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A coaching change won’t be enough to fix what ails the Atlanta Falcons

The team’s future depends on an honest look at the many difficulties ahead of them, and a willingness to make real change.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Whether the Falcons move on from Dan Quinn this morning, a week from now, or the end of the season, 2020 looks a lost year for Atlanta. What’s become uncomfortably clear is that a coaching change is not going to be enough by itself to prevent 2021 from becoming a lost year, too.

That’s a function of how this team has been built. During the good times, not many people were complaining about huge contracts for Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Alex Mack, and so forth because the team was winning. We’ve said for a while now that Atlanta’s been chasing 2016 with diminishing returns, and one of the ways they’ve done that is by investing in the stars they’ve drafted and paying the supplemental pieces they’ve thought they needed right up to the cap. As I wrote back in August, this team has been built to win right now for a while, but this season that was particularly true given a nasty combination of coaching expectations, Matt Ryan’s age, and the team’s dire cap picture heading into 2021.

There are 12 weeks to go in the 2020 season, so I don’t intend to belabor this point depressingly early in the year, but here goes: The Falcons either need to accept that next year is going to be a bridge year to something else or consider drastically re-tooling the roster.

Here’s why:

  • The Falcons have no cap space. Atlanta’s contract structures always meant they’d have a tight cap picture in 2021, but the COVID-19 impacts on the NFL’s bottom line arrived to squeeze things further at the worst possible times. The Falcons are currently set to be over $27 million in the red for next season, meaning they’ll have to re-structure contracts and release players just to get under the cap. While they’re set to go into 2022 with plenty of money, they can expect to spend on Calvin Ridley’s next deal, among others.
  • The Falcons have a long list of free agents. Takk McKinley, three starting safeties (Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen, and Damontae Kazee), Alex Mack, Todd Gurley, and the suddenly useful Charles Harris are all heading into free agency next year. The Falcons will quite simply have to shed almost all over those players barring some very fine cap wizardry, and losing players like Takk, the safety group, and even Harris is not something that was necessarily expected for Atlanta next year. It would be fair to say that beyond center, where Matt Hennessy is expected to step in next year, there’s no long-term starter established at any of those positions, though Jaylinn Hawkins will hope to get healthy and stake his claim at strong safety sooner than later.
  • Nobody’s getting younger. I don’t just mean you and I, though coasting into Tuesday on three hours of sleep is not as easy as it used to be for me, at least. I’m talking about Matt Ryan (36 next year), Julio Jones (32), Jake Matthews (29), Grady Jarrett (28), and so on. Core players the Falcons have counted on for close to a decade or have come to rely on in the past several years are either entering their NFL middle age or exiting it, and Julio’s 2020 injury struggles and Ryan’s plain old struggles the last two games suggest we can’t count on either one playing elite football continuously going forward.
  • This team just isn’t good enough. The elite talent on hand and the two well-received draft classes in 2019 and 2020 can’t obscure something that I’ve been hesitant to admit to myself for a long while now. Long-term I still absolutely love players like Ridley, Russell Gage, Chris Lindstrom, Marlon Davidson, Foye Oluokun, and A.J. Terrell, and those guys will be part of the next great Falcons team if it arrives at any point in the next few years. Beyond them, there are so many questions to be asked, ranging in importance and severity from “is Younghoe Koo the future at kicker?” to “does this team need to entirely retool its defensive line in the years to come?” Coaching alone does not explain this team’s ability to blow leads, its shakiness in the secondary and in coverage more generally, and the offense’s inability to produce results when it absolutely has to, even if the talent on hand does suggest they’re better than this.

What this all suggests is that the Falcons have two possible roads ahead of them. The first is going into next season with roster holes even larger than the holes in their coverage against Green Bay and will have to be hyper-reliant on guys like Ryan, Julio, Jarrett, and Deion Jones and recent draft picks to pull them out of their current morass. That strategy has had diminishing returns over the last couple of seasons and would require huge leaps forward from their 2019 and 2020 draft class, to say nothing of the class ahead, while placing a ton of onus on the next coaching staff to unwind all the bad habits and boneheaded scheming of the current group. The second is taking a critical look at drafting Matt Ryan’s future replacement, even if they can’t really move Ryan in 2021 and would be unlikely to bench him unless he craters later this year, and figuring out whether players like Julio and even Debo should be shopped for the picks and potentially affordable players who will key long-term improvement in Atlanta, with only Grady Jarrett truly being an untouchable guy in that process.

Both of those roads are fraught, but they are the inevitable result of a team pushing its chips in to the center of the table, getting slammed with awful injury and cap luck, and not actually winning games. The first is probably the most logical because the Falcons will still likely want the Joneses and Jake Matthews and the like here for the next coaching staff to utilize beyond 2021 and it does not involve actively blowing up the team, something Arthur Blank is very clearly reluctant to do. The second hurts the team’s star power and is going to be tough on players, the front office, and fans, but would give the right staff the capital they need to heave this train back on the tracks for 2022 and beyond. Given the cap picture, at minimum, it does not seem like the Falcons will be able to wriggle their way into keeping the roster more or less status quo for one more year.

The Falcons are a team in trouble in the short term, but they’re also in need of some stellar planning and hard conversations for the future, given that a base level of success is no longer guaranteed just by having a handful of bright lights on the roster. Mike Smith was fond of saying that there were no sacred cows in Atlanta toward the end of his tenure, a mantra the team didn’t really mean then but probably needs to mean now. Regardless of who takes over in Atlanta and whether the team cleans house from top to bottom or just sticks to turning over the coaching staff, 2021 will be a year of change for the Falcons, because there’s finally no way to avoid that change.