After years of disappointment and failing to live up to expectations, it’s time for the Atlanta Falcons to rebuild.
The 2020-21 NFL season thus far has been quite the disappointment for the Atlanta Falcons. Through seven weeks, the Falcons sport a 1-6 record and have one of the three worst records in the entire league. Considering they have one of the most difficult schedules in the NFL, it doesn’t look like the Falcons will be able to salvage their season.
A little less than four years ago, the Atlanta Falcons were one of the best teams in the NFL and advanced to the Super Bowl. Now they’re one of the worst teams in the league despite having plenty of talent on their roster. This begs a two-fold question. How did they get to this point and what’s the next step? Both questions have complex answers and the next step for this franchise will require a leap of faith from both their ownership and its front office.
The collapse of the Atlanta Falcons began on February 5, 2017, the day of Super Bowl 51. They dominated the New England Patriots for three quarters and took a 28-3 lead in the third quarter. At this point, it looked like the Falcons were going to shock the world and knock off the Patriots for their first championship in franchise history. What happened next has haunted them and their fanbase ever since.
Facing an 18-point fourth-quarter deficit, the Patriots went on a huge run and quickly erased the Falcons’ double-digit lead. The Falcons shot themselves in the foot late in the fourth quarter when their former offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, elected to pass the ball even though they were in a position to kick a game-clinching field goal. The Falcons got knocked out of field goal range and the Patriots responded with 14 straight points to win the game in overtime.
This was a brutal loss for the Falcons and the franchise has yet to recover from their Super Bowl collapse. Since that night three years ago, they have an unimpressive record of 25-28 and they’ve only made the playoffs once. This run of mediocrity is extremely confusing considering the amount of talent they’ve had on their roster over the last few seasons.
A team featuring Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Grady Jarrett, Calvin Ridley, Devonta Freeman, and a plethora of other talented players on both sides of the ball shouldn’t consistently miss the playoffs. The Falcons’ free fall to the bottom of the NFL after Super Bowl 51 is inexcusable and it all starts with the head coach, Dan Quinn.
Quinn may have a Super Bowl appearance under his belt, but he is a huge reason why the Falcons are in this position. His cup-half-full attitude and his refusal to adjust his defensive scheme to fit his personnel have played a huge role in the team’s decline.
Prior to becoming the Atlanta Falcons’ head coach, Dan Quinn was the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive coordinator from 2013-2014. He was the mastermind behind the “Legion of Boom” defense that dominated the NFL in the early 2010s. When he was hired as the Falcons’ head coach in 2015, he implemented the same defense that led the Seahawks to the Super Bowl in 2013.
Quinn’s defense is quite simple. He primarily runs Cover 3 and Tampa 2 zone coverage. Cover 3 has one high safety with three deep thirds, while Tampa 2 has two high safeties with the middle linebacker in a deep blue. Tampa 2 is the same as cover 2 except the middle linebacker has to play deep in coverage rather than being closer to the line of scrimmage.
The key to this defense being successful is having a good pass rush without a blitz. The “Legion of Boom” Seahawks were great at putting pressure on the opposing quarterback. In 2013 the Seahawks ranked 8th in the league in sacks and 6th in quarterback hits. This, along with the incredible performances from Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, and Kam Chancellor, is why this defense worked so well.
If this defense worked in Seattle, why has the Falcons’ defense been awful for the last three seasons? It’s because they haven’t had a reliable pass rush. The last time they had a good pass rusher (Vic Beasley in 2016), they were one mismanaged drive away from a championship.
Since the Falcons haven’t had a reliable pass rusher and they don’t blitz a lot, they’ve been one of the worst teams in the league in terms of pressuring opposing quarterbacks. Combine their lackluster pass rush with a young and inexperienced secondary and you have one of the worst defenses in the NFL.
Dan Quinn’s defensive scheme has proven to work with the right personnel, but the Falcons don’t have the necessary pieces to be successful in this defense. For whatever reason, Quinn never changed his defense to fit the roster in front of him. That’s a huge issue, and it’s one of the main reasons why the Falcons collapsed.
The final issue with Dan Quinn is his inability to close games. After the Super Bowl collapse in 2017, the Falcons gained a reputation for being unable to maintain a big lead. This label was proven true in the following years as the Falcons continued to blow lead after lead. The franchise has become one big meme at this point and the blame belongs to Dan Quinn and his defense.
The reason why the Falcons continue to blow big leads is that they get extremely conservative when they go up by over two possessions. In these scenarios, they play very soft coverage on the back end which allows teams to drive up the field without draining the clock. This is easily the most frustrating part of Quinn’s legacy in Atlanta.
The next step for the Falcons is obvious: They have to rebuild.
For this franchise to move forward on a path to success, they have to make the tough decision to blow everything up and start over. The Falcons’ fanbase may not like this idea, but this is the only answer considering the age of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones.
To kick off the rebuild, they have to hire a new head coach. They fired Quinn after week five so now they have to replace him. The ideal hire for this position is Eric Bieniemy, who is currently the Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive coordinator. He has spent the past seven years under Andy Reid and would bring a new mindset and a new culture to Atlanta.
His experience next to Reid and Patrick Mahomes would be extremely valuable, especially if they bring in a young quarterback in the offseason.
Speaking of bringing in a young quarterback, this is the second step the Falcons need to take. Matt Ryan is the greatest quarterback in the history of the franchise, but he’s getting up there in age. He’s 35 years old and his physical tools are quickly fading away. If they get rid of him next year, they’ll have to take on a dead cap hit of nearly $50 million.
This is also the perfect year to be terrible because the 2021 NFL Draft features three potential franchise quarterbacks: Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, and Trey Lance. The Falcons should trade whatever it takes to get the number one pick. Even if they have to trade Matt Ryan and their next four first-round picks, they should do it. They should do whatever it takes to bring Trevor Lawrence back home.
Even if they can’t get the number one pick, they’ll likely be in a position to select Justin Fields or Trey Lance. Hiring Eric Bieniemy and drafting Fields or Lance would make the upcoming off-season a massive success.
After they get a new head coach and a rookie quarterback, the Falcons need to gut their roster. They need to get rid of pretty much everyone except for Calvin Ridley, Deion Jones, Grady Jarrett, and anyone drafted this past year. Yes, even Julio Jones needs to be traded as soon as possible.
Admittedly, this will be extremely difficult to pull off right now. Moving the contracts of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones will force the Falcons to take on a cap hit that they simply can’t afford to deal with at this point. They will likely have to wait to move these two veterans, but these are the necessary moves they need to make to become a contender once again.
Deciding to embark on a rebuild is a difficult decision for any team to make, but in this case, it is absolutely necessary. This franchise can no longer live in this world of delusion where they believe that they are legitimate contenders. It’s been three years since they made the playoffs and now their franchise quarterback is approaching his late thirties.
Rejecting a rebuild is only delaying the inevitable. At some point in the near future, the Falcons will be in this position once again asking themselves if it’s time to blow everything up. It’s finally time to wake up, rebuild, and change the direction of this franchise.