Silver linings are few and far between for teams that start a season 0-5. The Falcons were essentially buried in early October after reaching that mark — no NFL team in history has ever bounced back from such a start to make the playoffs, and the 1992 San Diego Chargers are the only team to ever make it to the post season after starting 0-4. Even with the expanded playoff format this season, it’s something that just doesn’t happen.
It was clear to most that Dan Quinn should not have survived a second consecutive 7-9 season in 2019, during which playoff contention wasn’t even sniffed due to the team’s 1-7 record at the halfway point. That realization went from clear to crystal after Quinn, along with General Manager Thomas Dimitroff, was shown the door following five consecutive defeats to begin 2020.
Defensive Coordinator Raheem Morris took over a half sunken ship following Quinn’s departure, in what had already become a lost season. Linebackers Coach Jeff Ulbrich worked his way up another rung on the coaching ladder to step into Morris’ suddenly vacant DC role. On the surface, the team has been decent following the transition, as evidenced by the 4-3 record since the changes were made.
The disgusting loss to the Lions in Week 7 aside, the Falcons performed well enough to warrant a conversion about potentially removing the interim tag from Morris’ name following the season and making him the head coach on a permanent basis following the first month of his leadership, during which Atlanta went 3-1.
Winning two games in three weeks against the New Orleans Saints following that 3-1 run would have gone a long way in legitimizing that conversation. Morris was given the golden opportunity of winning this fanbase over in those games against the Saints, and the task didn’t seem as tall when Drew Brees was placed on IR and Taysom Hill was named the starting quarterback in relief.
Losing to the Saints is always disappointing no matter what the teams’ records are — this is the most intense rivalry in the NFL, after all. Getting swept by the Saints over the course of three weeks is infuriating. Getting swept by a Saints team starting Taysom Hill at QB, in that same three-week stretch, is maybe the greatest indictment possible on Morris’ prospects to remain in Atlanta following this season.
Morris will likely be given the opportunity to reprise his role as a defensive coordinator elsewhere next season, and he may even be given the opportunity to be a head coach. Dirk Koetter continues to get opportunities in the NFL no matter what as a retread, and it wouldn’t be surprise me to see that happen again. Ulbrich will also garner interest as a defensive assistant either in the NFL or in the college ranks (he has prior experience in the role at UCLA as well).
What is painfully clear by virtue of what we have just seen unfold in two matchups against the Saints, however, is that every member of this coaching staff should be deemed irredeemable following this season as far as the Atlanta Falcons are concerned. Not a single one of them should be back no matter what happens the rest of the season.
Dirk Koetter’s ineptitude as Atlanta’s offensive coordinator this season (and in the past) has been well documented and me rehashing what’s been written about him on this website over and over again would be redundant. It’s clear that he’s held an incredibly talented offense back and it’s an absolute travesty that a unit this talented ranks outside the top 10 in both yards per game and points scored per game.
I’m more interested in talking about the defense right now.
What we saw from Morris and Ulbrich’s defensive unit in Weeks 11 and 13 was a reminder that the successes celebrated in the early part following their promotions was more the product of a weak schedule than something that has actual staying power.
Of the four wins Atlanta has registered since the coaching change, only one came against a team currently above .500 — the suddenly sputtering 7-5 Las Vegas Raiders who came one historically baffling defensive play call by Gregg Williams away from losing to the 0-12 Jets.
Taysom Hill came into the Week 11 contest with 18 career passing attempts, nine career completions, 205 career passing yards and not a single touchdown pass to his name (this doesn’t count the 50-yard pass he had in last year’s Wildcard round which was completely under-thrown and saved by the wide open wide receiver).
In 2.5 years in the NFL, Taysom Hill has been a glorified gadget player. Any competent defense shouldn’t have had many issues shutting down an offense led by such a quarterback. What Morris and Ulbrich’s defense did, however, was make Hill look like a competent player at the position.
In two matchups against him, the Falcons allowed Hill to generate a combined 597 total yards (465 passing; 132 rushing), run for two touchdowns and to throw the first two touchdown passes of his career. His passer ratings were a robust 108.9 and 107.0 in the two matchups.
By comparison, Hill’s numbers in the only other game he started that wasn’t against Atlanta — against the Denver Broncos’ mediocre defense in Week 12 — were awful. He had just 122 combined yards (78 passing; 44 rushing), two rushing touchdowns and one interception. His passer rating was a putrid 43.2.
Some will say the defense played well because they didn’t give up more than 24 points in either matchup, but did it really? The Saints were in clock killing mode for much of the fourth quarter in the first matchup. In the second game, the Falcons were very fortunate that kicker Wil Lutz missed a 40-yard field goal (just his second miss from inside 50 yards this season), and that he was injured enough on the subsequent drive to push Sean Payton to go for it on 4th down in field goal range (the conversion was unsuccessful).
As irritating as it was watching Hill move the ball up and down the field against the Falcons, the main problem is more deep-seated than that. Morris and Ulbrich were thoroughly out-schemed and out-coached in both games by a head coach in Sean Payton who was operating with a quarterback who had nine career completions before those games were played.
Atlanta’s duo of defensive minds did absolutely nothing to inspire confidence in the idea that they can match up with Payton beyond this season, and that’s unacceptable considering that the road to divisional success currently goes through New Orleans.
Yes, it’s easy to point the finger at Koetter’s uninspiring play calling and the offense (I agree that the offense was terrible in both games), but a comeback win this week would have just masked the uninspired job this coaching staff as a whole has done in the two biggest games of the season.
The Falcons currently rank as the sixth-worst total defense in the NFL, giving up 394.4 yards per game. Yes, they did get better after Week 5, allowing 297.1 yards per game since that mark, but Morris and Ulbrich shouldn’t be given reprieve from the first five weeks. As much as people want to place all of the blame on Dan Quinn’s shoulders, Morris and Ulbrich had a firm hand in this team’s poor start. They were still the ones calling the defensive plays when this unit gave up 446 yards per game in those first five games to aid in this team’s early season burial.
Following three consecutive seasons missing the playoffs, which were preceded by the worst collapse in Super Bowl history and an incredibly disappointing playoff finish the following year, this franchise is in desperate need of a complete culture change.
Firing Quinn and Dimitroff was the first step in achieving that reset; getting rid of their leftovers is what the team needs to do next. They’ll quickly waste the rest of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones’ primes if they don’t.