Well, it’s Super Bowl Sunday. You’re putting the evening’s menu together, we’re all getting our barf bags out for when the Patriots eventually win, and the Atlanta Falcons will be on the couch, watching the big game with all of us.
Don’t be too upset, though – it’s awfully hard for a team to make it back to the Super Bowl the year after they lost it, and while that obviously went poorly, it is kind of cool to say you’re one of the few teams in this era of football that was able to make it to February football. The silver medal ain’t all that bad!
For Atlanta to make it back, to finally cross that last franchise accomplishment off the list, they’re going to not only improve on their own faults but see what the teams that did make it in this go-around did to cement their winning seasons.
Dan Quinn and company have been pretty on point with making in-house corrections when things don’t work – just look at the changes made in the 2016 offseason – so you can expect the things that didn’t work in 2017 – red zone offense, run defense, consistent success in the trenches, the team’s nasty habit of collapsing in two-minute gameplay – will get extra focus under the microscope.
But, what can the learn outside of their organization? Few places are better to look than New England and Philadelphia, the two best teams of 2018, both set to contend for the Lombardi this evening.
What lessons can Atlanta take from these two teams – ironically, the teams that have sent them to sombertown the last two years of postseason play – and adapt to their franchise?
A Lesson from Philadelphia: Have a dominant front four
The Philadelphia Eagles don’t have a lot of weaknesses – they’ve got a stout offensive line, a franchise QB, a steady run game, a solid group of receiving options, a ferocious front seven, skilled secondary players, a savvy coaching staff, a smart front office and a dangerous home crowd. They’re built to contend past this season.
Philadelphia’s offensive success is easy to spot, and hard to replicate. They have great quarterback play with Carson Wentz, and even with Wentz out of the picture, Nick Foles stepped up and won them two playoff games against two difficult teams in Atlanta and Minnesota. That’s a mesh of talent and preparedness that you just have to find out on your own – not unlike what Atlanta did with Matt Ryan and Kyle Shanahan. Their offense was a bully last year and was the spark that got them to a two-seed in the 2016 playoffs. The team knows what it takes to find offensive success – they’ve just got to laser in on 2018 to see if Steve Sarkisian is the guy to get them there. The chemistry between excellent play calling and execution grows organically, and Atlanta was the beneficiary of that combination last season.
But, don’t think about offense right now.
Philadelphia’s front four is why Atlanta didn’t make the trip to Minnesota this season. It was a complete, enveloping group that singlehandedly shut Atlanta’s offense down when it mattered. Just look at the personnel – Fletcher Cox, Timmy Jernigan, Brandon Graham, Chris Long, Vinny Curry, Derek Barnett, Beau Allen, Destiny Vaeao. That’s as good as what Seattle had in its Super Bowl season, and as good as what Denver had in its Super Bowl season. You want to win a championship without Bill Belichick and Tom Brady? Get after the quarterback.
The Falcons need to have a dominant pass rush to make it back to the big game. The offense isn’t likely to be as dominant as it was in 2016 anytime soon, even if Sarkisian makes the leap next season. It’s a skilled group that can do a lot to you, but the Shanahan offense is not something the team can quite wish back into existence. Outscoring your opponents can only take you so far. Limiting the opponent’s scoring, well, that can get you places.
Atlanta needs to curate their front group into a monster, and to be honest, they’re closer than they ever have been. Pieces like Grady Jarrett, Vic Beasley, Takk McKinley, Jack Crawford, Derrick Shelby and Brooks Reed are nothing to scoff at. Beasley’s already led the league in sacks (which already spots him as one of the better rushers in the league), Jarrett is blossoming into one of the premiere interior defenders in the NFL and McKinley overperformed in his rookie season, in both rushing and defending the run. That’s a strong trio to build on – Crawford’s a lock to return, but both Shelby and Reed run the risk of bring cap casualties.
But, the team needs to get greedy about its front four. Dan Quinn’s calling card is his ability to generate a pass rush, and Atlanta has no excuse not fielding one of the elite units in the NFL with Quinn running the show.
Investing more money and draft picks into that unit could help them get over the hump from being a pretty good front four to being one of the standout units in the NFL.
That starts with figuring out Dontari Poe, Adrian Clayborn and Ahtyba Rubin’s contracts – one of them absolutely needs to return– and perhaps finding a way to get Michael Bennett to Atlanta, if the older-but-still-talented edge rusher is available for a trade or to sign after being cut. Two of Philly’s guys, Allen and Long, will be free agents, so if you can’t beat them, sign them away? There are also a myriad of options in free agency to consider.
The draft also has impact players at both positions, and Atlanta has been rumored to be intrigued by guys like Vita Vea, Da’Ron Payne and Taven Bryan.
So, what can Atlanta learn from the high-flying Eagles? Build a monster of a defensive line. With Quinn, it shouldn’t be a suggestion – it should be an expectation.
A Lesson from New England: Maintain the Brotherhood
Trying to pick a lesson from New England’s long annals of success is a bit, well, challenging. Recommending a football team to try to be like the Patriots is kind of like telling an aspiring musician to do their best to be The Beatles. It’s…just not that easy to replicate – and you’ll probably never be as good.
The Patriots have been the model of consistency for the NFL post-2000. No team has been better. No team will likely be as good for the next few years. Want to be the Patriots? Sneak into Bill Behlchick’s house, throw him in a big burlap sack, drag him to Atlanta and smack him with wet noodles until he agrees to leave New England and join the Falcons’ coaching staff (…don’t do that).
Their coaching schemes are unparalleled, talent always elevated by the coaching and just have a mental edge that most teams don’t have – as cheesy as it sounds, playing the Pats can mess with a team’s head. And, if you get comfortable, or too nervous, with the lead…well, you know what happens. Just ask the poor Jaguars.
There is no exact way to mimic their success – it is wholly original. They can be beaten (just how Eli Manning did it twice, we have no idea) – but you can find things here and there that the Patriots do that, well, can be copied over.
The biggest one – and the one Atlanta needs to heed – comes from the catchphrase: “Do your job.”
It’s the most eye-rolly sentiment this side of coach speak, but gracious, has it made the difference in New England. The “do your job” culture in Foxboro has helped make this team perennial contenders. Every guy that’s a Patriot just kind of goes about their business, does their job the best they can, and comes out on top. It’s very simple, but you wonder how often attention to detail and professionalism is really given the due it deserves across the league.
Quinn’s mantra, “The Brotherhood,” is part of why we get to talk about Atlanta as an NFC contender next year. It’s not some hokey, pointless oxymoron. It’s the bedrock of Quinn’s success, and a tangible method to improve player performance. If they’re playing for each other – not just for the win, not just for the money, not just for the fame and acclaim – than voila, they may just outperform their own limits. The guys talk about “The Brotherhood” a lot, and some will always write it off. But, it’s there, and it’s having an enormously positive impact on this franchise.
The Falcons need to look at their own success, and look at New England’s success, and see how important a strong culture can be. How lucky is Atlanta to already have theirs in action. The Patriots teach us that strong culture is absolutely maintainable. The Falcons need to strive to keep theirs alive for as long as possible.
As long as Atlanta has “The Brotherhood,” they’ve got a chance to win.