It’s a themed week across SB Nation this week, and that theme concerns the great what ifs in a given team’s history. There is of course ample opportunity to dive into the Super Bowl what ifs for this football team, or consider what might have happened if the team had retained Brett Favre or Deion Sanders or not traded away picks that became stars. We may get to all of those this week.
But today, I had the opportunity to consider something I championed way back in 2008 and eat some crow for it, so that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
What if the Falcons drafted Glenn Dorsey instead of Matt Ryan?
Let me start off by noting that this would have been a road that diverged from the Matt Ryan-led Falcons in significant ways, although one that would have likely taken time to fully manifest. Maybe Dorsey’s career would have gone better in Atlanta, but there’s scant evidence for that, meaning the Falcons would have used a top three pick on a defensive tackle who would not have come close to living up to the hype. They then would have been in the market for a QB, and likely would have given up a haul to go get Joe Flacco, who would not have been on the Ravens’ radar because they would have given up a massive haul of their own to get Ryan once he slipped to #4. They were not going into this vital year with Chris Redman as the starter.
It’s safe to assume the jump up would have come with another third rounder, I think, leaving the Falcons without Chevis Jackson. Rather than snagging Curtis Lofton, the team likely would have prioritized getting a tackle for Joe Flacco’s blind side, leading them to draft John Greco surprisingly early. Assuming the rest of the draft proceeded as anticipated, the team would have likely felt pressure to push Robert James into a larger role right out of the gate.
Flacco would have entered an interesting situation with a solid complement of weapons and Michael Turner to lean on, plus a solid Greco as his left tackle. He likely would’ve put up a better year in his rookie season than he did in Baltimore, but Dorsey’s quiet rookie season and the team’s messy situation at linebacker minus Lofton conspired to keep them just out of the playoffs in 2008.
With Dorsey in the picture heading into 2009, the Falcons never went for Peria Jerry and instead selected Robert Ayers at defensive end to give them a bookend for John Abraham. Flacco’s second year was better than his first and he stayed healthy all year, pushing the Falcons into the postseason as the #6 seed despite another lackluster year by a defense featuring disappointing efforts from both Ayers and Dorsey. Having Tony Gonzalez helps! The Falcons put up a decent fight against the Cowboys, but ultimately lost. The Falcons are talking about building on this effort for their third season, however.
In 2010, the Falcons’ draft hews close to reality, with Sean Weatherspoon a needed addition and Corey Peters a welcome pick with Dorsey’s struggles. The Falcons aren’t the #1 seed because Flacco doesn’t quite have Ryan’s regular season and the defense is still worse than it was in our real world 2010, but they get in as the #3 seed and get walloped by the Green Bay Packers in the first round. Falcons fans, who were excited post-2009, begin grumbling and wondering if the team would’ve been better off going with Matt Ryan in 2008 after all.
Deciding they need a big play threat and dynamic option for Joe Flacco to throw to, the Falcons risk it all to move up for Julio Jones. The move is met with wariness from Falcons fans still hopeful the team’s defense will improve, and despite a successful first year from Jones and another good season from Flacco, the team winds up falling short yet again on defense with Dorsey and Ayers leading the charge, slotting in at the #6 seed. They get annihilated in the first round of the playoffs by the hated Saints, which leads to Mike Smith not-so-subtly pushing his coordinators out the door.
The 2012 season is Dorsey’s fifth year in Atlanta, and the team exercises his option somewhat warily while working out a long-term deal with Flacco. The latter has become a known regular season commodity by now, regularly putting up 25-28 touchdowns and throwing double digit interceptions, with a mix of dazzling big throws and frustrating stretches that has polarized the fanbase. The cracks on the Falcons defense are really showing at this point, with Dorsey earning less and less playing time and Ayers settling in as a rotational option, but there’s enough juice on both sides of the ball despite a clearly deteriorating Michael Turner to push Atlanta into the post-season as the #3 seed in a weak NFC South. The Falcons shove their way easily past the Vikings for their first playoff win under Mike Smith, but run into a terrific 49ers team in the Divisional Round and lose despite Joe Flacco’s best playoff performance to date. The Matt Ryan-led Ravens win the Super Bowl.
At this point Mike Smith is on the hot seat and Glenn Dorsey is gone because he’s turned in solid but unspectacular play throughout his tenure, but Atlanta bravely punts veterans to make way for young talent nonetheless. Smitty’s history of failure developing young players comes back to bite him, injuries hit the Falcons hard, and Flacco muddles through the worst season of his career fresh off a big contract extension as the Falcons suffer their first non-competitive year since 2007.
Smith and his coordinators are fired, and the Falcons make a huge push to hire an offensive-minded head coach, with Thomas Dimitroff fielding calls from his good buddy Bill Belichick and snatching Bill O’Brien away from the Texans. The draft proceeds apace, but the Falcons decide to invest differently in their defense, ignoring Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson in favor of splurging big-time on Jairus Byrd and finally getting their slashing defensive tackle in Henry Melton.
The season proceeds with Flacco enjoying a bit of a resurgent year despite the injury issues suffered by first round pick Jake Matthews and others, but the Falcons’ godawful defense falters with Byrd and Melton largely disappointing and the state of the line in general lead to another losing season. Bill O’Brien frowns a lot on the sidelines.
The 2015 season is the first featuring injuries for Joe Flacco, and Sean Renfree isn’t exactly ready to take the reins. Bill O’Brien’s offense doesn’t click because C.J. Fiedorowicz plus Alfred Blue and Steven Jackson aren’t enough to overcome Roddy White’s slow decline, with Julio Jones operating on a lonely island as the team’s sole major bright spot on that side of the ball. The defense (you’re sensing a theme, here) isn’t good enough because Melton and Byrd continue to disappoint, there’s still no elite pass rusher on the roster, and the secondary wallows despite Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford making major strides in their third years. Arthur Blank makes it clear he’s not going to endure many more losing seasons.
The killer 2016 draft does not happen because Dan Quinn is not there to preside over it. A middling Falcons team picks up Lamar Miller at running back and snags speedy wide receiver Will Fuller to pair with Julio in an effort to rebuild the offense, but a still middling offensive line and still disappointing defense conspire with another solid-but-not great season from Flacco to put the Falcons just into the playoffs as the #4 seed. They back over the hapless Giants for their first playoff win since 2012. Unfortunately, they don’t have the juice to claw their way by the Cowboys the next week, but the win is enough to buy Bill O’Brien one more year.
The Falcons try to finally get past their long tight end drought by picking up David Njoku and attempt to fix center by snagging Ethan Pocic, but neither move really pans out in a major way for Atlanta, which at this point is beginning to notice Joe Flacco’s descent into solid but unspectacular play much more acutely. The lopsided focus on offense makes the Falcons a strong offense overall, but with Flacco not playing at his early 2010s level and the defense still plagued by poor play, poor draft picks, and poor coordination, the Falcons disappoint and whiff on the playoffs in 2017, leading to O’Brien getting fired. This leaves the team in real limbo again.
The team’s seemingly endless struggles on defense, their less-than-ideal landing spot with Flacco and the overall talent level minus Julio Jones and their top-flight corners, and their desire to get away from the Patriots coaching quagmire that just ate their last four seasons leads them Steve Wilks, the unassuming former Panthers defensive coordinator. Wilks nabs safety Derwin James in the draft, a universally loved pick, and generally sets about trying to rebuild a defense that needs major help.
The Falcons stink, bluntly, but the defense seems to be trending in the right direction even while Flacco, Miller, and the line continue to be a drag on the team’s fortunes. Heading into the 2019 offseason, though, there’s hope for Wilks and the Falcons, particularly if they can find a team willing to absorb Joe Flacco’s contract and get their young quarterback of the future.
I did my best to pair the team’s decision-making process with the preferences of the coaching staffs they would have hired in this scenario, and adjusted Flacco’s performance upwards a bit to account for the weapons at his disposal. This is still obviously a wild flight of fancy and should (and will) be taken as such.
The Falcons of this particular path are ironically undone not so much by Flacco and the offense—which would likely have been consistently above average with the strong-armed Delaware product at the helm—but by Mike Smith and Bill O’Brien’s worst tendencies being exacerbated if guys like Glenn Dorsey and Robert Ayers never really panned out.
We’d be sitting here in 2019 getting excited about what the defense might be able to do with another year or two with a solid defensive-minded hire at the helm, but with the specter of Flacco aging out of effectiveness in the same way he did late in his Baltimore tenure, despite his obvious fit as a member of the team’s Ring of Honor down the line. The Falcons of this era would have likely been defined by the what if of taking Matt Ryan instead, though for a team that had never known a great deal of success, this still would have been one of the better decades in team history.
Give me your best what ifs for this particular scenario, if you would.