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Falcons can’t let fixing the trenches get in way of progress

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Vengeance and nastiness aren’t always matches for success.

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NFL: Super Bowl LI-New England Patriots vs Atlanta Falcons Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Trying to fix your problems doesn’t always solve them.

The Atlanta Falcons, for all accounts and purposes, have a lot to fix with the football team they field every Sunday. A squad that was once ballyhooed as one of the league’s premiere outfits collapsed under the weight of injury luck, mediocre coaching, and lackluster performance from starters and reserves alike.

The team we all thought we knew wasn’t quite as strong as we hoped without the wind blowing exactly in its direction, which spells a troubling memory of an era long gone.

How the Falcons choose to address the failures of 2018 has got to go better than the last time they found themselves in this situation.

Rectify with a Vengeance

The 2013 Atlanta Falcons carried Super Bowl aspirations all the way to a shoelace trip down a long flight of stairs.

That team got bit something fierce by the injury bug early, and had neither the depth nor the coaching tenacity to recover. By the time Julio Jones hurt his foot in that cursed Monday Night New York Jets fiasco, you knew things were over. The anticipated NFC stars were in tatters, and seemingly overnight, the entire future of the franchise was in doubt when 12-4 flipped itself to 4-12. It was as dramatic a fall as the franchise had ever seen.

Once the team knew the path ahead, GM Thomas Dimitroff came up with a phrase as to how the team would carry on from here. It rings ever clear to this day.

He was to rectify with a vengeance.

“I truly believe we will rectify this with a vengeance,” Dimitroff says. - Justin Dunk, SportsNet, Dec. 2013

“Yes. And my goal is to rectify with a vengeance,” he said.

He actually said that twice. It might be T-shirt worthy for training camp. - Jeff Schultz, then-AJC, March 2014

“Our goal is to rectify this with a vengeance,” Dimitroff said. - Jarrett Bell, USA Today, May 2014

There are other examples out there, too. This was the de facto slogan.

And that’s what they tried to do.

The hack against the Falcons was that the team was all finesse, no grit. You could womp them with a club if you could manage to slow them down. It’s that same “front-runner” blast that’s plagued the team since the start of the Dimitroff-Matt Ryan era.

The Falcons wanted to get tougher in the trenches, so they took a dump truck of cash and drove it to three separate houses, those of DT Paul Soliai, DT Tyson Jackson and G Jon Asamoah.

All three contracts came with guaranteed money and long-term commitments. Soliai got five years/$33 million (14 mil. guaranteed), Jackson five years/$25 million ($8 mil bonus, $1.5 mil guaranteed in 2014), Asamoah five years, roughly $22.5 million ($4 mil. bonus, $2 mil. bonus in 2014).

Even if you’re not a math guy (*waves*), that’s, hypothetically, about 80 million dollars over five years the team was comfortable with doling out for the future.

Here’s what Dimitroff said about the moves back when they were made.

“We were focused on adding pieces along our offensive and defensive lines and I feel we were able to accomplish that today,” general manager Thomas Dimitroff said, according to the team’s website. “We believe that Paul and Tyson will add stoutness and grittiness to our defensive front and will help in the run game. Jon is a solid offensive lineman that has started 41 games during his four-year career that will bring some ruggedness to our offensive front.”

“Stoutness” and “grittiness” are the types of buzzwords you want to apply to your linemen. That’s the archetype you want: a big ugly in the middle to guard the franchise face or try to demolish the other franchise face, a guy to rip open holes in the run game or make opposing running backs nervous to touch the field.

Well, you don’t need a fancy column to tell you how that went. The team only got one pretty good year out of Asamoah before injuries sadly derailed his career, Soliai was solid in his twilight years for two seasons and Jackson just kind of filled a spot on the roster for three seasons and helped some with the run.

The team’s mission of rectification to beef up the interior trenches and ignore the edges failed in grand fashion, these the crowning jewels in that attempted rectification. Mike Smith’s time would be over in Atlanta after that, and Dimitroff would try to further rectify with a new coaching regime.

This one promised to be fast and physical.

2019

The 2018 Atlanta Falcons also carried Super Bowl aspirations all the way to a shoelace trip down a long flight of stairs.

That team got bit something fierce by the injury bug early, and had neither the depth nor the coaching tenacity to recover. By the time Keanu Neal tore his ACL and Deion Jones hurt his foot in that cursed Thursday night Philadelphia fiasco, it began to feel like things were hopeless. The anticipated NFC stars would up in tatters, and seemingly overnight, the entire future of the franchise was in doubt when 10-6 faded to 7-9.

The theme this time around seems to be a bit more abstract, though DQ has used the word “nastiness” to describe the guys they want in the building.

“Nastiness” is a buzzword that usually gets applied to the linemen in the league.

Progressions, not Rectifications

The Quinn era of Falcons football tends to be a bit more reflective than the Smitty era was.

DQ has been known for his leadership characteristics as a head coach, and part of good leadership sometimes calls for open self awareness. Quinn’s never short to point out when he thinks he’s the problem. It’s not that Smith didn’t do that; Both are good men who had respect in the locker room. But DQ is hyper-aggressive with team culture, which starts with his attitude and how he approaches the job.

It’s been encouraging to see Quinn be open about some of his shortcomings, and acknowledge the need for game day management assistance. His decision to take over the play calling duties for the defense also shows an adaptation in trying to fix his previous assumptions for what works for a team.

We may see more of that in the weeks and months to come: Maybe he’ll be both less and more reliant on himself, emphasizing his strengths and delegating his weaknesses. Maybe he’ll take that approach and apply it to his players and fellow coaches more so than he has.

But it’s that “nastiness” part that both encourages and worries you.

Offseasons don’t need themes, and the Falcons need to avoid looking for a certain type of fix for what ails them. Rectification tends to be a near-sighted focus in this Falcony visage, and one that did the team no favors.

What the Falcons need to do is, essentially, improve in all facets of the game from a coaching standpoint and have most everyone on the roster ramp up their play. Even Matt Ryan and Julio Jones have their deep ball to shore up, and Grady Jarrett still has room to grow. No one should accept the plateau of their current situation. This team can get back to where they were, but not without the proper progressions.

Yes, this needs to be an offseason where the trenches get specific attention, but they’ve got to handle it correctly. Quinn’s not been quite as effective in drafting trench talent as one would’ve hoped in his tenure here, finding far more success in free agency (particularly on the edge).

The days of throwing out big money contracts at non-elite guys who just fit a specific role need to be over, though. The cap can’t handle it, and neither can the roster.

If you pay big money for a guy, he’d best not be an aging veteran, or an unproven commodity, or someone with injury potential (hard to predict, admittedly) or an average Joe with limited skillsets. That doomed the Falcons the last go-around in the same situation.

It could doom them again, and not just for this coaching staff and for this season. The top brass in Falconland is too talented to let this happen again.

Y’know, this might be as simple to say, “different coaches, different methods,” and perhaps DQ is far more equipped to pull the Falcons out of this mire than Smith was. But you hope the team sees 2014 as a glaring example of how not to go forth from here on.

Rectification is a goal, not a method, after all. Let’s hope Atlanta knows better this time around.