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For the Falcons, a fresh start on special teams

New coordinator Ben Kotwica holds the reins, Giorgio Tavecchio gets the kicking keys, and a bevy of options at returner.

New York Giants v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

A team electing to move on from a franchise veteran is never easy. When that franchise veteran is the organization’s all-time leading scorer, well, that’s where things get a bit dicier. Matt Bryant was a shocking-yet-understandable cut early on in an Atlanta Falcons offseason that’s seen more turnover than any time in Dan Quinn’s tenure as head coach. The focal point of the Falcons’ special teams unit, Bryant is in the twilight of his NFL career but still an extremely productive — and lethally clutch — kicker. With those facts not in dispute, the Falcons willingly closed the door on Bryant’s time in Atlanta.

And so began the overhaul of a special teams unit that, quite frankly, hasn’t been very effective or consistent on Dan Quinn’s watch — with the exception of the steady hand (and leg) of Matt Bryant.

Bryant’s departure came on the heels of the immediate firing of longtime special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong on Black Monday. A holdover from the Mike Smith Era, Armstrong oversaw a unit that finished top-five in 2010, but points courtesy of Matt Bryant’s boot aside, special teams has been spectacularly pedestrian under Coach Quinn. Marvin Hall may have finished top-10 in kickoff return yards in 2018 with 616, but he was near the bottom of the pack of qualifying returners in yards per return with 23.69.

Leading the league in return yards? Well, that’s none other than former Atlanta Falcon Andre Roberts who garnered his first Pro Bowl nod with 1,174. He also finished second among qualifying returners with 29.35 yards per return.

It’s a recent example, sure, but it’s glaringly indicative of how desperately this phase of the Atlanta Falcons’ game was aching for new blood at coordinator. Roberts’ immediate twist of the knife with his new team is the type of thing that leads to subsequent changeover on the coaching staff, and so it was no surprise when Keith Armstrong got the axe at the end of the league year.

Enter Ben Kotwica, Washington’s former special teams coordinator who now holds the reins and is hoping to amplify production in Atlanta. He did yeoman’s work in D.C. last season, boosting Washington’s special teams rank to 8th in DVOA in 2018 — up from 22nd the previous year. He also flew attack helicopters in the military which is pretty awesome.

Kotwica inherits a special teams unit now without its best playmaker, but with a promising young kicker in Giorgio Tavecchio. Tavecchio was absolutely lights out in relief of Matt Bryant last season, going 33-34 in extra points and 5-5 in field goals, including a prodigious 56-yarder to seal it against the New York Giants in Week 7. It’s obvious that he’s got the leg to succeed, but does he have the poise and grit and clutch DNA that carried Matt Bryant through his career? For better or worse, we’re about to find out; but the results so far have been nothing less than encouraging.

Reinvigorating the return game is another task that’s been staked to Ben Kotwica, and he’s been afforded new options to turn a lackluster area into a positive. The Falcons selected Louisiana-Monroe running back/returner Marcus Green in the sixth round for seemingly that purpose: to inject his 4.3 speed on kickoff returns and increase Atlanta’s standing in the battle for field position. Other options exist as well in the form of free agent addition Kenjon Barner and undrafted standout and former Oregon running back/returner Tony Brooks-James. Barner is the only established commodity, but Green and Brooks-James both provide some intrigue at the returner spot.

Matt Bryant and Keith Armstrong’s departures and the arrival of Ben Kotwica have ushered in a new era for the Atlanta Falcons special teams unit. They’re shifting from entrenched names to relative unknowns, which should stoke some unease in the slow march to the start of the season. But sometimes in order to fix things you have to begin by taking them all apart, and with the litany of changes on special teams it appears that the Atlanta Falcons are willing to throw down their chips on new solutions rather than sticking with the status quo. It’s a hefty gamble, but one they’re willing to make.