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The Falcons bet on continuity, but what are they continuing?

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Atlanta’s big bet on the second-half surge will either be the savvy move of a stable franchise or an epic disaster, with few possibilities in between.

Atlanta Falcons v Pittsburgh Steelers

Over the last week, we’ve repeatedly suggested that it made no sense for Arthur Blank’s decision to retain or fire Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff to hinge on the Buccaneers game. Blank must have agreed—or at least didn’t want to be seen as making a decision after a pretty meaningless game that would either leave the team 6-10 or 7-9—because they blitzed fans and media with videos interviews, breakdowns, and justifications for why Quinn and Dimitroff were returning.

I now feel I know pretty well why the Falcons made this decision. All that slick marketing and public relations work was intended to get out ahead of the inevitable fan backlash—the team’s brass aren’t stupid and they certainly knew it was coming—but it also served to illuminate Arthur Blank and Rich McKay’s thinking. They want continuity, they believe that Quinn and Dimitroff give them the best path forward, and they are making a couple of changes to the power structure of this franchise to try to avoid an overly hands-on owner or Quinn getting the itch to take over the defense again. All of that justification and shuffling shows a plan, and all I said I wanted for Christmas from this team was a plan.

Yet I’m not particularly thrilled with the plan, as you might guess.

Running it back

Because Dan Quinn is such a good guy and the Falcons are so keen on selling this move as a logical one, they’ve already lulled a not insignificant number of fans into trusting the plan. The problem is that we already trusted the plan once, and the plan failed.

The talk heading into this year was about getting tougher in the trenches (that sounds familiar) and Dan Quinn assuming control of a balky defense that was ruined by injuries in 2018. By turning over the coordinators and making the offensive line in particular a real priority, the thought was that Atlanta could improve an offense that scored under 20 points multiple weeks in a row and coax more out of a typically underachieving D. Dan Quinn’s team had been in the playoffs in 2017 and injuries were a massive issue in 2018, so many of us said fine, if Quinn can get this team back to contention, good deal.

Of course, the expectation for many of us was also that another disappointing season would lead to changes. What seems most incredible to me today is that Arthur Blank was openly saying things in his press conference like:

“I think we moved some players around and put them in positions where they could win more easily,” Blank said. “A lot of the role of the head coach, or from a business standpoint – any business – is what I often say is putting round pegs in round holes and square pegs in square holes, and I think we did a better job of that on defense in the second half of the year.”

And this:

“A number of these decisions, they were all within his ability to make,” Blank said. “He made them too late in many cases.”

The upbeat note here is that Blank believes these changes are sustainable, but they manage to be quite damning, too. If Quinn made necessary changes too late and only got better at putting players in the right position to succeed when the Falcons were 1-7 and he had ceded significant control on defense to assistants, what does that say about his ability as a head coach? What does it say about his ability to move swiftly to correct issues if they arise again, especially because issues always arise again with the Falcons?

This was supposed to be the fateful year for Quinn, given that Blank had never retained a head coach who had two losing seasons in a row. Five out of seven wins in the second half thus far and some overdue coaching and personnel changes have certainly make the season easier to endure, but this team will finish 7-9 at best again in a year where expectations ran high and the team spent up to the cap limit to contend. What, exactly, guarantees that we’re heading for something different in 2020?

What are the Falcons continuing?

Of course, change is not really the point. Blank and McKay believe the changes have already happened, and been significant enough to warrant essentially keeping things intact. McKay will have more power and say now, which may yet be a positive for the franchise. But Quinn’s has supposedly learned an awful lot through the failures of the last two years, Morris is supposedly going to be able to continue this level of defensive dominance, and Dimitroff’s fine personnel moves in the draft this year are supposedly a better reflection of what he can do than his disastrous free agent guard signings.

The slogan here may as well be “the same, but better!” The problem is the Falcons are continuing something with gradually but insistently diminishing returns, not a past dynasty enduring a multi-year rough patch. They were a Super Bowl team in 2016, a playoff team in 2017, a flawed and injured mess in 2018, and just a flawed mess in 2019. We’re supposed to believe that second half surge is this team finally figuring things out, after multiple coordinator changes and two straight losing seasons, and that the 2016 team is the model the Falcons can return to.

The Falcons are continuing with an offense that was disappointing compared to the 2018 Steve Sarkisian squad, which was disappointing enough to get Sark fired. They’re continuing with a defense that still has only a couple of elite players, still doesn’t get enough turnovers or impact the passer often enough, and has less than eight games of truly impressive play to build on. They’re continuing with a front office that is confident the team isn’t in cap hell but has repeatedly spent big in free agency without adding long-term impact players to the roster, and has until very recently failed to add key pieces to the lines on both sides of the ball.

They’re not continuing a previous Super Bowl-winning team, in other words, no matter how close they came. They’re continuing with a team that far too often hasn’t had answers for why it’s underachieving.

Beware the message

What’s done is done. I understand that no amount of grumbling is going to get anyone to reverse course, and ultimately we all would like this to work out and eat crow because it would mean the Falcons were back to contending. As fans, we want wins, and if Dan Quinn and company can get them, I’ll be more than happy. I’m dubious about that outcome for all the reasons I’ve outlined above, but I still hope it happens.

But you shouldn’t let this team fool you, as we have so many times before. All we heard all offseason was how they were tuning out the outside noise from fans and columnists, and we got plenty of backslapping videos like the one the team put together with Dimitroff after they re-signed Matt Bryant. It was easy to believe because the talent on the team demanded respect, but for the second straight year, they are a losing football team with countless moves and decisions comically backfiring. You have to overlook a lot of mistakes to think the Falcons are going to learn their lesson this time as opposed to all the other times, and as Blank and company have done so, we’re going to hear a lot of excited chatter about how good they are after the latest flurry of offseason moves.

The Falcons have made a bet, unprecedented in Arthur Blank’s years as an owner, that the guys responsible for losing a whole bunch of games the last two years are the right ones to win a whole bunch of them in 2020 and beyond. Their fervent belief in that outcome, with all the costs to fan loyalty and potentially revenue that come with that, doesn’t mean that fans should feel anything but justified skepticism until those wins arrive.