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Falcons - Panthers recap: The winds of change become a maelstrom as Atlanta sinks to 0-5

Falling to 0-5, Atlanta’s dead in the water and facing a furious fanbase that wants to know what’s next.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons were pissed, as we’ve been reminded to the point of parody. Atlanta needed to show that they were a capable football team and that the season wasn’t over, and everyone from Matt Ryan to Isaiah Oliver needed to show that so-so or worse years in 2020 were not going to continue after an ugly 0-4 start. We’ve heard nothing but “we’ve just got to take this one game at a time” from this team this season, but each game has brought more misery and new depths of despair for a team that wanted to believe they were going to contend in 2020. Finally, it was too much, with the team choosing to fire Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff late last night. You can’t take things one game at a time when you’re out of the playoffs for the second straight year in Week 5.

The loss to the Panthers was maybe the most listless yet. The offense was useless outside of Todd Gurley and a couple of inspired Matt Ryan connections with Calvin Ridley, with the the team putting up just 13 points against a solid but unspectacular Carolina defense. The defense had good stretches but allowed big plays and big scores often enough that the Panthers were able to walk away with a win, and the pass rush once again evaporated in the second half after a fairly promising start. The Falcons had all their old problems, but they were arguably even worse this time out despite the repeated insistence by players that they were playing to preserve both their jobs and the jobs of their head coaches.

That’s why all the rhetoric continues to mean nothing, and that’s why Arthur Blank more or less had to make a move unless he wanted to send the message that he does not care what happens to this football team. That’s not a message he wants to send with fans hopefully returning to the stadium, and there’s just not anything left to gain by putting off the inevitable, not with everyone fully cognizant of what a mistake it was to keep the coaching staff intact.

All we have left to watch and root for is that the Falcons figure out who figures to be a strong, effective part of the 2021 team, what draft selection the team winds up with, and whether anyone on the coaching staff will end up hanging around under the next head coach. It’s beyond depressing to be here just five games into the season but what we’re hoping for is legitimate hope for the season ahead, including seeing Matt Ryan and company bounce back in the coming weeks so that they can contribute under a new coaching staff. In terms of big picture thinking, there’s not much else to say for a team that has come in under even the most modest expectations and needs to be all about the future after being all about the present for such a long time. The Panthers have shown us that even a team rebuilding on the fly can look pretty solid when the coaching staff can draw more out of the talent on your team, and that’s a reminder of how important this next hire will be for Atlanta.

Maybe Arthur Blank will address it and maybe he won’t, but there are so many questions about why the Falcons waited so long to make this move, letting it ruin 2020 in addition to 2019. You’ll continue to hear what a great, beloved guy Dan Quinn was among the staff at Flowery Branch and the players and that’s certainly a factor, but Atlanta had a chance to make a change with a full offseason to try and salvage this year and it’s very obvious it was a mistake not to do so. There were so few fans by the end of the last season, even previous apologists like myself, who had any interest in seeing the team run it back, and the decision to do so was unbelievably unproductive. With Ryan possibly aging, Julio Jones banged up, almost everyone on the roster playing worse than expected, and this team nearly $30 million over the cap heading into 2021, those what ifs are going to linger long after Quinn and Dimitroff are gone.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • The pressure was there early. After allowing two early first downs, the team forced two off-kilter throws from Teddy Bridgewater to put the brakes on Carolina’s first drive. If Atlanta could just sustain that, they’d be in games until the end. Then again, if wishes were fishes I’d be having chowder and not Chinese food as I type this.
  • Todd Gurley was very good all day despite an inexplicable lack of chances afforded to him at times. He ran hard and ran effectively behind improved blocking, made a couple of plays in the passing game, and generally looked like the best Falcon on the field by a country mile for most of the day. It’ll likely be a one-and-done year in Atlanta for Gurley, but he has made it clear he cares about this football team and cares about doing well, and he backed it up with his strongest performance in quite some time. I’ll look forward to more quality games from him, even if the season is completely lost.
  • It took a long time, but Calvin Ridley got rolling in the second half and never really stopped. He kept finding his way open against a depleted Carolina defense, including a hilariously wide open first down in the fourth quarter. On a day where the passing game was forgettable, Ridley at least managed to keep things rolling, even if he also had a couple of costly drops.

Ridley’s future is impossibly bright despite the frustrations of the past two weeks, and when the passing game gets ironed out—I guess I need to say if it gets ironed out and Julio Jones is back in action—he’ll put up eye-popping numbers in games the team isn’t getting their butts kicked in.

  • The offensive line was better in this one by and large, and few players looked as good as James Carpenter, who surprisingly had a stellar day blocking in the run game for Atlanta. He opened more than a few productive Gurley and Hill runs on Sunday, and has been light years better in 2020 than he was in 2019 in general. The blocking, like the pass rush, has been wilting late, but there were some legitimately impressive moments.
  • Foye Oluokun stands out regularly this year for Atlanta’s defense. He’s so quick, decisive, and physical, and it translates to plays like Oluokun’s blown up run play in the first quarter and many, many big play saving tackles. He faded late like everyone else, but it’s clear he’s one of the few legitimate pieces on this defense going forward.
  • I thought Kendall Sheffield had a mixed game, but he showed physicality and sticky coverage through most of it and deserves to be a starter going forward. His ability and athleticism are not in question, even if his consistency can be.
  • Younghoe Koo’s leg has been a constant source of questions, with the coaching staff refusing to give him a vote of confidence past 50 yards. There he was in the fourth quarter nailing a 54 yarder, though, on a day where he had no problems at any range. Hopefully that puts this particular question to bed, and if Koo can stay healthy, he should remain this team’s kicker for the long haul.

The Ugly

  • Matt Ryan has simply not looked as good as we’re accustomed to the last three weeks, and this time out he once simply missed multiple throws and engaged in costly decision-making, including a truly awful and unwise interception in the end zone in the fourth quarter. I still think we need to see a lot more evidence that Ryan is legitimately falling apart versus just struggling a bit in a lousy offense without his top receiver, but the signs have not been positive ones and the offense has been grinding to a halt regularly without Ryan making his customary well-timed, on-target throws.

Ryan is here thanks to his contract if nothing else through 2021, but history and the first two weeks suggest he’ll have better days when Hayden Hurst settles in, Julio Jones is healthy, and maybe somebody other than Dirk Koetter is calling plays, or when he just isn’t pressing so much on this throws. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned that we’re not going to see anything close to peak Ryan going forward, but with the entire team looking like such a mess, I’m simply not ready to declare him cooked just yet, but he definitely needs to get back on the horse in the weeks to come.

  • Dante Fowler Jr. simply has not been the player the Falcons hoped for thus far in 2020. He has a half sack on the season and had his moments against Carolina, but the Falcons were hoping for a massive upgrade on Vic Beasley and have not gotten it to this point. There’s plenty of time for him to turn that around but he was expected to be one of this defense’s best players, and he hasn’t been.
  • I’ve been one of Isaiah Oliver’s biggest defenders to this point, because he’s still relatively young and has mixed in good plays with his more visible errors. With the secondary rounding into health, he’s running out of time to make his case to stay in the lineup, though, and he allowed D.J. Moore to pull an all-too-easy move on him and then run for days for a simple touchdown. He simply hasn’t played well enough on balance to stay in as a starter when Darqueze Dennard returns, and I’m betting he won’t.
  • The tackling was quietly pathetic all day. Mike Davis fought through contact, had defenders simply bounce off him, and was able to run down the clock. Even Foye Oluokun was missing late, and this defense’s reputation for not being able to make a play when it counted went from cemented to ultra-cemented late in the game. Outside of Oluokun and Grady Jarrett, it’s hard to point to any defenders consistently playing well.
  • Dirk Koetter’s play calling continues to be perhaps this offense’s biggest problem, even with Julio hurt, Ryan off, Russell Gage and Ridley dropping passes, and three hands’ full of fingers to point at guys who aren’t playing up to snuff. Koetter abandoned the run when it was easily the most effective part of the gameplan, couldn’t seem to scheme a single player open at times, and continues to struggle to turn an offense full of players who have been great in the recent past and/or have first round pedigrees into an offense that can put up points. It seems much less likely that this talent has simply fallen off a cliff and much more likely that the offensive coordinator with a history of so-so results needs to go.
  • Raheem Morris is probably the interim head coach, but he and Jeff Ulbrich’s defense has accomplished very little thus far in 2020, and like everyone else on this coaching staff this has to be hurting their reputations going forward. The Falcons continue to fail to get pressure, continue to screw up in coverage, and continue to look like they have no answers for the specific strengths of an opponent’s gameplan, in this case Mike Davis’s physicality and Teddy Bridgewater’s accurate arm. A lot of that can be laid at the feet of the players and their poor execution, but defensive minded head coaches and their defensive coordinators have to share this blame. Morris and Ulbrich will likely get the chance to try to turn this thing around with Quinn out the door shortly.
  • I’m not going to ask anyone to feel badly for Dan Quinn, who should land on his feet elsewhere, but it has been rough to watch a man with zero answers standing there on the sideline watching everything slip away from him. I felt the same way with Mike Smith toward the end, especially during that dismal butt-kicking at the hands of the Panthers, but it has been clear since at least last year that when things start going sideways in a game there’s no way Quinn is going to be able to dig out of them. For all the success he had in 2016 and 2017 and his all-time place on the coaching wins leaderboard, his lasting legacy in Atlanta will likely be the coach who lost too many leads, and that sucks.
  • Finally, let’s spare a little blame for the top echelons of this organization, even if they don’t have a lot to do with the football being played in a given week. It was obvious even to those of us who held off on calling for this coaching staff’s firing and a clean house organizationally that change should’ve been forthcoming at the halfway mark in 2019, and if not then at the end of the 2019 season. The reluctance to make those moves then sends an unmistakable message that this franchise’s first priority is no longer winning. It’s better late than never, but it’s still not great.

I can and do recognize that Quinn’s firing will not fix this team in the short-term, but I do think Arthur Blank and Rich McKay are making the right move by moving on, because this team is going nowhere either way. They need this team to get out of the mindset of taking it week by week and toward thinking about what this team will look like in 2021 and beyond now that the pressure to try to come up with the one game that would save Dan Quinn is no longer something they have to think about.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

It’s Todd Gurley. The Falcons failed to give him all the touches he needed, but he made the most of all the ones he got en route to over 100 yards and a touchdown. When this team needed tough yardage, the guy who seemed to take the last loss the hardest was the one delivering that yardage, and he deserves credit for that even if it was a dismal game overall.

One Takeaway

It’s nothing we didn’t already know. Atlanta is not good enough to triumph even against opponents who aren’t loaded with talent, because they have too many weaknesses, an overmatched coaching staff, and too many injuries to overcome. They’ll win some games this year, but this is a bad football team sitting at 0-5.

Next Week

The Falcons hit the road to play the Minnesota Vikings, a team with their own challenges but enough talent to put the Falcons into an 0-6 hole. Follow Daily Norseman’s coverage to see how they’re bemoaning their favorite team and why they’re still probably optimistic about the next game against Atlanta.

Final Word