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Where do the Falcons go from here?

There are three potential paths ahead for the franchise in 2020, but nothing save a lot of wins is going to stave off the seemingly inevitable end of the Dan Quinn era.

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

Most Falcons losses are easier to digest the next day. Everyone’s mileage is different with this football team, but I tend to ride the roller coaster during the game and its immediate aftermath, and find it much easier to be somewhat rational about it in the days ahead.

The cold light of day hasn’t done much for me this morning, though. All of us except the most relentlessly positive Falcons fans hit a point where we needed to see a massive, improbable string of wins or a regime change at some point during that long losing streak last year, and the fact that we effectively got neither (the 6-2 run came when the year was already lost) made it difficult to think this season was going to be considerably better. Now that the team is 0-2 and coming off another historic loss,

NFL teams can put their fans through a lot. There are Browns and Jets fans who show up every week despite decades upon decades of seasons with only a handful of winning seasons, and not even a sniff of a Super Bowl. The fact that we’re all still here talking about the Falcons is proof that for many of us, there’s no actual breaking point.

At some point, though, teams recognize that wins are the only thing that staves off major changes, because fans will only put up with incompetence from the same group of people for so long. People need some hope, even if history suggests a team is doomed to crash and burn forever, and right now the Falcons are going to struggle to give them that without a massive turnaround or decisive, thorough changes to the organization itself.

With that in mind, I think the Falcons find themselves in a place where there are only three possible paths forward. All of them will be painful for different reasons, because that’s what happens when a team gets this low.

The Falcons start winning, keep winning, and don’t stop winning

We are not talking about the kind of herky-jerky getting to .500 and then crashing back down we saw in 2018. We’re certainly not talking about this team digging themselves into a hole it’s impossible to get out of and then stringing together some victories to make it seem better. We’re talking about beating the Bears, beating the Packers, and rolling to such an extent that they defy their slim playoffs odd at the moment and push into the postseason.

That kind of stretch would be deeply satisfying for the Falcons themselves, who have consistently pushed the narrative both quietly and loudly that they are almost there and people who do not believe in them will pay for their insolence. It is not a completely impossible outcome, but I can tell you right now that I’m not betting on it.

This will not be a universally welcomed outcome, should it happen, because the number of fans who believe Quinn and company are going to eventually blow it is not a small number anymore. It is the outcome that the Falcons will be hoping for when they line up against the Bears in Week 3 and so on and so forth, but it will only take another loss or two for it to become an impossible road.

The Falcons keep losing, but string things out

This is the likeliest outcome. Last year, there was plenty of chatter about Arthur Blank potentially firing Dan Quinn during the bye week. The team was 1-7, Dan Quinn’s (possibly Blank-demanded) changes to the coaching staff had largely been a disaster, and the team appeared to have no answers. Blank is not a guy who likes to make changes midseason, though, and so he waited to see what would happen.

The fatal mistake that followed was this team deciding that the 6-2 stretch that followed was indicative of the team’s true ability and coaching acumen, a decision Blank is surely coming to regret already. It’s human nature to not want to admit to your mistakes—the sunk cost fallacy is a real thing for a reason—and Blank seems likely to wait until even the glimmer of hope of this team turning things around is extinguished before he cleans house. If you talked yourself into this regime as currently constructed based on a half-season run many fans and analysts openly told you they thought was a mirage, you’re going to be waiting for the next run to justify your decision.

Jeff Schultz at The Athletic and others have made it clear they don’t think Blank will wait until the end of the year this time around if things keep going south. I think anytime after 0-4 all bets are off, but still wouldn’t bet on anything happening until the bye week, given Blank’s evident fondness for his coach and front office staff, the difficulty he’ll have admitting his mistake at the end of 2019, and his willingness to buy into even small streaks as evidence of something great to come.

Arthur Blank makes an uncharacteristic decision

Firing Dan Quinn now is the nuclear option and one that I think an ever-increasing number of fans, local writers and analysts, and national talking heads are pushing for. If not now, then in the first month of the season.

Quinn has loaded his coaching staff with former head coaches and at least once-promising assistants. That means making a move now would let this team move ahead with Raheem Morris or Dirk Koetter as the interim head coach, which doesn’t sound thrilling but does ensure the Falcons would have someone to pilot the team the rest of the way. If Blank and Rich McKay believe, as they probably should, that things are not going to get significantly better from here, they may want to see whether this team responds to a coaching change and give themselves a head start on the search for the next head coach. They may also want to do something to give fans a sense that things are not spiraling out of control.

There’s no indication Blank is considering doing this right now, for all the reasons I outlined in the previous section. I do think it will come down to when he feels he’s completely lost the fans, and that feeling can’t be all that far away.