This Falcons season ended in very different fashion than it began.
At the beginning, a listless effort against Philadelphia quickly gave way to a calvacade of injuries that played a huge role in the team’s 1-4 start. Those injuries and that start convinced most of us in short order that the Falcons were pretty dead in the water, and while they did reel off two separate three game winning streaks this year, they were interrupted by a five game losing streak that revealed weaknesses of coaching, talent and execution that could not simply be chalked up to injuries.
The end result is a 7-9 season that pleased exactly no one. True believers aren’t happy because the Falcons fell well short of the playoffs (even if in reality, a couple of plays would have swung the season, unfortunately), skeptics of Dan Quinn aren’t happy because the team didn’t play poorly enough to get him fired, and those in between probably aren’t thrilled that the Falcons finished in second place and missed out on a top ten draft selection with a losing record. It was a crummy season alleviated only by moments of true brilliance, the kind the Falcons are always capable of but seem to be unable to consistently deliver.
This was the tale of the Buccaneers game, too, which eerily mirrored the season at large. There was Atlanta inexplicably falling into a deep, deep hole against a division rival they are certainly better than, with the Bucs running out to a 17-0 lead before the Falcons got on the board just ahead of the end of the first half. There was a huge, impressive run that re-kindled hope, as the Falcons went all the way to 31-20 and looked on the cusp of turning it into a beatdown. Then they deflated again, with a pick and poor defense allowing the Bucs to take a 32-31 lead before they ultimately finished on a good note with a last second Matt Bryant field goal winning the game. It was a bit of a roller coaster, in other words, as this season was.
Did we see enough from the Falcons in games like this, against Carolina and against Arizona to think this team will find its footing in 2019? That’s such a loaded question I’m not even sure why I introduced it, but we saw real gains on both sides of the ball, however limited. The return of Deion Jones obviously helped this defense, which will be getting back Keanu Neal, a top 15 draft pick, and hopefully Ricardo Allen to start the new season. The offense overcame crumminess along the line by (of all things) trotting out Ty Sambrailo, and figure to have a healthy Devonta Freeman and more experienced Calvin Ridley to help out next year. Those are bright notes and worthwhile ones, but this is still a team that squandered too many opportunities by playing weird, bad football and appearing incapable of digging their way out of holes they eagerly dug their way into.
All that preamble is to say this: The Falcons were bad in 2018, and they ought to be better in 2019 more or less by default. What worries me, in the end, is that they let things slip away from them so aggressively that it suggests foundational errors in roster construction, coaching and maybe focus on the field that won’t necessarily be spackle jobs in the span of several months. Knowing how good this team has been in the recent past, we’re left to hope that this season was more wake-up call than death knell for this current era of Falcons football.
Big statements aside, on to the full recap.
- Matt Ryan capped off one of his best seasons in a lost year, as is Falconly. In this one, he dropped 378 yards, two touchdowns, a touchdown reception (!), and 70% of his passes completed. He was inaccurate early and did throw a pick that allowed the Bucs to climb back into it, so it was hardly a perfect effort, but it was yet another very good one. He finished up the season with 35 touchdowns, seven interceptions and almost 5,000 yards, but only seven wins to show for all of it.
The Falcons have now seen two of his best seasons in the last three years—2017 was an outlier partly because of the nightmarish number of picks that were off a receiver’s hands—and should feel pretty confident that he’s got at least a couple more great years in him. Now the task ahead is to build a better line in front of him so that the Falcons can run the ball like they did late in the year and give Ryan the time in the pocket he needs without taking a beating.
- It was a tidy effort on the ground for Tevin Coleman and Brian Hill, who combined for 75 yards and a touchdown on just 16 carries. Coleman’s big scoring gallop made up most of his yardage, as is his custom, and he’ll head into free agency as an intriguing weapon for any offense that gets their hands on him, even if that offense is unlikely to be the team that drafted him.
Hill, who figures to be in contention for Atlanta’s #3 job in 2018, just put together back to back strong efforts for the Falcons. It was good to see Hill return after the Falcons lost him to the Bengals, and it’ll be great if he can be a useful piece on offense in 2019.
- What more can be said about Julio Jones? After a long scoring drought, #11 piled up eight touchdowns in swift succession this year and finished with the league lead in receiving yardage. He was a huge problem for Tampa Bay as always in this one, with an easy touchdown grab in traffic to end the first half and 138 yards on nine receptions in total. It might have been the finest season of his career, and he’s had a lot of fine ones.
- Mohamed Sanu is not a lock to be in Atlanta in 2019, but he’s such a fun player I really hope he is. In this game alone, Sanu reeled in seven catches for 90 yards, ran once for a modest two yard gain, and lofted a five yard touchdown pass to an expectant Matt Ryan. He’s legitimately good at throwing the ball and adds another element to the offense because of his ability to do so, and he’s still a rock solid possession receiver who fights for more yardage as effectively as anyone on the team. Statistically speaking, he also just capped off the best season of his career.
- Calvin Ridley played a key role in that touchdown pass to Ryan as the recipient of the first handoff and reeled in his 10th touchdown of the season, a new high for Falcons rookies. He had an ultimately inconistent year, but it’s a testament to how much talent we all know he has that he could drop some passes and suffer some quiet weeks and still put up a 64/821/10 line as a rookie. Ridley may be truly special down the line.
- And Austin Hooper is the final skill position player to receive some love on offense this week, but it’s last and not least. Hooooop won’t be 25 until midway through next season and was a chain mover all year long, making tough catches in traffic and finishing with 71 receptions, 660 yards and four touchdowns. He’s here for the long haul, and he quietly had a solid game against the Bucs, with five receptions for 67 yards.
- The offensive line had its shaky moments in this one—Ryan Schraeder got beat off the edge again early on—but still once again put together a very solid day. Ty Sambrailo has been far better than I could have anticipated at both right tackle and left guard, opening the door for him to return and compete for a starting job at either guard or tackle, and Schraeder is the only man who seems like he might be on the chopping block. The team’s history of not prioritizing offensive linemen is scary heading into the offseason, but Jake Matthews, Alex Mack, and one of the guard spots are set...which is still fairly terrifying.
- If that was it for Steve Sarkisian, he managed to call a touchdown grab for Matt Ryan. Calvin Ridley got the handoff from Matt Ryan, who handed it off to Mohamed Sanu, who threw it to a wide open Ryan for an easy touchdown. It was the very first reception of Ryan’s career, and a great one. Sark’s up-and-down two years in Atlanta are probably coming to a close, but he put enough on tape that the Falcons might as well just keep him if they’re not considering hiring a real upgrade.
- Takkarist McKinley was the only Falcon to get a sack on Sunday, and he capped his season with seven. As Takk himself said on Twitter after the game, it wasn’t quite the season he expected, but he came on strong near the end of the year and was borderline dominant in the early going. He has the talent to be a top-flight pass rusher, and hopefully this year proves to be a prelude to a true breakout season in 2019.
- It’s easy to forget that Robert Alford is a mighty physical cornerback, what with the season he’s had, but you only had to see the way he stopped the Bucs’ first two point conversion attempt in its tracks to remember how good he is at tackling. I don’t claim to know if Alford’s going to be a Falcon in 2018, but we got some reminders over the final few games that he’s still very capable of being an asset, and those were welcome reminders.
- Speaking of breakouts, Damontae Kazee has had one. He proved to be a starting-caliber safety in this league throughout the year, and a ballhawk in the way that no Falcons cornerback or safety has been in quite some time. He finished with seven picks, including one against Jameis Winston on Sunday, which is one of the highest totals in team history though still three behind the great Scott Case.
Kazee doesn’t have an obvious starting role next season, especially if Ricardo Allen is back and healthy in time for Week 1, but the Falcons will find a way to get him on the field. He’s earned that and then some.
- Wow, Matt Bryant hitting a pressure-packed field goal as time expired to win the game for Atlanta? That never happens.
- The entire first half, more or less. The Falcons put up 27 points in the second half and only allowed 14, making it an absolute one-sided beatdown. But the first half was a different story, with the Bucs scoring 17 and the Falcons managing just one touchdown late.
It was everything that was bad about the Falcons this season, with Matt Ryan missing Julio Jones, plentiful second down runs that were so obvious that Dirk Koetter himself could have stuffed them, and lackluster defense that allowed the Bucs to march up and down the field more or less at will. The Falcons had too many halves like that in 2018, and at the end of the day, it’s that kind of ineptitude that’s going to cost men jobs.
- Desmond Trufant had one of his worst games in a while after righting the ship in recent weeks, getting beat up and down the field by the Bucs’ receivers early on. He’s perfectly safe for next year and had a much better season in 2018 than 2017, overall, but those uneven efforts have been a real thing this year.
- The season’s over and it was not a good one. I love Falcons football, despite its many obvious drawbacks, and it’s disappointing that this was not the year I hoped it would be, and that we must now wait nine months for real football again for Atlanta. Alas.
Ryan for throwing two touchdowns and catching one, of course.
Yeah, it’s over.