In the five seasons from 2008 through '12, the Falcons won 56 regular-season games, coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff were praised as franchise saviors and quarterback Matt Ryan was seen as a legitimate franchise shot-caller. Life was good for the team, though it could never quite get over the hump and into the Super Bowl. The Falcons got as close as within four points against San Francisco in the 2012 NFC Championship Game before things quickly fell apart.
Between injuries, questionable draft picks and free agency moves, and plain old bad luck, the Falcons won just 10 total games in 2013 and '14. An offense that was one of the NFL's best in previous years disintegrated, and a defense good enough to hold things together became a true liability. The Falcons won just six games last year, scoring 381 points to 417 allowed. That minus-36 point differential was better than the minus-90 differential the year before (the team's worst since a minus-155 differential in 2007, the year of Bobby Petrino), but not good enough to save Smith's job or keep Dimitroff from being put on notice. Smith was fired in December after a 34–3 loss to the Panthers in the season finale. Owner Arthur Blank held off from giving Dimitroff a ringing endorsement, and assistant general manager Scott Pioli was given additional college scouting and draft responsibilities going forward. Those who remember Pioli's tenure in Kansas City more than his time with Bill Belichick in New England might view that move with some pause, and rightly so.
“After reviewing all of our options, internally and externally, I have no reservations that this is the best approach to setting up our player personnel groups for future success,” Blank said in a statement in early January. “It maximizes the talents of Scott, allows for more time and focus on all areas of our football operations groups managed by Thomas, and is in line with other player personnel groups in the league.”
Dimitroff simply said that he knew he'd made mistakes, and that he knew he'd be scrutinized for them.
That said, there was still a head coach to hire. The Falcons did what the Jaguars did two years before: tabbed the Seahawks' defensive coordinator. They hired Dan Quinn in early February, hoping that Quinn's defensive genius and global view of the game can pay immediate dividends. Quinn was given tie-breaking control of the roster, and as he said at the 2015 scouting combine, his time in Seattle informed how much control a coach should have in the ideal situation.
“It was a big factor,” Quinn remarked about his relationship with Dimitroff. “I saw how closely connected that John [Schneider] and Pete [Carroll] are. So, I thought if I had the opportunity that I could have a partnership with the guy that I wanted to be aligned with in all of the personnel decisions and do it together. When Thomas and I first met, it was one of those times when you met somebody and you thought, this could work. This is what I’m looking for. Now that we’ve started over the last few weeks, we’ve been in lock-step together. The line between his office and mine, the carpet has been worn out for sure.”
Step one was to jettison those who had weighed the roster down. The Falcons spent the off-season releasing offensive tackle Sam Baker, guard Justin Blalock, pass rusher Jonathan Massaquoi and linebacker Prince Shembo. They agreed to go on without linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and defensive tackle Corey Peters. Receiver Harry Douglas was shown the door.
Then, it was time to rebuild. The position of pass rusher, long a bugaboo for Dimitroff, was ostensibly filled in free agency by Brooks Reed, O'Brien Schofield and Adrian Clayborn. Receiver Leonard Hankerson and tight ends Jacob Tamme and Tony Moeaki might be able to help the passing game, and Justin Durant should be able to help a thin linebacker corps.
Then, it was time for the draft, which has become a mildly scary thing for Falcons fans in recent years. On paper, at least, the new Quinn/Dimitroff/Pioli triumvirate hit it out of the park. Atlanta used its No. 8 pick on Clemson pass-rusher Vic Beasley, who has the explosiveness to excel in Quinn's scheme. LSU cornerback Jalen Collins, taken in the second round, could provide an outstanding bookend for Desmond Trufant. Indiana running back Tevin Coleman and East Carolina receiver Justin Hardy will add to the offense, and fifth-round tackle Grady Jarrett looks to be one of the steals of the draft.
It all looks better on paper, but Falcons fans have heard that before. Now, it needs to transfer to the field for the first time in three seasons.
Best acquisition: Justin Durant, LB
During his years with the Jaguars, Lions and Cowboys, Durant proved good enough to play each of the three linebacker positions in a 4–3 defense and athletic enough to play nickel defense from sideline to sideline. He's missed 16 games in the last two seasons, including 10 games in 2014 with a torn bicep, but when he's healthy, Durant is a perfect addition to a Quinn-led defense that demands that its linebackers fly around the field with abandon. Durant amassed 49 tackles in just six games before last year's injury, and if he can keep that pace all the way through the '15 season, he'll make his three-year, $10.8 million contract look like a relative bargain.
Biggest loss: Corey Peters, DT
Peters signed a three-year, $10.5 million contract with the Cardinals in the off-season, which was a shame for Quinn, as Peters would have been an ideal under-tackle in Quinn's fronts. Last season, Peters amassed two sacks, four quarterback hits and 15 hurries to go along with his 26 total tackles and 17 stops. Peters was even more effective in 2013, when the defense around him wasn't one of the worst in the league, and he'll be a key cog in Arizona's defensive fronts.
Underrated draft pick: Grady Jarrett, DT, Clemson (137th overall pick)
[daily_cut.nfl]Though Jarrett was a highly productive player on one of the nation's best defenses in 2014, his size, or lack thereof, must have dropped him on a lot of draft boards, because his game tape shows a player who displays a lot of first-round talent at times. When I watched the 6'1'', 304-pound Jarrett, I saw a player with tremendous explosiveness and determination and thought the recent success of Geno Atkins and Aaron Donald would break the bias against tackles with less size than the ideal prototype. In any case, the Falcons have a great player here, and at quite a bargain—Jarrett's fifth-round deal will pay him $2.527 million over the next four years. Jarrett is the son of Falcons linebacker Jessie Tuggle, an undrafted player who starred for the team from 1987 through 2000, so maybe this was where he was supposed to be all along.
“I'm just happy to be here in Atlanta,” Jarrett said in May. “The draft is just a thing of the past. You can only control what you control. What I control is what I do out here, and I’m just trying to be a better player and help this team win.”
Looming question for training camp: Can Dan Quinn turn this defense around?
One of the primary reasons the Falcons hired Quinn to be their head coach is that he's a very creative thinker on defense. He's great at taking players at certain positions and helping them excel at others, and his players attest that few coaches have a better ability to get them to buy in. Now, Quinn's challenge is to take the defense that finished last in yards allowed, 27th in points allowed and tied for second-fewest sacks in the league and turn it into something resembling what he had in Seattle.
Not an easy task, but the ever-optimistic Quinn is certainly up for the task.
“It’s how well can you teach the guys to feature them and put them in the very best spot for them,” Quinn said. “That’s what the process is right now, to teach these guys ... It’s not really what we play, but how we play. The attitude and the style. That’s one of the things I can’t wait to connect with these guys.”
There's a lot of connecting to be done, and that's where Quinn will ultimately succeed or fail.