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Falcons’ shipwrecked 2018 can be guiding light for future

Let them learn from the ruins of the deep.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

As the Atlanta Falcons wrap up whatever in the world just happened Sunday at Tampa Bay, it’s high time we all do a gut check on the state of the team.

Yes, 2018 was painful. How ironic this crashed season end in a stadium hand-crafted to look kind of like a pirate ship, given that it sank like one full of holes.

But at the bottom of the ocean, you’ll find those old sunken treasures never claimed by Falcons teams of old. One stands out. You know what it is.

Journey’s End

2018 ends a journey to rectify 28-3. That journey will never stop in theory, but the team’s grand push to take what they had and squeeze a Super Bowl out of it ended up more mop juice than lemonade.

Remove the team’s overachieving January playoff win in Los Angeles, and when can you argue this team has looked formidable or inspired since that fateful February day?

They got by in 2017, and got blasted in 2018. Sure, injuries were a major puzzle piece there, but the trenches were paltry, the coaching was largely uninspired and good fortune frowned on them.

This team has been in an underwhelming daze since 2016, and it’s time they wake up.

Coaching changes will help there, as a new offensive coordinator will breathe new life into the team’s mental edge and better utilize the talent on the roster...or at least, that’s the idea. Quinn returning to the DC post will only help matters, too.

If that OC hire and DC transition fail, Dan Quinn’s goodwill is going to fade fast. That’s how important those January moves are. If he messes those up, Arthur Blank won’t tarry in 2019. He didn’t with Smitty; he won’t with DQ.

It’d be a staggeringly similar collapse to the time after the team’s 2012 NFC Championship faltering. Bad season with bad coaching and injuries can be forgiven. Less-bad season with less-bad coaching and less-bad injuries can’t. The future of the Quinn era rests on this offseason.

But he’s got an astounding opportunity to buy himself another four or five seasons if he gets this right. Few question the team’s culture, nor its ability to scout and develop talent. Those are building blocks you can’t win a Super Bowl without, and they’re Quinn’s specialty. If he can find a smart mind to run the offense and get the defense back to at least how it played in 2017, they’ll have a chance, but that’s not a simple chore.

But that’s an if, not a when. And Quinn is going to have to do some major soul searching in a handful of his core beliefs for this to really punch ahead.

A journey ahead

First, the team can’t be so dependent on the next man up. That didn’t work on the field in 2018, with what they had not enough to cover what they didn’t. Sometimes, that’s just natural, but the team sitting on its hands in September when the real churning of defensive pablum was about ruined any chance for its offense to grasp hold of its momentum.

They had something working there; not having a defense hurt that.

Second, Quinn needed to take on the play calling. His taking over the defensive coordinating will amend that and is a stellar step ahead. Look at what he did with the roster at hand in 2016 when he took the duties from Richard Smith. It, in part, propelled the team to a Super Bowl. This was a major moment of growth for Quinn and will serve the team well. One point already adjusted.

Third, fix your pass rush with new talent. The team’s drafting at edge hasn’t been stellar, so maybe look to March to fix these issues. That’s what Seattle did to get Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril back before it won its Super Bowl with Quinn. Seattle wasn’t amazing at drafting defensive end talent at that point, either, but they sure knew how to maximize the guys they could get in who already had it going.

Adrian Clayborn has been the team’s best pass rusher sans Vic Beasley 2016, and that was a free agent acquisition. Brooks Reed has probably given everything he’s been capable of; a free agent. Dwight Freeney had a wonderful run coming off the bench; free agent. Takk McKinley has promise, but he’s got no tutelage. Beasley hasn’t been the same without Freeney in-house and might be a free agent himself.

The team has relied too much on youth to drive its pass rush as of late, and that’s not been enough. They need some company men to come along and accelerate things. A first-round draft pick won’t be enough. This is a collective job.

2018’s done. There’s no fixing that. But there are common sense fixes to Atlanta’s future. Quinn can be the guy to make them, too, if he’ll be willing to advance his team where it needs to be advanced.

Phoenixes rise from the ashes all the time in the NFL; it’s not that uncommon. Atlanta can, too, if they’ll be willing. The ship can rise from the depths and sail again if they’re willing to do what’s necessary to make it so.

If not, well, they’ll stay shipwrecked and will need a new crew.