Misconceptions are bound to occur when something monumental transpires in a huge setting. Super Bowl LI was as epic and momentous as a football game can get. For the Atlanta Falcons to decimate the New England Patriots for three quarters is something nobody could have foreseen prior to the game. Although they eventually fell apart, it was a sight to behold as Tom Brady looked flustered. Then it all went wrong.
There are plenty of elements behind their historical collapse. Some people were scapegoated (Kyle Shanahan), some players made unfortunate errors (Devonta Freeman). The overall discussion about their devastating defeat from the mainstream media, analysts, players, and fans left us with a plethora of misconceptions. Nearly four years after that excruciating loss, many still believe the Falcons never recovered from that game. It’s as if the 2017 season never happened.
The Falcons endured their fair share of setbacks during the 2017 season. They blew a 17-point lead to a Dolphins team coached by Adam Gase with Jay Cutler as their quarterback coming off a bye week. They only scored seven points in the Super Bowl rematch against the Patriots. Not being able to find any offensive rhythm cost them in crucial matchups against Minnesota and New Orleans.
For all their failures, they still managed to win ten games and make the playoffs in a year where the NFC South had three playoff teams. Transitioning from Kyle Shanahan to Steve Sarkisian proved to be extremely difficult, yet a much-improved defense and Matt Ryan’s resilience kept them in contention. That was evident in their impressive road win against the Rams in the playoffs. Dan Quinn’s team looked ready to make another Super Bowl push going into Philadelphia. Who would have imagined it would be his final playoff game as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons?
A miserable night in Philadelphia
Despite going on to win the Super Bowl that year, the Philadelphia Eagles were one of the most vulnerable number one seeds in NFL history. Carson Wentz’s season-ending injury in December left their offense in disarray. With Atlanta’s defense coming off a terrific performance against Sean McVay’s surging offense, all the pieces were aligning for Quinn to win his fourth playoff game as a head coach. The game proved to be a grueling slugfest with both offenses unable to produce big plays. Unless Julio Jones was getting open or Doug Pederson schemed up high-percentage looks for Nick Foles, the game was controlled by both defenses. The Falcons appeared to be on the verge of winning this arduous battle. Ryan completed three passes to Jones on the final drive. It led to them being in the red zone with less than two minutes left.
All the Falcons needed was nine yards to secure a place in the NFC Championship. Sarkisian’s incessant play-calling woes in the red zone during the regular season didn’t vanish in the postseason. Two incomplete passes, including a bizarre attempted shovel screen to third-string running back Terron Ward, put them in a precarious position. After a much-needed completion to Jones on third down, Ryan found himself in a fourth and goal situation at the two-yard line. An offense with playmakers like Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, and Austin Hooper should surely produce with the season on the line. They also happen to have the most terrifying wide receiver in the league in Jones. It was time for Sarkisian to design a play to put these players in a position to succeed.
As they broke the huddle on fourth down, I was sitting in the press box stunned at their shotgun look. Jones and Sanu were lined to the right with Levine Toilolo being motioned towards their side. That left fullback Derrick Coleman as the lone receiver on the left. Coleman wasn’t a starting-caliber fullback, let alone a receiving option. This alignment essentially eliminated half of the field. As the play materialized, Ryan sprinted to his right hoping to connect with Jones. Jones slipped at the top of his route forcing Ryan to look for an alternative option. There was no alternative option. Sanu was blanketed by Malcolm Jenkins and Ronald Darby. Toliolo was used as an extra blocker. Ryan had no choice but to throw up a prayer to a well-covered Jones in the back of the end zone. Jones wouldn’t even have had both feet inbounds if he managed to make the catch. The Falcons sprinted right into the Eagles’ hands. Several of their defensive players knew the play call. I saw a few of them laughing about it as they exited the locker room. Meanwhile, Thomas Dimitroff looked bewildered in the back of Quinn’s postgame press conference. He couldn’t believe the Falcons blew it again.
That loss signified how inept Sarkisian was as a play caller. For every glimpse of improvement he showed during the season, the embattled offensive coordinator would take three steps back against an above-average defense. His inability to effectively utilize playmakers such as Tevin Coleman and Gabriel created friction. Not being able to make in-game adjustments and put together consistent well-varied game plans ultimately costed the Falcons a chance at putting themselves in a position to make it back to the Super Bowl. Sarkisian wasn’t good enough to be a play caller in the NFL. He played a major part in the Falcons going from the most electrifying offense in the league to an unpredictable, discombobulated unit that rarely took over games.
They went from averaging 34.1 points per game in 2016 to 21.6 points per game in 2017. Sarkisian should have been held accountable for the loss in Philadelphia. Instead, Quinn remained fully committed to him. A full season of underwhelming play from a talent-rich offense that ended up costing them an opportunity at making it back to the Super Bowl didn’t change his judgment. The decision to keep Sarkisian appeared to be a sign of contentment on the organization’s part. Contentment can turn into complacency rather quickly in the NFL. That’s something Quinn and Dimitroff would first experience in 2018.
Falling apart in the trenches, against stout defenses, and as an overall organization
Ryan was due for a new contract extension in 2018. After giving the former MVP a five-year, $150 million-dollar extension in May, Dimitroff didn’t have much flexibility to make any major signings. He also wasn’t going to be able to re-sign key defensive linemen. Adrian Clayborn and Dontari Poe signed elsewhere, leaving them light in the trenches. Instead of committing a high-round draft pick on a guard, they signed Brandon Fusco to a three-year deal. Attempting to shore up their interior by signing Terrell McClain and drafting Deadrin Senat was understandable. The problem was none of these acquisitions seemed destined to be difference-makesr.
Philadelphia, Minnesota, New Orleans, and Los Angeles were all playoff teams that could maul any opponent into submission in the trenches. The Falcons weren’t capable of doing that on either side of the ball. How they would be able to outmaneuver them was a major talking point heading into the 2018 season.
Besides the overall concern surrounding Sarkisian’s play calling ability, the Falcons were banking on numerous young players to elevate their game. They also needed veterans to either maintain their high level of play or make contributions as role players. Grady Jarrett, Jake Matthews, and Jack Crawford were the only linemen to attain or play above expectations. Every other lineman either underwhelmed or badly failed in an enhanced role.
It started from the beginning in their opening night rematch against the Eagles. The loss in September was nearly identical to the playoff loss in January. They were bullied in the trenches on both sides of the ball. Ryan was unable to find any rhythm outside of throwing the ball to Jones. For all their struggles, they still had a great opportunity to win on the final possession. They ended up failing to score in the red zone again with Ryan throwing a low-percentage pass to Jones. The Falcons scored only one touchdown in five red zone appearances in their defeat.
Sarkisian showed improvement during stretches of the 2018 season. At one point, the Falcons scored a touchdown eight consecutive times in the red zone. What he failed to do was devise efficient game plans against high-caliber defenses. It was apparent against New England, Minnesota, New Orleans, and Philadelphia in 2017. It proved to be the case again against Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Dallas, and Baltimore in 2018. Problematic tendencies such as running the ball on second and long derailed drives.
Abandoning the run too early in games put extensive pressure on Ryan and an overmatched offensive line. There wasn’t much balance and cohesion in Sarkisian’s methods. After his first 15 play calls, he seemed to be left scrambling in most games. The inability to make in-game adjustments and exploit an opponent’s biggest weakness left the offense stumbling against the stingiest defenses.
Unlike in 2017, Sarkisian wasn’t the primary reason for the Falcons’ failures. Quinn had to take more accountability for his questionable decision-making and stale approach. While his roster endured numerous injuries, the lack of a proactive approach to get better left them in unfavorable situations. Players such as Duke Riley and Jordan Richards were given far more opportunities than they deserved. Whether it’s because they invested quite a bit in both players or not, both players were major liabilities. It’s hard to recover from losing core defensive players like Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, and Ricardo Allen. It becomes impossible when you don’t make much of an attempt to adjust schematically and add new talent.
The over-reliance on Cover 3 based looks started to become a genuine problem. As much criticism as defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel received, this is the foundation of Quinn’s philosophy. His defenses are built on generating pressure with four players up front. He wants long, physical cornerbacks to pair with a rangy free safety and physical strong safety. When those desires aren’t met, his defenses begin to crumble. Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley were unable to deliver as the primary edge rushers. Senat showed initial promise, but failed to impress when given extended snaps. McClain didn’t offer anything as an interior tackle. If Jarrett and Crawford weren’t able to generate pressure, quarterbacks felt comfortable in the pocket.
Some of the disappointments were out of the organization’s hands. Nobody could have expected Robert Alford and Ryan Schraeder to rapidly decline after playing at a high level in 2017. The same could be said about Devonta Freeman’s lingering injuries. What was expected was for the team to be well-coached and prepared to compete. That wasn’t the case during a five-game losing streak, which included four double-digit defeats.
From De’Vondre Campbell admitting the Falcons took the Browns lightly in a humiliating defeat to being blown out by a Green Bay team that had just fired Mike McCarthy, Quinn started to receive a considerable amount of heat for these unacceptable performances. They looked unprepared, disorganized, and overwhelmed in each loss. The intensity seemed to be gone from a once strong-willed team. A three-game winning streak to end the season didn’t make any difference to the general feeling around Atlanta. It was time for Quinn and Dimitroff to show accountability for their poor strategic and personnel decisions.
Moving towards familiarity
Sarkisian and Manuel were immediately fired following Atlanta’s win over Tampa Bay in the season finale. A new, fresh approach appeared to be on the horizon. The offense needed to regain their outside zone run scheme, along with a stronger commitment to using play action and pre-snap motion. All of those are integral parts to Shanahan’s offense. While they couldn’t recreate what he did in Atlanta, the coaching staff could take fragments of how he maximized Matt Ryan’s capabilities and turned the offense into a complete juggernaut.
The defense clearly needed an injection of talent up front. With key players returning from injury, it was understandable why Quinn didn’t feel the need to do a complete makeover. Refinement was required for the defense to get back to where they were headed in 2017. The lack of coverage disguises, poorly designed blitzes, and infuriating three-man rushes on third down had to be addressed. Quarterbacks felt mostly at ease when facing the Falcons’ defense in 2018. That’s something Quinn couldn’t accept as someone who comes from a defensive line background.
Instead of entrusting an assistant on the staff or hiring someone connected to his mentor Pete Carroll, Quinn decided to take over defensive play calling duties himself. He knew the pressure was on for him to get a once-promising defense back on track. What he was primarily brought to Atlanta to accomplish had yet to be fulfilled. The defense needed more solidity, versatility, and organization across the board. With Quinn’s command and the defense having their nucleus (Jones, Neal, and Allen) back, there were reasons for optimism. Quinn even admitted he needed to take a hands-on approach with Beasley, who had failed to evolve as a pass rusher following his electrifying 2016 season. Accountability was starting to be taken.
The next step was finding an offensive coordinator to bring the best out of an explosive unit. Besides needing to add much-needed upgrades at both guard positions and right tackle, the offense was well-equipped to be an established top-ten unit. Dirk Koetter was given the responsibility to make sure they reached their potential. The reception to his hiring was mixed, as Koetter quickly fell out of favor in Tampa Bay. His previous stint in Atlanta had more negatives than positives from 2012 to 2014. It was a curious decision, considering how closely tied the Falcons have been to Koetter. They consistently beat Koetter’s Tampa Bay teams from 2016 to 2018. When Tampa Bay flourished offensively, it largely came from Todd Monken’s play calling. The biggest positive in hiring Koetter was that Ryan didn’t have to work with a new offensive coordinator for the third time in five years.
Familiarity and experience appeared to be the focus within these coordinator decisions. Sarkisian and Manuel were inexperienced in taking on their respective roles. With Quinn in full control of the defense and Koetter being brought back, they had two battle-tested coaches calling the shots. Dimitroff emphasized how Koetter would help keep the offense disciplined. That wasn’t a surprise, considering how often pre-snap penalties were a recurring issue under Sarkisian. There was also hope Atlanta’s better infrastructure would benefit Koetter after years of coping with chaos in Tampa Bay.
The necessary coordinator changes were made going into a pivotal 2019 season. Although limited cap space would constrain their spending, the Falcons had several glaring holes. They could no longer depend on the draft and one marquee signing to address these personnel issues. To be an established contender, you can’t afford to become complacent. That’s the internal battle the Falcons were dealing with. No matter how much Quinn and Dimitroff fought it, they were struggling to fully overcome it.
Check back for part two of this in-depth exploration in the days ahead.