Dan Quinn doesn’t seem like a coach who needs help coming up with motivational gimmicks, but I have a suggestion for the Falcons coach to wrap up minicamp Thursday: Go into the locker room, turn on the Warriors’ championship parade and make everyone watch it. Then go to the big meeting room and put on the tape of the Warriors losing in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. Or better yet, throw togather a montage of last year’s Finals and the end of this year’s Finals set to one of Quinn’s favorite old-school rap songs.
For the Falcons, the 2016-17 Warriors are a perfect model of how to come back stronger after a crushing defeat. I know, I know … Golden State added Kevin Durant, and Atlanta hasn’t done anything like that in the aftermath of their Super Bowl LI loss. Matt Ryan couldn’t send a text to J.J. Watt or Aaron Donald and say Come down to Atlantalike Draymond Green did with Kevin Durant. But there’s a significant lesson to be learned from the Warriors’ mentality. They moved on after blowing a 3–1 lead in the Finals. They didn’t get weighed down by the past. In less than an hour, they were thinking about how to move forward.
Social media made pretty clear the parallels between the Falcons and the ’16 Warriors. Both suffered the kind of losses that can paralyze any team or athlete. Think of the Red Sox after Bill Buckner or the Cubs after Bartman. Greg Norman never won another major after his collapse at the ’96 Masters. The Bills still haven't returned to the playoffs since the Music City Miracle way back in January 2000.
The post-Super Bowl loss letdown is well-known in the NFL. The last team to return to the title game the year after losing it was the ’94 Bills. For a long time, Super Bowl losers rarely even made it back to the playoffs, though that jinx has softened—seven of the last nine Super Bowl losers have returned to the postseason the following year, but none of them have gone all the way. Last year, everything seemed to go wrong with the Super Bowl 50 runner-up Panthers: They made a mistake by letting cornerback Josh Norman go, defenses seemed to figure out Cam Newton and injuries plagued the roster throughout the season.
The Patriots themselves have lost Super Bowls in tragic fashion to cap off the the 2007 and ’11 seasons. They didn’t immediately return the next year, but they always managed to stay on a championship trajectory. Bill Belichick seems to be a master at getting everyone to focus on what’s happening now and not the what went wrong or right in the recent past. It was the Pats who were proactive with their personnel this spring, adding offensive weapons like WR Brandin Cooks, RBs Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead, TE Dwayne Allen and CB Stephon Gilmore and DE Kony Ealy on defense. It’s almost as if they had lost the game and were gearing up for another run at Atlanta.
But the Falcons didn’t need to do much roster tinkering. They actually don’t need a Durant. They have multiple ways to hurt you on offense. And their defense has the pieces to take a step forward this season, especially with DT Grady Jarrett stating his case as a difference-maker in the Super Bowl and cornerback Desmond Trufant returning from an injury.
A large part of how the team responds comes down to Ryan. Is he the MVP we saw all last season and for most of the Super Bowl, or the QB who throws too many interceptions and takes bad sacks that we saw earlier in his career and the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl? We’ve seen QBs losses carry into the next season before—like Carson Palmer after he turned the ball over six times against the Panthers in the NFC Championship Game. And how will the loss of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan affect Ryan? We’ve seen other QBs disintegrate after Shanahan left town. Falcons fans have to hope something clicked with Ryan that unlocked a consistent level of excellence.
Everything comes down to confidence. Do the Falcons believe they can do it all again after coming so close last season? The first public window into the team’s mindset came at the draft, and it was an encouraging one. The front office and coaching staff celebrated the first-round selection of pass rusher Takkarist McKinley like they had just won a playoff game. The positive energy Quinn exudes appears to have spread throughout the organization.
No matter what, Golden State and Atlanta will forever share space on the list of the greatest collapses in sports history. But the Warriors didn’t dwell on that defeat and were able to put it behind them quickly. They blew a 3–1 lead in the Finals, but that’s not how anyone will remember that core of players now. If the Falcons can adopt the same mentality and focus, they might have their own parade before long.