One of the benefits of the holiday season is that you can slow down and reflect on the year that just passed, and with hindsight and time comes some form of clarity. I now realize that eating an entire cookie tray of nachos paired with a tumbler of whiskey was a huge mistake, and I now realize that the relative success of the 2016 and 2017 seasons quickly conditioned me to drink too deeply of the well when it came to the Falcons.
The truth is, the Falcons were too thin, too reliant on a handful of stars on defense, and too prone to boneheaded mistakes. The injuries took them from the kind of contender we were expecting (albeit likely a frustrating one) to a pretty bad team, but their issues ran deeper than that. They were woeful for a long time on their offensive line, with Zane Beadles and Ty Sambrailo actually stabilizing things. The pass rush they thought would materialize after parting with Adrian Clayborn and Dontari Poe took forever to actually show up. And some veterans the team had come to count on, like Robert Alford and Ryan Schraeder, were pretty massive disappointments in 2018.
Had the Falcons gotten themselves to 8-8 or 9-7, perhaps not much would have changed. Perhaps they would have still canned Steve Sarkisian but kept Marquand Manuel, or even vice versa, but that feels like it’s probably off the table now. The Falcons lost five games in a row in horrific fashion after clawing their way to 4-4, and that’s the kind of streak that a team with preseason Super Bowl aspirations and plenty of rhetoric about having the right guys in the building cannot endure. Ending the season with three wins in a row would do only a little to mitigate that, and would change nothing about the evaluations ahead for Dan Quinn.
And make no mistake: This is Dan Quinn’s offseason, for good or ill.
The winds of change
Atlanta’s not going to be able to stand pat for many reasons, but one of them is simply the way they’ve gone backwards. As Jeff Schultz wrote in The Athletic, you don’t go from Super Bowl team to playoff team to 7-9 or 6-10 by accident, and some of the moves this front office and coaching staff have made over the last two years simply haven’t worked out. I’m not sure Sark is this offense’s biggest problem—the line is, if you’re scoring at home—but he’s only intermittently been able to work around that and it was a surprising and controversial hire for Quinn to begin with. Manuel can defend himself in fiery fashion and has, but if Quinn isn’t feeling sentimental, presumably he’ll sweep out his defensive coordinator after the defense has only enjoyed short stretches of glory amidst average-at-best play. Heck, Keith Armstrong has been around forever but continues to trot out the sorriest return game imaginable, which is particularly galling when you see that Andre Roberts is a Pro Bowl returner for the Jets. Both line coaches are likely to take heat inside the building for the lack of development on those units, and may well be out the door as well.
At this point, I wouldn’t entirely rule out a front office shakeup to go with those changes. This team has loaded their FO with former general managers, and while Arthur Blank has indicated that Thomas Dimitroff is not in any danger of being booted to the curb, the same is not necessarily true of Scott Pioli or Ruston Webster or any of the others. This team really nailed personnel decisions for a couple of seasons, but despite a great 2018 class, some of those old draft classes aren’t looking so magical now. Expect the same folks at the top, but changes underneath.
Quinn is the only one who is safe, per just about every rumor and report I’ve seen, heard, and otherwise caught wind of. This offseason will be a pivotal one for him because it’s likely that he’ll have an enormous amount of say over where this team goes in the draft and free agency once more, but Quinn will also be under pressure to deliver better results. If 2019 stinks, he’s probably gone. If 2019 is even mildly disappointing, 2020 will be his make-or-break year. The clock is ticking and there can’t be any more 2017 draft classes or 2018 free agent classes or time’s going to be up. He’s going to need to surround himself with people willing to challenge him, capable of coaching up and developing players, and making better decisions on gameday. Period.
A changing roster
That also means the roster is going to change. For reasons of cap space and continuity, the Falcons tried to keep their roster largely intact heading into 2018, but that didn’t work out on several fronts. The team could free up millions upon millions in cap space if they cut or re-structure disappointing players like Robert Alford and Ryan Schraeder, and they’re likely to let suddenly injury-prone players like Derrick Shelby and Andy Levitre walk.
Those are the easiest decisions, but there are tougher ones. Are we expecting the Falcons to give up entirely on Vic Beasley, Dan Quinn’s first ever draft pick and a man who put up a league-high numbers of sacks in 2016? You have to think the team will at least try to get him to stay at a more palatable contract number after a pretty putrid 2018 season, given that his $12.8 million fifth year option is only guaranteed for injury. Do they keep around Brooks Reed, who has value but is being paid like a high-end rotational player when I’m not sure he is? Heck, do they even keep Brandon Fusco, who was ho-hum for several games before going down with an injury that could linger into 2019?
The answer to these questions will vary based on the player, but with shakeups to the staff coming, it doesn’t feel at all irresponsible to think that the Falcons will be making some significant changes to their roster. They’ll actually have the money to do so this year.
What does that change mean?
An interesting offseason, at minimum. More importantly, it could mean that the Falcons will confront their failings head-on for a change and make the changes necessary to fix them, something I think we’re all clamoring for now. For some fans, there will be frustration all offseason long over the fact that Dan Quinn is still here, but all can be forgiven if Quinn presides over the kind of effective offseason that gets this team firmly on track.
Frankly, that’s what has to happen. The team can no longer neglect the offensive line, try to replace effective players with unready or stopgap options, and allow coaches who can’t extract better performances from the players they’re working with to linger. The past decade has brought unprecedented success for this franchise, but they still have a nasty habit of falling short of what they might have been. This offseason will feature change because with an Atlanta United championship in Arthur Blank’s pocket, Dan Quinn’s job security significantly less stable than it was back in August, and a season of disappointing results that caught the Falcons entirely off-guard, change is the only sensible and non-ruinous way forward.