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Are the Falcons serious about improving the ground game in 2020? That’s TBD

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Fact: Devonta Freeman grows and harvests his own Christmas trees

Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Imagine life as Devonta Freeman right now. Sure, he gets to play in the NFL. And sure, he has truckloads of money to ... buy things. But if performance for performance’s sake means anything to Freeman, and I have a sneaking suspicion it does, then 2019 had to be a frustrating year.

Freeman’s 2019 was, in a word, forgettable. While he is still the team’s best pass blocker and remains a true threat as a receiver (410 receiving yards, 59 receptions on 70 targets, and 4 receiving touchdowns), his performance on the ground (a career low 3.6 yards/carry and only 2 rushing touchdowns) was lackluster at best. Coming off two injury-plagued seasons, 2019 was supposed to be Freeman’s return to glory. It wasn’t.

It’s fair to wonder whether Freeman’s best years are behind him. What’s more, his contract is the elephant in the room, and in the modern NFL, teams (and their fans) don’t love overpaying at running back. All this said, Freeman’s usage was downright criminal in 2019, and that has to count for something, right?

Consider this: Freeman had 184 carries in 2019. 121 of those carries (65.8 percent) came on 1st down. 112 came on 1st and 10. He only ran the ball once on 4th down and 5 times on 3rd down. Put simply, if Freeman was in the backfield on 1st down, everyone in the stadium knew what was coming. He only ran the ball when it wasn’t 1st and 10 a combined 58 times. That’s abysmal, no matter how you look at it.

The Falcons didn’t have a running back gain 100 yards on the ground all season. The last time the Falcons didn’t have a 100 yard rusher over an entire season? 2013, when, you guessed it, Dirk Koetter was the offensive coordinator. This is simply not his forte. It’s not what he does well. During his prior 3-year stint as the offensive coordinator (2012-2014), the Falcons ranked 29th, 32nd, and 24th in rushing yards. Does it shock anyone that the Falcons ranked 30th in rushing yards this season?

Here’s what Dan Quinn had to say about the running game in 2019 (credit to Kelsey Conway for the quote):

“We did not hit the mark we were hoping to accomplish in that spot, but at the end of it, that’s one of the things, when we say tweak it and work it to go, that identity, it has to come through,” Quinn said during his season-ending press conference. “The fact that it didn’t, I’m not happy about that, but I also know that it is going to be addressed as we’re moving forward.”

OK, Dan, that’s one way to put it. “[I]t is going to be addressed.” I want to believe him; I really do.

Whatever the problem is, they need to fix it. It doesn’t matter who occupies the backfield; if Koetter flatly refuses to innovate and field a run game that isn’t as predictable as a Dave Choate relapse, then we’re destined to get more of the same in 2020. We’re less than a week into the off-season, so Quinn and company deserve a little time to right the ship. But there needs to be a direct intervention. Short of that, nothing will change.

So what’s the solution? Simply stated, Quinn needs to put Koetter on notice and have him lay out a plan that doesn’t include a categorical refusal to run the ball with more than 2 wide receivers on the field. Koetter must innovate, or again, nothing will change. It’s Quinn’s responsibility to facilitate that change, and it’s less than clear that he has the ability, means, or desire to get Koetter there.

So will the Falcons make serious changes to their run game in 2020? I don’t know. I really don’t. So for now, 6 days into the off-season, the answer is simply “to be determined.”