The last thing you want to question when it comes to your favorite football team is their heart or desire, and whether they have the right leaders in place. There are multiple reasons for that—the results on the field are rarely purely the results of effort, and it’s impossible for us to know what goes on in the locker room past a certain point—but part of it is simply because it’s an uncomfortable question. When your team is losing in the face of sky-high expectations and nobody’s happy, though, it sometimes becomes a question you have to ask.
What’s going on in the Falcons locker room? Is this on-field performance caused purely by boneheaded mistakes, or are those mistakes symptoms of a leadership vacuum or disinterest from players?
I’m not the first person to wonder aloud what might be going on in the locker room, though I am probably the most reluctant. There were writers tackling this subject late last season, when the Falcons wilted until it was far too late to contend, and after the season when it was suggested veteran leadership was missing and needed to be added. While I’m loathe to speculate, these kinds of questions have become more pressing as the Falcons have come out of the gate so flat in 2019, and players have been making the kinds of veiled comments that suggest there might be a problem outside of just on-field accidents. At some point,
Take these quotes from Julio Jones in the latest from Jason Butt at The Athletic, which is an excellent read:
“We can’t get that right until everybody collectively does their job instead of worrying about someone else’s job,” Julio Jones said. “I have to take care of Julio. Everybody’s got to take care of themselves to play and be accountable. Once everybody is doing that together, we can go out there and play Falcon football.”
“It can be numerous things, whether it’s something — who knows?” he said. “It’s not an excuse for what’s going on. We just have to fix it at the end of the day. It could be any and everything. We’re human. We could have things going on at home. Or a guy was in for eight plays and then that one play he decides to take a little break, and it throws off the whole play.
“Who knows? There’s a lot of stuff that can go on in a ballgame. (The team needs) 11 guys on one play doing the right thing. That’s on us. It’s bringing awareness to it as far as practice. Hopefully, it carries over to the game.”
Or to a lesser extent, this from the same piece, where Ricardo Allen was waxing nostalgic about the leadership offered by guys like Dwight Freeney, Tyson Jackson, and Patrick DiMarco:
Allen believes this year’s leadership is strong but noted how special that 2016 crew was. He also noted the transition it took as players aged into their roles.
“I also think you look at this locker room, too. We’ve got some players who have been in the league for a while. It should be the same,” Allen said. “You would hope it would be the same, that once some veterans have left, that we have people on this team now who have been here for six, seven, eight years. It should be a direct transition, too. When it’s time to get out of here, I hope I’ve trained the young dudes up to be able to take over the role of me, too.”
Or this, from Grady Jarrett to Jeff Schultz following the first game of the season:
“We have a whole four quarters. So what if they started fast? That ain’t no excuse, from my point of view. Football is unpredictable. Everything in life isn’t going to go your way. You’ve got to respond.”
Does he believe some teammates weren’t ready to play?
Jarrett, after a pause: “I know how I feel before games. I know every time I get the opportunity to go out onto the field, I’m going to put the best version of myself onto the field.”
Did some players get dejected early?
“A little bit,” he said. “But you have to have the mentality to respond. I feel like that’s coming out with the characteristics of individuals. But as a team, we have to have that mindset to respond.”
What do we make of this? The truth is that we don’t know, because there are no names named and no “we have guys who aren’t ready to play” quotes to be found. But it is evident that there is a simmering frustration behind the scenes here, something the Falcons have traditionally kept in-house, and that the leaders in this locker room—from Allen to Jones to Jarrett to Matt Ryan—have concerns that they’re trying to air as respectfully as possible. Winning is a good balm, of course, but winning has been the issue for a while now.
With jobs on the line and the team delivering such poor results, we have to hope things get on track. The alternative—a fractured, broken team heading into a complete regime change—is not something anyone wants.