Though Victory Friday (and now Saturday) tastes oh so good in a long, miserable season, it doesn’t change the fact that change still cometh for the Atlanta Falcons.
Though we’re in an awkward limbo between uncertain stasis and drastic upheaval in the front office and in the coaching staff, the team as formed is a yard away from being 3-0 under interim head coach Raheem Morris. What does that mean?
Probably not a lot for the rest of the season or for Arthur Blank and Rich McKay’s search for a new coach and general manager, but hopefully something for the line of thought that blowing up this roster is what’s necessary to get this football team back in the good graces of the fans and league standings.
You’ve heard the chatter. Some wish for a colossal fire sale of this roster, one where no player is left untouched, not even Julio Jones, the best player ever to wear a Falcons uniform. Matt Ryan, Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones, Jake Matthews, any of the young, promising players ascending to new heights, blow it up! Get draft picks! Start over.
If the last three weeks prove anything, it’s that maybe it’s not the players who needed to be jettisoned from Flowery Branch. Perhaps the team has already done what it needed to do to remove what ailed this team by letting go of the head coach and GM of yesterday.
This roster, particularly the offense, has been at least somewhat better under Morris. Ryan is playing with much more confidence and poise, Jones has gotten more involved (though that’s probably more due to health), the defense is less porous (though by no means “fixed”), things seem to be in more rhythm and more organized. Just this slight shift in perspective from Morris making the team feel more uncomfortable has already proven dividends. Imagine what a fresh staff could do!
Obviously, it’s up to the future decision makers as to where this franchise goes. A new coach could want to trade a guy like Ryan or Jones; who’s to say. But part of me wonders if the last three weeks is proof enough that there’s a clear-cut reason as to why keeping the team’s best players, or a good chunk of this offensive roster, around is the wisest move. Perhaps this team doesn’t need a roster reset, but a new awakening of what’s already here, particularly on offense.
On offense, Ryan slumped badly before Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff were let go. In the three weeks since, he has been his old self. His decision making is crisper, he’s taking more chances, he seems more in sync, he’s the Matty Ice we know he can be. That has to be correlated. Perhaps he’s got more pressure from Morris to be that way, but he’s been that way nevertheless. He’s shown no signs of aging or slowing down after the coaching/front office change, the signs we all feared he was beginning to show during the drought.
With Ryan’s cap situation what it is, the Falcons are tied to him through at least 2021. If he keeps playing like this, it’ll be harder to find his successor in 2021 as that draft pick drops. If he keeps playing like this, why would you want to right now if a top talent isn’t reachable in the draft?
Jones continues to get older and his injuries more limiting. The hamstring issue he’s been going through probably doesn’t affect him as badly five years ago as it does now. He’s not a rookie anymore, but his impact is still towering. Just look at how better Ryan has been this year with Jones on the field.
If you were wondering, Julio Jones still has an impact on the #Falcons offense.— Evan Birchfield (@EvanBirchfield) October 29, 2020
• Matt Ryan with Julio (wks 1,2,4,6,7)
11 TDs, INT, 343.4 ypg
• Matt Ryan without Jones (wks 3,5)
TD, 2 INT, 232.0 ypg
By this point, the two are a package deal in a way. Ryan needs Jones to be at his best; the two have been together for nearly a decade. Few quarterbacks have had such a symbiotic relationship with a receiver as Ryan has with Jones. Jones could probably go elsewhere and succeed, but he clearly wants to be here to finish his career.
As long suffering Falcons fans with little positive history, it’s what we need. We need the franchise’s best player to finish here. It’s about wins first, sure, but can anyone make a compelling argument this team is ever going to be in a better position to win if Jones isn’t on the field? Players like him don’t come around every day. There are plenty of great teams who win without transformational talents at receiver, but the Falcons are built and can continue to be built to win through Jones.
A new coaching staff could veer away from that, but why would you want to? He makes the offense elite at its best; Kyle Shanahan no doubt was at his best in ATL because he had Jones to move around the field like a all-encompassing chess piece.
Just for franchise specialness, look at how the Cardinals have managed Larry Fitzgerald. He’s not the elite danger he’s always been, but he’s going to be the Cardinals’ GOAT for a long time. It’s special when a franchise can keep an all-timer for their career; it matters to the history and overall success of your franchise when you can pull this off.
It’s no guarantee (just look at Peyton Manning and Tom Brady ending their careers elsewhere), but the Falcons have one player of this caliber in their history other than Jones: Deion Sanders. It matters that the Falcons keep Jones as badly as you might want that draft compensation. If he still wants to be here despite everything, why not grant that request and continue to see him dominate on the field when healthy? He might even be more open to adjusting his deal as time goes on.
After all, the contracts for both of those guys are tough, but you can work your way around it. To rid yourself of Ryan and Jones is to rid yourself of the entire ethos of the Falcons offense, something you have no guarantee of replicating it with new personnel. If that’s what’s to come, so be it. But you can make a fantastic case as to why it’d be smart for the Falcons to keep those two right where they are. Just look how good they are with even the base level of competence with coaching.
On the rest of the offense, Calvin Ridley is emerging as one of the best wideouts in the league, and the Jones/Ridley pairing could be a continued nightmare for years to come with the right coaching staff in place. Hayden Hurst has flashed some inspired play as he and Ryan have continued to click. Russell Gage is coming into his own as a sturdy third receiver, and Olamide Zaccheaus does plenty for a fourth option. The pass-catching arsenal is as good as it’s ever been.
The offensive line is severely underrated, too, with 2019 first rounders Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary both rounding form in year two into some of the best linemen the Falcons have had in awhile. Pair that with an always-reliable Jake Matthews and future center in Alex Hennessy, they’re set, fairly comfortably, at four of the five guard spots for the foreseeable future, three of those guys on rookie deals.
That’s a lot of stability for a bright offensive mind to come in and work with. The two best running backs, Todd Gurley and Brian Hill, are on expiring deals, but new offensive coaches usually like to retool this position since scheme can will production a lot easier on the ground than it can in the air. You can make a convincing case to bring Gurley back, but part of me wonders if a new regime would want cheaper, younger talent there to maximize.
If you rework the ground game (where scheme has to improve regardless of who is around), keep the quarterback, receiving options and offensive line how they are (with Hennessy stepping in for the likely-departing Alex Mack) and tweak certain spots here and there (new RBs, better tight end depth, perhaps a new, younger left guard), you can absolutely field an elite unit by next fall.
They’ve got to nail the coaching hire, of course, to get there. Dirk Koetter’s scheme is too safe, stale and inconsistent to work in a modern NFL, particularly in the red zone. Imagine, in the Carolina game, if Atlanta had scored touchdowns and not field goals. You’d say it was one of the best offenses in the NFL, on a night when the top RB in the room wasn’t able to do much and one of the top receivers got hurt. That’s saying a lot about the state of the coaching.
On defense, keep Grady Jarrett (plz), Deion Jones, Foye Oluokun and some of the promising youngsters like A.J. Terrell, Marlon Davidson, Kendall Sheffield, John Cominsky and Mykal Walker, try to re-sign Keanu Neal and do what you need to with the rest of the roter. The defense needs a minor rebuild, particularly in the secondary. The defensive line is solid but needs work for the pass rush (as always), and the defensive backs let up too many big plays.
Carolina shows that you don’t need elite players at every level to field a competent defense; the coaching and cohesion can do a lot. The Falcons spent years trying to adapt to a defensive mentality, but they don’t necessarily need an elite defense to win games. This team has been an offense-first franchise since Ryan was drafted; why veer away from that?
We haven’t a clue what the future holds; if they lose enough games, the idea of drafting a quarterback to succeed Ryan will grow more formidable and likely. If they keep playing like this, though, they’ll win some more games and be out of reach of a Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields-esque talent.
When that inevitably happens, don’t be surprised if the next offensive mind sees a lot he can work with and keeps things even keel on that side of the ball for a bit longer. If this is what Koetter can do, imagine what his successor could achieve.
Winning immediately has power to it for a new coach, and the best way for the Falcons to win in 2021 is to stay the course on offense. Keep Ryan and Jones in Falcons uniforms, hope for health and let it rip.