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Falcons - Cowboys recap: Atlanta outdoes themselves in last second loss to Dallas

Even a franchise with a rich history of losing in terrible and awe-inspiring ways can’t skate by this one.

Atlanta Falcons v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Being a Falcons fan is about deciding how much hope you’ll have in a given season, and how quickly you’ll allow the Falcons to drain that hope out of you. We have more than one Falcoholic writer weighing on fandom and the state of this team team today, but we have decades of evidence that those who have been the most cynical all these years have made the best choices,

Atlanta’s loss on Sunday was not the most consequential of the Dan Quinn era, or any other era of Falcons history, but it felt emblematic of the way this team defies logic and the odds to lose football games, even so. Atlanta had nearly a three touchdown lead at one point and a 15 point lead with minutes left, and Mike McCarthy and the Cowboys fumbled repeatedly and made boneheaded decisions that would’ve given another team an easy win. The Falcons have elevated the impossible loss to absurdist art, however.

And that’s what this was. Saying this game would’ve ended differently if Takk McKinley or Ricardo Allen or Foye Oluokun had been healthy is almost not worth saying. This game might have been different if a butterfly in Australia had flapped its wings a different way, given the final margin. What matters is that Atlanta once again found a way to blow a hard-fought, fun-to-watch lead in the most nightmarish way possible, and that has gone from being a defining feature of the Dan Quinn era to perhaps the only feature we’ll ultimately remember. Atlanta forced and recovered fumbles, Matt Ryan threw bullet passes, and both sides of the ball put the Falcons so far ahead most fanbases likely would’ve been comfortable.

Instead, the Falcons did impossible things over and over again, proving that the many fans who said no lead was safe have learned vital lessons. I know the last, oddly bouncing onside kick attempt was something that the Falcons seemed uncertain about jumping on, but the fact that no player even made an attempt at it was hard to believe. The missed opportunities in coverage, the way the Falcons volunteered Todd Gurley for early down up-the-middle runs when they didn’t need to, and the squandering of Dallas and their many unforced errors early hurt them all day.

I suggested as much in my “let’s nuke the Falcons from orbit” piece yesterday afternoon, but the Falcons can’t come out of this season with the same regime in place. This was my stance coming out of the 2019 season, but Arthur Blank saw the 6-2 finish and thought that might be representative of what this team could be in 2020. Two weeks into the season, Atlanta has been soundly defeated by Seattle and edged out in crushing, last-second fashion by another contender in Dallas. They may well win as their schedule gets easier in the coming weeks, but deep down no fan, player, or coach probably really believes that they are immune to losing in this exact heartbreaking fashion the next time they play a true contender. That doubt has calcified, fossilized, and been dug up so many times now that I don’t know that even Arthur Blank can pretend it just needs a little water and a prayer to be dissolved.

Atlanta still has talent, and I’m a big believer in their last couple of draft classes. This is not a case of the team needing to move on from Matt Ryan or Julio Jones or Deion Jones or Grady Jarrett, the cores of the next great Falcons team and players under contract for the long haul. This is a case of a team needing to decide when they believe it’s appropriate to look at what their record and the last couple of years suggests and consider changes in the front office and coaching staff, with some inevitable on-field alterations that every new regime implements to help them achieve their vision. I like Dan Quinn and company as people and I will always look back on the 2016 run fondly, no matter how unhappily it ended, but this loss reinforces just how necessary the change is, whether it comes today or in 15 weeks.

Arthur Blank and company need to recognize they bet on the 6-2 finish in 2019 being real because they wanted it to be real, not because they had compelling reasons to think it would be, and decide if there’s a move to be made today that might salvage this season. Only something like 10% of teams that have gone 0-2 since 2007 have made the playoffs, and even with one additional spot available this year, this team hasn’t done enough thus far to suggest they’ll be an exception to the rule. We can say these things until we’re blue in the face—and we will—but in the end it comes down to when Blank and company are ready to listen.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • Defensively, the Falcons got off to a killer start. They made two nice run stops on the first drive and then impacted Dak Prescott on third down, forcing a duck throw that Ricardo Allen knocked down. On the next drive, Deion Jones came flying in on third down to sack Prescott, forcing a fumble that John Cominsky was able to scoop up. With the banged up Dallas offensive line, Atlanta had to take advantage and they came in ready to do just that. It was a shame they couldn’t maintain that momentum.
  • Matt Ryan missed some throws in this one, and that’s probably the new normal for a quarterback who isn’t getting any younger. He still managed to chuck 4 touchdown passes and thread some needles against a game Dallas defense, especially on his 4th quarter bullet to Russell Gage to put the Falcons up 36-24. An aging Ryan is still one of the best quarterbacks this team has ever had, and on those short-to-intermediate throws he is capable of absurd things. He continues to play well in defeats, but again, it’s a shame great efforts aren’t rewarded with wins.
  • Calvin Ridley is amazing. He caught an off-balance pass from Matt Ryan for a touchdown to put the team up 7-0 and added another score in the second quarter, making it 21 touchdowns in just 31 games for the gifted receiver. With Julio soaking up attention but not producing, Ridley needs to be great for this offense to hum. Thankfully, he is.
  • On a day where Julio Jones seemed a little slowed and was not often targeted, you needed others to step up. Aside from Gage’s bad drop early on, he and Hayden Hurst delivered, helping to keep drives alive and (in Gage’s case) score points. As great as he is, Julio can’t be a huge part of the gameplan every week, and Gage and Hurst being quality options is critical for this team’s fortunes this year. Julio will kill it other weeks.
  • Foye Oluokun is ALSO amazing. Between his onside kick recoveries and the number of fumbles he forced against Dallas, his football intelligence and work ethic could not be more clear. It’s a shame he got hurt, because I would’ve liked his chances of locking down Dalton Schultz, Blake Bell, and the surprising number of passes they caught.
  • It was a better day for the Falcons corners overall, as they made some excellent plays while Dallas tight ends unexpectedly fare well. No one was better than Darqueze Dennard, who at least on first glance was physical, excellent in coverage, and all over the field when he needed to be.
  • Give this offensive line a lot of credit for holding up against an intimidating Dallas front. Matt Gono stepped in for Kaleb McGary and did a fine job, but the rest of the starting line also allowed Ryan plenty of time to complete a series of terrific if unlikely passes facing delayed pressure. It looks like McGary may unfortunately be out a while, which makes Gono’s readiness and the state of the overall line even more of a concern. Seeing them do well in this matchup matters, especially with quality defenses in Chicago and Green Bay looming.
  • Younghoe Koo was a little close on his first two extra point attempts, but he had an extremely solid day in the end, hitting three field goals and four extra points to ensure the Falcons stayed ahead. We still have yet to see him hit a long, pressure-packed kick in 2020, but he’s doing everything he else he needs to and was obviously the right choice at kicker for Atlanta in 2020.
  • The Falcons are often victimized by their own poor situational decision-making. On Sunday, they were helped by Dallas, with Mike McCarthy calling an awful, obvious fake punt attempt on 4th down that failed and then going for it on 2 down 15 when he didn’t need to, an attempt that failed and left Dallas down 9 with less than 5 minutes to go in the game. That last one might be a little controversial, but ensuring you’re down by two scores heading into the end of the game will never feel like a smart play to me. I’m always grateful when other coaches help Atlanta out, but unfortunately it didn’t prove to be decisivie here.

The Ugly

  • Russell Gage had a huge first week, but he started off this one poorly, dropping a 3rd down pass over the middle that he had his hands on. That’s just an unfortunate blip, but gah.
  • Later, Julio Jones let a nicely thrown ball from Gage go right through his hands despite having a couple of steps on the defender and having nothing but the end zone in front of him. That’s the kind of play you only see from someone as great as Julio a handful of times in his career, and somehow it never happens when the Falcons are losing big. Julio suggested his hamstring might not allow him to do everything he wants to do, which is a concern going forward.
  • Last week, the Falcons at least got off to a strong start before petering out a bit in the middle part of the game. Against Dallas, they failed miserably on their two opening drives, with Ryan locking in on heavily covered options (missing Todd Gurley on one third down) and the ground game yielding little. Had a couple of those drives been more productive, given the excellence that followed, the Falcons might’ve actually been able to hold on.
  • Injury reared its ugly head in this one. The Falcons lost Takk McKinley and Kaleb McGary while busily routing Dallas in the first quarter, and both players are absolutely critical pieces of their respective units. I love Matt Gono and I’m a believer that Steven Means, Allen Bailey, and even Charles Harris can be useful ends going forward, but downgrades are downgrades and the Falcons need to be close to full strength to plow ahead. An injury to Ricardo Allen also really hurt this team, especially when the defensive struggles started to pile up, and the loss of fumble-causing machine Foye Oluokun hurt even more.

We don’t know when those players will be back, but it’s going to put pressure on the reserves who need to step up.

  • Speaking of that, the pass rush really petered out after Takk and Oluokun exited the game, which was a very worrying sign. Dallas picked up the pace in the second half and that helped a great deal, but Takk has looked very good early on and Oluokun was hard to stop in the early going. The loss of both players and adjustments from the Cowboys doomed a very promising start for a pass rush that looked like it was heading for a stellar day, and that’s just not a good sign.
  • Many asked why this team went for two points in the second quarter, which would’ve made it a 21 point game instead of a 19 point game. We saw why when the Falcons defense minus Takk and Allen allowed Dallas to bring it within 5 in the late 3rd quarter, and even though they widened the lead it’s clear that their trust in this defense is not yet where it needs to be.

Of course, given that Atlanta lost by 1, it’s impossible to look back on this decision and wonder what might have been. Even when the Falcons correctly guess their future, they bungle how to handle it.

I cannot stress how bad the team’s effort on the onside kick was, even if it was obvious that the execution on the kick was so good that it created some doubt as to whether the Falcons should try for it. As the announcers noted on the broadcast, there was no reason for Atlanta to wait to fall on the ball, because it only needs to go 10 yards for Dallas to recover, and the Falcons could have tried to fall on the ball at any moment. Their hesitation cost them, and Dallas recovered and had plenty of time to drive down the field and win the game.

  • In all three phases, the Falcons failed when it counted. Atlanta’s defense let the Cowboys back into it, Atlanta’s offense blew opportunities to score, and the special teams did what they did on the final play of the game. This was not the worst game for any unit in a vacuum, but their failures melded in a way that ensured they’d lose the game. Execution is a factor there, but it’s impossible not to point to a coaching staff that wasted early downs, had no answers for post-halftime adjustments from the Cowboys, and didn’t have the Falcons ready to handle an inevitable onside kick.

The coaching versus execution debate obscures a fundamental truth: The Falcons are not going to tear this roster down, so the only real recourse for Rich McKay and Blank is bringing in a new coaching staff. There are always enough mistakes to justify that, but there’s little question that the next coaching staff is also going to need to stress discipline that the Falcons are currently lacking.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

I’ll give it to Ryan for tossing four touchdowns and playing the kind of clean, potent game that so often wins things for the Falcons. Honorable mention to Foye Oluokun, Calvin Ridley, and probably a half dozen others, but Ryan did fare well in this one, and I don’t want to go two weeks with no award.

One Takeaway

The Falcons aren’t actually invincible in Week 2 under Dan Quinn, another fun stat that has fallen by the wayside and has been replaced by far more unpleasant ones.

Next Week

The Bears! Chicago is 2-0 thus far but scored just 17 points against the New York Giants, so there’s an opportunity for Atlanta to win this next one. They obviously need to in order to avoid the dreaded, fatal 0-3 hole. Check out Windy City Gridiron for more.

Final Word

Inevitable.