It won’t be easy overcoming the brutal Super Bowl 51 loss, but if Atlanta can turn the page, it will that see a trip to Minnesota next February isn’t out of the question. Plus T.O.’s Hall of Fame case and more Pats-Falcons mail
Mourning is good. Mourning is necessary. Falcons fans: Mourn over one of the worst losses in sports history. I know bad losses, as a pre-World Series glory years Red Sox partisan. I was in the stands for the worst two losses of my fan career: the World Series Game 6 loss to the Mets in 1986 at Shea Stadium, and the American League Championship Series loss to the Yankees in 2003. But I am here to tell you that life goes on. You know what followed those gut-punches? World Series titles in 2004, 2007, 2013.
So mourn, and then realize this: There are 26 fans bases in the NFL, minimum, that wish they were you.
Before I explain, I want to tell you a story. Last week at the Super Bowl I was the pool reporter watching Falcons practices Wednesday, Thursday and Friday for the Pro Football Writers of America. (One person is assigned to each team, and he or she writes a summary of practice that all reporters can draw from.) All week I was impressed with the command Matt Ryan had over his offense, and over practices. Clearly all eyes were on him, and those eyes saw how comfortable he was as the focus of the team. On Friday, Ryan led a 20-minute red-zone period against a scout team; he threw zero incompletions in maybe 30 passes. A phenomenal display. But that’s not what impressed me the most that day.
In the next practice period, wide receiver Taylor Gabriel was flanked right. I couldn’t see exactly what he did wrong—whether he was lackadaisical leaving the huddle, whether he was a couple yards off in his split, whatever. But Ryan stopped what he was doing and glared at Gabriel. “LOCK IN!” he yelled at Gabriel. Not a minor yell, but a real YELL. Gabriel got banished from the play, and the place got quiet except for the noise of the piped-in music as another receiver replaced Gabriel.
I tell you that story because, to me, it says something we didn’t know about Ryan. When you see him in his post-game pressers, he’s immaculately dressed by Zegna or Joseph Abboud, and he says everything right. Corporate QB. On message. On point. Almost too perfect, right? But I loved when I saw this. Your quarterback needs to have some fire in him. He’s got to be able to ream out a guy when it’s needed. I’d never seen it before, because every interaction I’ve had with Ryan was Chamber-of-Commerce polite. So that’s good.
Ryan’s 31. He’s lost his coordinator compass, Kyle Shanahan, but I’m told the reason the Falcons chose Steve Sarkisian as offensive coordinator is because he wants to run the same offense Shanahan did, and he won’t be afraid to coach Ryan hard. That’s important.
Let’s get to what else is important right now for the future of a strong offensive team—and the Falcons, obviously, are that, having just finished a season with the eighth-highest point total in NFL history. The two running backs are 24 (Devonta Freeman) and 23 (Tevin Coleman), and GM Thomas Dimitroff intends to work had to re-sign free-agent Freeman. The two ace wideouts, Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu, are 27, and the game-breaking Gabriel is 25. Rookie tight end Austin Hooper, a star of the Super Bowl practice week, is 22. Prime-of-career ages right there.
On defense, the news is even better. Check out the ages of the 10 key defensive players (I don’t include Robert Alford, because I think three cornerbacks, long term, are more important for the Falcons):
26: CB Desmond Trufant, DT Ra’Shede Hageman.
25: S Ricardo Allen.
24: CB Brian Poole, LB Vic Beasley Jr.
23: CB Jalen Collins, LB De’Vondre Campbell, DT Grady Jarrett.
22: LB Deion Jones.
21: S Keanu Neal.
“We have to have guys who love football,” coach Dan Quinn said. From the looks of practice last week, with players jubilant about being in the Super Bowl and from all accounts excited about being a part of this team, that’s what Quinn has.
Could the 2017 Falcons be the 2016 Panthers, a one-and-done Super Bowl flash in the pan? Anything’s possible. But the quarterback in Atlanta, and the youth and speed and potential of this defense … I don’t think the Falcons go 7-9 next year. I think they’re in league with Dallas and Green Bay and Seattle and whomever for Super Bowl 52 in Minneapolis.
So mourn. But understand you just got Bradyed. Players don’t say, Woe is me … I’ll never be good again! Mourn, and look forward to late July in Flowery Branch. This team’s not finished.
Now for your email...
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T.O.’s HOF CASE
I'm a bit upset by the HOF Committee’s decision as an elective body to not validate the Hall of Fame credentials of Terrell Owens. I certainly believe football is the ultimate team sport, and when it mattered T.O. performed, including coming off surgery to repair a broken ankle and having the game of his life to help Philadelphia come within three points of winning a championship. While one may not like his locker-room behavior, T.O. showed up on Sundays. And for an elective body that voted in Lawrence Taylor, excusing his drug/alcohol issues that may have impacted his on-field play, T.O.’s off-field behavior was practically uneventful and never related to any criminal transgressions. That's where the HOF Selection Committee deeply erred and rendered the institution a fraud. The Baseball Writers of America certainly looks like a better bunch after this debacle, and they have nothing to be proud of with their hypocrisy.
—George E, Houston
It’s a tough call. I think the issue here is whether the Hall of Fame voters should consider the divisiveness of Owens as it relates to his play on the field, and his effect on the five teams he played for. Some of us find it objectionable but don’t feel Owens should be kept out of the Hall as a result. Others find it so objectionable that they won’t vote for the guy. This is not about Owens being an idiot. It’s about him being an idiot and affecting his teams on the field.
EXPAND HoF CLASS?
Is there any push to increase the number of modern-era inductees above five? I personally think it should increase to seven with the current backlog and the statistical fact that we now have 32 teams or more than 1,700 players every year in the NFL. What are things going to look like next year with Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, Ronde Barber, Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher, Ty Law, and all the others? Don't forget Ed Reed and Tony Gonzalez in 2019. Seems like a massive logjam for a while.
—Frank G., Clarksburg, Md.
I don’t think there’s a movement, Frank. Making it hard makes it special. I have always thought the college hall inducts too many. The Pro Football Hall of Fame likes the exclusivity.
THANKS FOR BREER’S BRADY FAMILY REDEMPTION STORY
Wow. I really don't know what else to say. As epic of a Super Bowl game that was to watch (coming from a Giants fan here), I don't think anything can top the fact that this was what could be the last game that Tom Brady’s mother ever sees. This was such an emotional, well-written article. If anyone can read that entire article without shedding a tear, then that person is not human. Football is great, but life is so beautiful and amazing. Great job putting it all into perspective in this one. Thanks so much for sharing.
—Matthew P., Toms River, N.J.
Thanks, Matthews. Albert worked hard to get the personal touch, the family touch, into his story. It was a huge part of our coverage.
IN DEFENSE OF SHANAHAN
Shanahan doesn't deserve the Goat of the Week award. Shanahan had only one option to move the chains and kill the clock—depend on his MVP and his weapons in the air. You think 11 points and three minutes is impossible for an elite QB like Brady against a weak Atlanta D (remember, Atlanta's D was ranked somewhere below 24th in the league)? What would Belichick have done in this situation? Yup, rely on his QB to get first downs and move the chain and only settle for a field goal if necessary.
I disagree. New England, either with one timeout and 3:05 to play, or two timeouts and perhaps 2:35 to play, would not have had enough time to score twice. Think of it this way, assuming the Patriots would have taken their second timeout with 3:12 to play:
• 3:10 left: Matt Bryant kicks a 40-yard field goal to put Atlanta up 31-20.
• 3:05 left: Brady takes over with one timeout left at the New England 25.
• Last three minutes: New England would have to score a field goal or touchdown (plus a two-point conversion), plus execute a successful onside kick (an 11 percent probability of recovery in 2016), to win this game. Their chances, Dave, were minuscule.
IT WAS SHANAHAN’S FAULT
Andy Benoit’s comment “to say that Ryan and Shanahan blew it is absurd” has me scratching my head. Atlanta had a first down at the New England 22 with about four minutes left. All they had to do was run the ball three times and kick a field goal for an 11-point lead and New England would have burned all its timeouts. They would have had to score a touchdown, make the two-point conversion, recover an onside kick and then kick a field goal to send it to overtime; all with no timeouts left. I like those odds for Atlanta. Am I missing something?
—Bill S., Buffalo
Not at all. My point is simple: Devonta Freeman missing a blitz pickup was huge … Atlanta allowing a fourth-down conversion at a key moment of the New England comeback was huge … The Atlanta secondary playing soft on so many big Brady throws in the last 27 minutes was huge … The Atlanta offense netting 44 yards on its last four drives was huge … And so yes, it’s really bad that Shanahan didn’t run, and it’s really bad that Ryan didn’t throw the ball away instead of taking a huge sack. But there is plenty of blame to go around here.
FINALLY TIME TO REASSESS THE OVERTIME RULES?
We just witnessed the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, and the first Super Bowl to go to overtime. And we just witnessed another playoff overtime game where one of the teams doesn’t even get their offense on the field. Do the rules for overtime need to change in the postseason? Wouldn’t it be fair to both teams to get the chance to possess the ball, regardless of whether or not the first team to possess scores a touchdown? Shouldn’t the Falcons have been given at least a chance to put their offense on the field in the biggest game of the year?
—Corey L., Las Vegas
I have always thought each team should get a possession in overtime. Then, and only then, will fairness win. For those who think this was a truly fair outcome, I ask this: Was there a 50 percent chance of the Patriots to win when after won the coin flip? No. When New England won the toss before overtime, anyone who had been watching the game would figure this was New England’s game. No idea if Atlanta would have gone down to score a tying touchdown, but fairness would dictate the toss of a coin should not dictate who gets the ball first (and quite possibly last) in overtime.
ANOTHER SUPER BOWL STAT
The Patriots are the only team to win a Super Bowl without kicking an extra point.
—Doug S., Wayland Mass.
Now that is cool.
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