The Atlanta Falcons endured a lot of hardship over the past decade. Despite having by far the most consistent success in franchise history since Matt Ryan arrived in 2008, fans had to endure the worst blown lead in the history of the game on the biggest stage of all, and two separate three-year streaks of losing seasons — both of which culminated in the firing of the head coach and a search for a new regime.
However, the Falcons also gave us the franchise’s greatest offense of all time and one of the best ever in league history during that magical 2016 season. It was a truly special group from top to bottom, with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and quarterback Matt Ryan at the height of their powers. The parts all came together to culminate in one of the most enjoyable years of football ever for Atlanta. Sure, the ending was ... not great, but everything up until that point was incredibly fun — and downright unstoppable for most of the season.
Let’s take an opportunity to appreciate Atlanta’s greatest ever offense—and perhaps, greatest ever team—by taking a closer look at what made the 2016 Falcons so special and some of their most impressive statistics.
Beyond the most obvious detail in being one of only two teams in franchise history to make the Super Bowl, the 2016 Falcons were incredibly dominant on offense in the regular season and playoffs as well. The most striking, and important, offensive statistic is scoring: The 2016 Falcons were the kings by a massive margin. Atlanta’s offense managed an incredible 540 points, which led the league and outpaced the second-place team by 71 and the third-place team by 99.
Those 540 points also blew past the previous franchise record of 442 held by the excellent 1998 squad, which also went to a Super Bowl. That’s a difference of 98 points, which drives home how incredible this unit really was at putting points on the board. In terms of all-time numbers, the Falcons’ 2016 point total is currently tied for eighth with the 2000 Rams and 1983 Washington.
2016’s offense was also impressive in its balance and efficiency. The Falcons were second in total yards per game (415.8) despite finishing only 26th in offensive plays per game — they achieved this by with an incredible 6.7 yards per play, which led the league. One of the keys to this efficiency was a play-action heavy approach which leaned on a strong run game to support an opportunistic and aggressive passing game.
2016 remains one of the most balanced seasons ever for Atlanta. The passing game has been a consistent strength since Ryan’s arrival in 2008, but the rushing attack has been hot-and-cold since Michael Turner began to slow down in 2012. Everything came together in 2016, with the Falcons putting together the third-ranked passing offense (at 295.3 yards per game) and the fifth-ranked rushing offense (at 120.5 yards per game).
Again, efficiency was the name of the game for Atlanta. Through the air, the Falcons led the league in yards per attempt with an incredible 9.2—outpacing the second-place team by an entire yard. On the ground, the team put up an excellent 4.6 yards per carry — tied for fourth with the Titans and Bears — behind a two-headed backfield of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. It goes without saying that these statistics — both in terms of total yardage and efficiency — are among the best in franchise history as well.
Any discussion of Atlanta’s 2016 season must include copious praise for quarterback Matt Ryan, who was named league MVP for one of the best quarterback seasons in NFL history by several important metrics. Ryan is already the best quarterback in franchise history, owning nine of the top 10 passing seasons — Jeff George still has 10th overall, with 4,143 yards, although Ryan is very likely to eclipse that number in 2021. His 2016 season, however, was truly special and blew away his closest competition — Chris Chandler’s 1998 — in every category but yards per attempt, where Chandler produced an incredible 9.6.
Ryan’s 2016 featured the fifth-highest yards per attempt of any season in NFL history (post-merger, minimum 200 attempts) at 9.3. The only quarterbacks ahead of him are Kurt Warner (2000, 9.9 YPA), Chris Chandler (1998, 9.6), Ryan Tannehill (2019, 9.6), and Ken Stabler (1976, 9.4). It also ranked as the seventh-best season of all-time in passer rating with 117.1 — just .1 off of Tom Brady’s 2007—and the 16th-best season of all time in total passing yardage with 4,944. Ryan could have easily eclipsed the 5,000-yard mark in the final game of the season, but the team stopped passing in the fourth quarter with the game well in hand.
Outside of the gaudy stats, 2016 featured the most dominant playoff run in history for the Falcons. While the 1998 squad also made the Super Bowl, they played two very close games: a 20-18 victory over the 49ers in the Divisional Round, and a 30-27 nail-biter against the Vikings in the Conference Championship that was won on a field goal by Morten Andersen in overtime. There were no such issues during the 2016 playoffs.
The Divisional Round matchup against the Seahawks started with Seattle taking a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, before the Falcons turned on the jets with a 19-point second quarter. Atlanta would never relinquish their 19-10 halftime lead, scoring several more times en route to a comfortable 36-20 victory. Ryan was nearly flawless, with a 70% completion rate for 338 yards and three TDs along with a 125.7 passer rating.
In the NFC Championship, things were even more lopsided. The Falcons faced a Packers team coming off an upset victory against the No. 1 seed Cowboys, but the game was all but over by halftime. Atlanta charged out to 24-0 lead and never let up, finishing with a dominant 44-21 victory.
The game featured another stellar performance from Matt Ryan, who put together a 71% completion rate for 392 yards and four TDs with an incredible 139.4 passer rating—upstaging and thoroughly outplaying Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, who was also in contention for league MVP. Julio Jones also had a magnificent outing, turning nine catches into 180 yards (20.0 YPC) and two TDs in one of the best playoff games ever for a wide receiver.
I won’t linger long on the Super Bowl. Suffice it to say that Atlanta’s offense delivered as you’d expect for the best team in franchise history and the Falcons did enough to win the game. We all know how things transpired and it will always hurt to think about “what if?” — particularly if Atlanta had gotten the ball first in overtime — but it shouldn’t ruin the rest of a magical and truly special 2016 for fans and analysts.
The 2016 Falcons were without a doubt the best offense in franchise history and, I believe, the greatest Atlanta team of all time. 1998 is certainly competitive — that squad featured a much better defense, for instance, and a very memorable finish to the NFC Championship game — but still lags behind 2016 in many metrics.
With Matt Ryan still playing at a high level and a new regime taking the reins for the 2021 season, we’ll hope for similar success stories in the near future.