7 start to see 35 unanswered points derail a promising campaign.
The 2012 season ended with a collapsed lead in the NFC Championship to the 49ers that kept the team from going to its second Super Bowl. The week prior, they did the exact same thing to the Seahawks, but the mighty foot of Matt Bryant saved pain for a week later.
In February 2017, well, we won’t go there.
Look at the 2013 season, when, after a rash of injuries, the entire half decade of goodwill seemingly evaporated and led to the end of an era with the firing of Mike Smith in 2014. Look at the 2015 season, when the team let a few close games gather moss down the rolling hill to lose six straight. Look at the 2011 season, when the team fell flat at the Meadowlands by only scoring two points. Look at January’s Eagles debacle.
Want more examples? Google: “Falcons blow lead regular season.”
Sometimes, in large part thanks to Matt Ryan, they can fight their way back for the comeback. But we haven’t seen that much as of late. And it still doesn’t discount the fact that they had to be in that situation to begin with.
The team’s problems haven’t changed once since 2008. They can’t handle teams with stout trenches, and the teams with strong run games and even stronger defensive lines always win out against the Birds when the things get close. The Falcons never seem to find success in addressing their own trenches, which have both been decent at the best since the turn of the millennium. The team can’t handle compounding injuries, they can’t handle blown leads, they can’t handle what happens when things go wrong.
They have to have everything in place to succeed. It’s never quite broken even in their favor. They’ve gotten close, but not quite.
Why is that?
Why is it this team can’t get into the tough moments and box out a win? Why can’t this team withstand injuries? Why can’t this team hold a lead? Why does this team spend so much time worrying about rising up? What about staying up when the punches come in bunches?
Don’t throw around curses, or “that’s just the way it is,” or more jargon about this or that with the team’s history. This is football, not World of Warcraft. You’re not bound to some ancient hex or manifest destiny. It’s just a game, and anyone can fix anything at any time to win whatever they want to win.
The Falcons are front-runners, and it’s time for Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff to fix that.
Quinn has helped solve some of that problem of the team being accused of being a finesse outfit. He drafted guys like Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, Takkarist McKinley and Grady Jarrett to change the mentality. He wanted guys who were fast and physical; we all know that.
For the most part, he’s gotten that exact result. But this team never seems to escape this belief that it’s, as Fox Sports’ Nick Wright said after the team lost in Philly in January, “a soft, finesse dome team.”
Is it time we all start taking that moniker seriously?
Is this just who the Falcons are, at least right now? Are they really just birds of comfort? These old legacy teams like the Patriots, Packers, Steelers, Bears, Giants, Broncos, Eagles, Dolphins ... the win-in-the-elements, smack-you-down, mean-machine outfits who can win with two teeth, a busted jaw, and a broken leg.
We’ve seen the Falcons play tough in this Quinn era, so that total perception isn’t quite true. But we’ve seen them wilt down the stretch too many times in equal measure, often to these types of teams who keep swinging even when the Falcons seemingly have them pinned.
The Falcons saw their greatest weakness send them home from Houston without a trophy. They faded down the stretch in the franchise’s most important moment in the exact way McKelvin said they would. The Patriots got some stops, got a few scores, and whammo, a 28-3 lead disappears like a thief in the night.
The Patriots didn’t steal the Super Bowl; the Falcons gave it away.
They couldn’t overcome their grandest problem, and it stole the greatest victory a football team can achieve.
This team has been a front-runner for as long as I can remember, unable to handle the smallest dose of adversity. The team rebounding after 2017’s Super Bowl fracas to get to the divisional round was an incredible feat, but they had time to plan. Quinn has been wondrous about fixing problems in the offseason and letting the team grow. He’ll most likely do that this spring.
But when new problems pop up in-season, the team just doesn’t seem to have the wherewithal to withstand them. It happens time after time. The Falcons have to have everything break their way in order to achieve ultimate success. If that doesn’t happen, neither do the Falcons.
The rare example of this came in 2016, when the team lost Desmond Trufant to injury, and Jalen Collins stepped up. The team did get the benefit of having Quinn take the plays over in that stretch, which gave them the defensive boost they needed. Collins is gone now, and Quinn hasn’t called the plays since the Super Bowl.
But what would’ve happened that year if the team had gotten more banged up? Well, you saw down the stretch.
What will the Falcons have to do to fix this? Who knows. It’s not something you can just pinpoint to fix through the draft, or in free agency, or with a coaching change. The entire mentality of the organization has to change, the players you bring in have to have fight in them, the entire team has to have a strong left hook and a nasty counter-punch.
No matter the eventual solution, McKelvin called it two years ago.
He doesn’t have to stay right, though.
If the Falcons want a Super Bowl, they’re going to have to figure out how to be tough and resilient ... no, not in general. When it counts.
It’s time for the Falcons to break away from the front-running mentality. It’s time for them to shed the dome-friendly visage. It’s time for them to be 100% tough.
It’s time for the Atlanta Falcons to get a backbone. Here’s desperately hoping they find one.