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If the Falcons do hope to win now, they are right to bet on offense

Of the moves the Falcons have made this offseason, the most notable have come on offense.

NFL: Altanta Falcons OTA Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Falcons are in the midst of one of the most turbulent offseasons they’ve had in quite some time.

They’ve brought in a new head coach and general manager, parted ways with many notable players and drafted a potentially generational offensive weapon in tight end Kyle Pitts. Oh, and there’s that Julio Jones bit as well.

There’s no telling when the calming eye of this offseason hurricane will finally arrive, but Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith have consistently clung to the same message and mission throughout it all: Compete in the short term while establishing a formula for lasting success.

In every NFL season, there are teams who seemingly come out of nowhere to fight for a playoff spot. With an extra postseason slot now in play, that should only create more competition for the NFL’s second season. While it may not seem right now that the Falcons should be considered a true playoff contender, history shows us that we may be having a different conversation later this fall.

Why focus on offense?

For that to come to fruition, Atlanta will have to make a jump in several areas. Of the moves the Falcons have made this offseason, the most notable have come on offense. In addition to Pitts, the Falcons brought in running back Mike Davis, versatile weapon Cordarelle Patterson and offensive guard Josh Andrews.

Of course, the Falcons already had a great foundation in place on offense with Matt Ryan, Calvin Ridley and three returning starters on the offensive line. That’s not even to mention Hayden Hurst and Russell Gage. Even if Jones ends up somewhere else, Atlanta has a good setup for Smith to work with in his first season.

It’s notable that outside of the safety position, which had a massive amount of turnover this year, the team didn’t do much to overhaul a defense that has been the primary weakness over the years. As it turns out, building up the offense might be the smart bet for Atlanta. Not only does it play to Smith’s strengths as a play-caller, but history suggests it’s the right move.

Defense may win championships, but offense seems to be the key to success in the regular season. Since 2015, the No. 1 seed in the AFC has averaged a fifth-place finish in offensive DVOA and a 17th-place finish in defensive DVOA. The 2015 Denver Broncos, which ranked 24th in offensive DVOA and first in defensive DVOA, skews that number quite a bit. Without including that team, the average finish on offense is 1.4 and 20.2 on defense. Although to a lesser degree, the No. 1 seed in the NFC follows a similar pattern; teams had an average DVOA placement of 4.8 on offense and 8.1 on defense.

In four of the last six seasons one of the No. 1 seeds ranked first in offensive DVOA, and – 2015 Broncos excluded – no top playoff seed has finished ranked lower than seventh in offensive DVOA. But the idea that offensive success is a strong barometer for regular season success doesn’t just apply to the top playoff teams.

Playoff Units DVOA Rankings

Season No. of playoff teams with Top 10 offensive DVOA No. of playoff teams with Top 10 defensive DVOA
Season No. of playoff teams with Top 10 offensive DVOA No. of playoff teams with Top 10 defensive DVOA
2020 9 8
2019 8 6
2018 7 6
2017 8 7
2016 6 3
2015 7 8

It’s no secret that the league has become more offensively oriented, but it’s still notable that the 2015 season was the last time that more top-10 defenses reached the playoffs than top-10 offenses.

The Falcons finished inside the top 10 in offensive DVOA in 2016, 2017 and 2018, but they’ve finished the last two seasons ranked 15th and 21st, respectively. Given the players in place on that side of the ball, it’s a unit that has underperformed. Those offensive struggles are part of the reason a new coaching staff is in place, but the specific coaches brought in to lead the offense and defense matter here too.

After looking at how each head coach or coordinator change impacted year-to-year change in DVOA since 2015, no real pattern emerged. There were 26 instances of an offense improving after a coaching change, compared to 27 times the unit got worse following a change. Similarly, 26 changes resulted in an improved defense while 28 changes led to a decline in defensive performance.

So, on a macro level, a coaching change appears just as likely to help as it is to hurt. But let’s take a more micro view of how Smith and Dean Pees have impacted their units over the years.

The new additions

Smith inherited a Tennessee offense that finished the 2018 season ranked 23rd in DVOA. In Smith’s first year as coordinator, the Titans ranked sixth in offensive DVOA. That leap of 17 spots was fourth-best among all offensive coaching changes over the last six seasons. Furthermore, he joins Sean McVay as the only two coaches to finish with a top-five offense in his second season.

Since 2015, half of the teams that finish in the top 10 in offensive DVOA one year fall out of the top 10 the next year. Like McVay, Smith proved he was capable of not just implementing a successful system but creating multi-year success – something Arthur Blank wants here in Atlanta.

Pees had a similarly spectacular impact in his first turn as an NFL coordinator. The New England Patriots finished the 2005 season ranked 28th in defensive DVOA, but Pees helped the unit improve to seventh in 2006. Like Smith, Pees had year-to-year success, finishing with the 10th-ranked defense in 2007.

His first year as the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive coordinator was a bit rockier. Inheriting the top-ranked defense in the league, Pees coached a group that ended the 2012 season ranked 19th in defensive DVOA. That comes with a couple of caveats, however. It was the final season in Baltimore for Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, who were in their twilight, and the teams sustained some key injuries on the defensive side of the ball. The Ravens’ defense improved as the season wore on, though, and played a key role in the team’s Super Bowl run, forcing 10 turnovers and recording nine sacks in the playoffs.

In Tennessee, where Pees linked up with Smith, he helped the Titans make a five-spot jump in defensive DVOA, and it finished ranked 18th in both 2018 and 2019.

Atlanta actually finished ranked 14th in defensive DVOA this past season, which may come as a surprise to some people. Given the departures of players like Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal, and no real additions to the team’s pass rush, it might be hard to see a big jump from the unit. But that’s not what the Falcons seem to be betting on.

If Pees can keep his defense around the middle of the pack or show some slight improvement as the season goes along, a jump on offense should make the Falcons at least frisky in 2021. Should Smith provide the same type of boost he did in Tennessee for an offense with a great quarterback in place and some excellent complementary weapons, the Falcons could really surprise people this fall.