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Atlanta Falcons Turn to ‘Plan D’ to Return to the Thick of the NFC Postseason

The development of players plays vital role in Atlanta overcoming Super Bowl 51 failures and returning to the cusp of another NFC championship game berth

You probably won’t be paying much attention to Wes Schweitzer late on Saturday afternoon. He is, after all, a right guard, and right guards don’t flash much on TV unless they’re doing something really, really wrong. So to you, he’ll probably just kind of be there among the Falcons offensive linemen.

But to the guys running the show in Atlanta, he embodies where the team is.

The Falcons spent the 195th pick in the 2016 draft on Schweitzer, and promptly shelved him. He made the team. He didn’t get so much as to wear a game jersey all year. And he developed through the team’s Plan D program. That meant working with backup guard Ben Garland after practice. It meant extra classroom work. It meant time with the player engagement and athletic performance staffs.

It wasn’t as valuable as the experience that Schweitzer's draft classmates Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, De’Vondre Cambell and Austin Hooper were getting. But it was the next best thing. Most importantly, because he committed to it, it worked.


“It’s a major feather in (line coach) Chris Morgan’s cap, because he really focused on developing Wes for the very situation that occurred this year,” GM Thomas Dimitroff said from his office Wednesday. “We were on the hunt for a right guard when Chris Chester retired, and we knew Wes was going to be right in that mix, and he battled his ass off, both he and Ben (Garland), and he won the job fair and square.

“And he continues to learn on the fly, because he wasn’t on the field last year, and he’s learning fast.”

Let’s be honest. Most of the talk on the Falcons since Super Bowl LI has focused on one of two things—the collapse in that game and blown leads early this season, and the loss of Kyle Shanahan and the offense’s struggles. That’s fair since both have colored how the 2017 team got here.

And yet, by “here”, we mean the divisional playoffs. This Falcons team picked apart all year is one of eight left standing, and one win over a Nick Foles-led Eagles group from returning to the NFC Championship Game.

How’d they do it? Plan D is a big part of it. And Schweitzer qualifies as Exhibit A.

In this week’s Game Plan, we’re going to hit you with a lot of rumors from the NFL’s annual job market; explain why Brian Gutekunst was the right pick for right now in Green Bay; dig deeper into where Foles holds Philly back and where he doesn’t; show you how Lane Kiffin was a big part of Jon Gruden’s demise in Tampa; and break down the strong leverage point from which Kirk Cousins will operate.

But we’re going to start with an Atlanta contingent that was doubted, and seemed almost spooked, earlier in the season—and somehow lived through it to strike Midnight on the Rams’ Cinderella season last weekend, and head into this weekend as a very real threat to repeat as NFC champion out of the bracket’s final seed.

And the story of Atlanta is well told through that win in LA, because it was the defense that, once again, carried the night. The Falcons’ young front got to Jared Goff consistently, 2013 draft picks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford shined at corner, and all of it bought time for the star-studded offense to get untracked.

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Nine of the defense’s 11 starters were homegrown, and six of those nine have come aboard since Dan Quinn came on in 2015. He and Dimitroff began to push Plan D to the point where it’s become a big part of everything the Falcons do. And those numbers are counting the contributions of 2017 rookies Takk McKinley and Duke Riley, who played key roles as reserves.

So what exactly is Plan D? The “D” is for development, and the phrase was coined by Dimitroff to emphasize the importance of Atlanta becoming a machine in bringing up quality young talent through the program as he survived Mike Smith’s firing in 2015 and was part of the group that picked Quinn to take over.

One of the reasons Quinn appealed to that group, in fact, was that he was part of a Seattle group that drafted and developed what had become arguably the league’s best roster. Quinn told them that he was invested in developing talent and committed to playing draft picks early, which was just what Dimitroff wanted to hear as he and his staff worked to get the franchise out of a slump.

“We had a very challenging draft in 2012, and we’ve spent a lot of time since 2012 looking at where we need to shore up our focus and how we need to adjust moving forward,” Dimitroff said. “And a lot of it has to do with lucid communication with the coaching staff, and discerning what’s needed, and where the stresses are within the roster from year to year. That’s important, everyone knows it, that’s not a mystery.

“When you have co-team-builders, it’s vital that you communicate well on how you’re building the roster.”

That was the first piece and, in many ways, it really came to life a year after the Dimitroff/Quinn pairing was consummated with the draft that brought a Kam Chancellor-type strong safety (Keanu Neal), a undersized heat-seeking middle linebacker (Deion Jones), and a KJ Wright clone (De’Vondre Campbell) in the first four rounds.

The second piece is actually developing the talent that arrives. For some guys, as both Dimitroff and Quinn wanted, it meant playing right away. That’s how it was for those three aforementioned rising stars. For others, like Schweitzer, it was a result of Quinn and his staff allotting time. “We put so much time in,” Dimitroff said. “Practice time, and outside work or off-practice work, we felt like he was being developed as well as he could without being a starter.”

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But it hardly ends there, for any of them. It’s also in growing the players as people and into leaders, which means even those who quickly get into the lineup remain immersed in developing with their peers.

“An emerging leadership plan is something we focused on for sure with players like that,” Dimitroff continued. “We’ve had players who continue to rise to the occasion, like (Deion Jones) and like Grady Jarrett, younger guys who continue to show their ability on the field, and in how they lead the team. That’s another element of Plan D that’s important to us, to continue to determine who those guys are going to be, the next wave of leaders on this football team.”

The final result has been pretty enviable. The Falcons offense returned largely intact this year, and yet, with the loss of Shanahan, stumbled out of the gate. But because a handful of young defensive players took the next step, that unit evolved into a Top 10 group capable of buying its counterpart time to work its problems out. It created an environment where the Falcons don’t have to score 30 points every week to win anymore.

And where there were holes, like the one created by Chester’s retirement, the program had new talent ready. It’s how Schweizer became such a good example of what’s going on there.

‘”I’m very encouraged with our roster and I’m encouraged with the organization’s approach to the roster, the way the coaches are coaching our players, the way we’re utilizing our talent,” Dimitroff said. “We’ve become more and more aware as we’ve stayed together with the continuity of our staff, that it’s very beneficial to how we can continue develop players, and continue to play with the roster.

“That said, any time you have some success, you’re not always not gonna have drafts or acquisitions that are gonna blow the roof off. That’s the reality. But hopefully, you can continue to grow the talent and when there’s attrition, you’re able to rise people up through the depth of your roster.”

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The idea is for the cycle that churned out Schweizer to keep spinning, and to that end we can introduce you to Domontae Kazee and Eric Saubert. The former’s a corner, the latter’s a tight end, both were drafted in the fifth round last year and each has shown the sort of signs that Schweizer did last year.

You probably haven’t heard much about either. But if Plan D works again, you will soon.

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1. If he doesn’t get the Arizona job, Eagles QBs coach John DeFilippo becomes a man to watch. His contract is up in Philly, per sources, which would make him an interesting coordinator option for a lot of teams. Rumblings are that Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, who interviewed with the Cardinals and Giants, would want DeFilippo to run his offense. 

2. One small aspect of the Jon Gruden hire that shouldn’t be overlooked is how he addresses a need for the Raiders. There was a feeling last year that Derek Carr had become something of a golden goose in the building, and needed harder coaching. He’ll get it now.

3. Speaking of Carolina, my belief on Ron Rivera’s move to drop the hammer on offensive coordinator Mike Shula and QBs coach Ken Dorsey is that it was a matter of opportunity. Wilks had worked on lining up Norv Turner as another potential coordinator option, which informed Rivera that Turner was available, which prompted him to act.

4. Credit to Browns GM John Dorsey in giving an organization that’s been sideways forever some known alignment in the front office. He’s not guessing on how VP of player personnel Alonzo Highsmith and assistant GM Eliot Wolf will fit with him because he knows, having worked with them. That should allow them to hit the ground running, which is great, since there’s so much on the line this offseason, with all the capital they have to spend ($100 million in cap space, five picks in the first two rounds.)

5. Like we mentioned with Wilks, all these potential head coaches are lining up staff now and so you’ll hear some younger names rising to the coordinator level over the next week. One would be Cowboys linebackers coach Matt Eberflus, who could well become a defensive coordinator wherever Josh McDaniels winds up.

6. The Kansas City win was a perfect illustration of what Titans GM Jon Robinson has worked hard to build in Nashville—a physical team set on wearing out its opponents. And Robinson’s second draft pick, Derrick Henry, brought the idea to life against the Chiefs. Going into halftime, Henry had 42 yards on 10 carries. After the break, he went for 114 yards on 13 carries. So New England’s uneven run defense will be challenged Saturday night.

7. When all’s said and done, and assuming the Texans push the Brian Gaine hire over the goal line, I believe that Gaine and Bill O’Brien will wind up with contracts that match up with one from a time standpoint. Locking both up through 2022 would make sense.

8. Speaking of O’Brien, interesting to see Baylor’s Matt Rhule, a well thought of name in NFL circles, take a similar path to the one taken by the Texans head coach. O’Brien’s success managing Penn State’s darkest time upped his NFL stock tremendously. And while Rhule hasn’t won much yet, the ex-Giant assistant is helping himself long-term by taking on a seemingly impossible situation, both in the experience it’ll give him, and in making him a more interesting candidate. If he wins, even better.

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9. We previously mentioned the five defensive guys the Seahawks have to make decisions on (Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril) this offseason, and the firing of coordinators this week in Seattle probably doesn’t bode well for the crowd who wants that group to make one more run.

10. We’ve talked about the NFL’s offensive line crisis all year. And guess what? Those positions still matter. Seven of the NFL’s top 13 pass-blocking lines, per Pro Football Focus, are among the eight teams alive. The outlier? New England, which has the best ever quarterback and coach, and a ninja for a line coach, in Dante Scarnecchia.

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1. Packers’ move screams stability. And it may not look that way on the surface, given that team president Mark Murphy, in effect, split his team’s football operation into three divisions with each division chief—coach Mike McCarthy (coaching), GM Brian Gutekunst (personnel) and Russ Ball (contracts/cap)—reporting to him. But some facts on the relationships and inner workings of the building can inform you of that.

McCarthy is an advocate of Gutekunst’s, as are most of the scouts, so his elevation into Ted Thompson’s old role should steady any choppy waters. Ball’s relationship with Murphy, and his versatility, made him the early favorite for the GM job. Giving him a direct line to the team president brings at least an increased voice, if not the hammer he sought. And having McCarthy report to Murphy makes the coach and GM equals, and puts the onus on Murphy to make the decision on McCarthy’s future that’s coming in a year, which allows the others to focus on their own jobs. Add it up, and it’s on Murphy to make this work, and manage the interplay between the three bosses below him. But the idea certainly has merit given the existing dynamic in the building.

As for the man who’ll carry the Thompson/Ron Wolf torch, I’ll say that I can’t remember someone peers were as universally happy for as they seem to be for Gutekunst. His name first came across my desk five years ago when I was putting together that year’s Future GMs list, and you’ll rarely hear anyone say something negative about him because: 1) he’s well-liked, and 2) he has the respect of other scouts. And he earned No. 2. One of his first duties as a full-time scout—Ron Wolf had asked then-Southeast area scout Scot McCloughan to take Gutekunst under his wing—was to arrange tapes alphabetically, and go get them for his co-workers as they were needed. From there, his role grew and soon thereafter Wolf had him writing reports.

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“After we were done, he’d go back for two hours and read his reports back over and over, because he knew the next day he’d have to go in and tell Ron about the player,” said McCloughan, the ex-Redskins and 49ers GM. “He was really, really nervous, but you could tell the kind of guy he was. Very scheduled, very methodical, and he’d want to know exactly what that report said, so he could repeat it back to Ron. It was fun to see.”

Gutekunst became an area scout next, and his reputation grew. He’d get into schools early, work all day, write reports all night. Which is why he wound up promoted to lead the Packers’ college scouting operation, before becoming director of player personnel. And why, in the end, there aren’t a lot of people who’ve worked with him that are surprised he made it here.

2. Revising Gruden’s coaching history. Would you believe that Lane Kiffin was a major reason for Jon Gruden’s firing in Tampa? That’s right. Lane. Kiffin. And no, I’m not pulling anyone’s chain. Gruden’s final Buccaneer team started the 2008 season 9-3. The day after its ninth win, Tennessee hired Kiffin, who turned around and hired his father and then-Buccaneer defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin to his staff. The Bucs didn’t win another game, and members of the staff felt a reason for that was because Kiffin, holding both jobs at the time, checked out. The evidence was in the numbers. Kiffin’s unit collapsed, allowing more than 30 points in three of the four losses, the final of which came at the hands of the JaMarcus Russell-led Raiders. And the Bucs missed the playoffs and fired Gruden.

Why is that story relevant now? Well, there’s been some revisionist history on Gruden the past couple weeks—and foggy memory on key elements in how his time there ended. The bottom line is that while his time in Tampa was up and down, his coaching was never really the problem. The Kiffin circumstance was one that made it about more than just Gruden’s ability to lead a football team. And there were others. He inherited a roster in 2002 that was at the end of its window and won a Super Bowl with it. Faced with major cap problems, he and GM Bruce Allen blew up the roster over the next two years with the trade for the coach having depleted the team’s pool of draft picks, then returned to the playoffs in 2005 with Chris Simms as the quarterback. In 2006, Simms got hurt and team went 4-12. The Bucs got back to the playoffs with a so-so roster in 2007 and Jeff Garcia at quarterback. And then 2008 happened, and the team was imploded again thereafter, with Gruden’s insistence on building win-now teams laden with veterans catching up with it.

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Few would argue that he didn’t coach well in those years. The problem was more with the rosters Gruden put together, and circumstances like the Kiffin issue arising. Now? “This will interesting,” said one ex-Bucs staffer who worked with him. “Jon always struck me like Phil Jackson. He could always take a good team and make it great. But he’s not Brad Stevens, who’d take a young team and build it into a dynasty. To me, that’s why going to the Raiders is smart. You have (Derek) Carr and (Khalil) Mack and an offensive line. With Jon and Carr, he hasn’t had a quarterback like that since (Rich) Gannon. It’s set up for him.” As Gruden well knows, there are lots of factors that will go into whether he makes it work or not now. But if he coaches like he always had, that part of it probably won’t be a problem.

3. How to watch Foles on Saturday. After talking to a couple defensive coaches who faced both Carson Wentz and Nick Foles this year, it’s pretty clear that there are two things the Eagles have to do to prop up their backup on Saturday night. Both come down to the play of the offensive line. Philly has to protect better, and it has to run the ball with some efficiency. If it can, its offense—stocked with zone-read and run-pass option concepts—can work for Foles.

“When Foles has a clean pocket, and play action is working, he can throw the deep over route to (Zach Ertz) and hit big receivers on the post,” said one rival defensive coach. “But once the pocket gets muddy, he’s not very good. There was a huge drop off when he dealt with pressure. … If there were deficiencies in protection, Wentz could get out of anything. He’s like Gumby, and he’s got a big arm to make you pay. And when they want to run zone-read and they’ve got a lot of RPOs, all of that is still prevalent with Foles. But part of those things has to be the potential that the quarterback’s going to keep the ball. That was there with Wentz, and it’s gone with Foles.”

So how do the Eagles work around all this? They win with Corey Clement and Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount. If they can do that, it’ll allow Foles to throw off play action, and do it in manageable down-and-distance situations, which will keep an aggressive and athletic Atlanta front from pinning its ears back and coming after him. Easy? No. And it’d be really difficult to do it three straight times. But in a one-off situation, it wouldn’t be that wild to see Philly pull it off.

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4. Nagy’s first piece of business. New Bears coach Matt Nagy can’t come out and say it in so many words, because he does have a whole team to worry about, but there’s no question what job no. 1 is in Chicago. It can be summed up in three words—Develop Mitch Trubisky—that make Nagy’s relationship with the second pick in the 2017 draft paramount.

“It’s important,” Nagy said on Wednesday night from Kansas City, where he went to see his family before jumping into the job on Thursday back in Chicago. “I think for me, you have to careful with that. As a quarterback coach or a coordinator you can say that. But as a head coach, you have so many different relationships. That quarterback position is obviously one of importance. And when you have a guy like Mitch, you want to make sure you utilize his talents as much as you can. Part of that belief is making him aware of how serious that position is, how significant it is in the success of the team. It doesn’t mean that the team 100 percent relies on him, but that relationship is definitely important.”

One positive is that, since the Chiefs were looking for quarterbacks (they wound up with Patrick Mahomes), Nagy got to know Trubisky a little last year. He was part of a 15-minute formal interview of the North Carolina product at the combine, and then helped Andy Reid run Trubisky’s visit to K.C. in April. A lot of the work he did on the quarterbacks runs together, but Nagy recalls that the Chiefs wanted to try and draw out Trubisky’s personality, since his rep was as an introvert. The 15-minute interview didn’t help much in that regard, but afterwards, Nagy saw Trubisky interacting with other prospects during field drills. They were all over him on his “name change” from Mitch to Mitchell.

“You could see his personality then,” Nagy said. “He was joking around with them, and being a leader down there.”

Later in the spring, Nagy and Reid met with Trubisky for six hours, and the Chiefs did more to try and instigate that personality out of him, and it worked. So while the team did wind up going hard after Mahomes, they did like Trubisky. And when draft day rolled around, Nagy sent Trubisky a text saying, “Hey man, congratulations, you’re gonna do great in Chicago. I’m happy for you, you’re a hell of a quarterback.” Now, Nagy—a creative coach who, as Alex Smith would show you, fits his talent to his players—gets to find out just how good he could be.

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Quarterbacks have never been valued more. Six went in the first round the past two years, each was subject of a trade up, and four of those involved additional first-round picks. Mike Glennon got $15 million per to be a placeholder, and Sam Bradford fetched a first-round pick and then some. Derek Carr became the highest paid player in NFL history last summer, then Matt Stafford passed him.

So it’s with that backdrop that we tell you: Kirk Cousins figures to have a more interesting offseason than any quarterback in professional football.

Jay Gruden’s comments about wanting a long-term answer on Cousins made waves this week, but those sentiments aren’t new at Redskins Park. It’s not the first time Gruden’s shared his feelings on that, or the first time the Redskins have discussed the idea of rolling the dice and letting Cousins hit the market.

Last year, the team looked at contingencies—one was actually pursuing Glennon—in the event that they’d decide to let Cousins hit the market with the intention, but not certainty, of signing him back to a long-term deal. The feeling on that side of it was that if they tagged him at $23.94 million, they’d have to reset the quarterback market to lock him up. And if they didn’t, they’d just be back in the same spot a year later.

In the end, the Redskins tagged him. A year later and, as predicted, they’re back in the same spot again, having just delayed the reality that there are likely just two not great choices here: tag Cousins again and kick the can one last time, or let him hit the market.

And on the other side of the table is a quarterback holding all the cards, knowing that three possible conclusions lie ahead.

1. The Redskins tag him at $34.48 million, and he has an open path to hit the market in 2019 at 30 years old, which is middle age for a quarterback. With three franchise tags exhausted, the most the team could do to restrict Cousins at that point would be to transition him at $41.38 million.

2. The Redskins stick the transition tag on him for 2018 at $28.73 million, which gives them matching rights, but doesn’t require compensation from a team trying to pry him away. As a practical matter, Cousins would be on the open market. Worst case, he signs the tag, and it’d then cost the Skins $41.37 million to franchise Cousins in 2019.

3. The Redskins let him hit the market, and hope he’d consider an offer from them. Safe to say that the Jets, Jaguars, Browns, Broncos and, pending the identity of their next coach, Cardinals would be ready to take a serious look at acquiring him.

And all of this is happening while Cousins has taken home nearly $44 million over the past few years.

So where’s Cousins now? Well, as we wrote last summer, the Redskins’ 2016 tag was for the team to find out if they were comfortable marrying, and not just dating, him as their quarterback. Since they dragged their feet, the 2017 tag reversed the roles—giving Cousins time to think about whether he wanted to accept a proposal from the team.

Remember, the Redskins lost Sean McVay and DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon and McCloughan, and finished this year 7-9. Whether they’re on the upward trajectory they were two years ago is up for debate. To be fair, Cousins also fell prey to a plague of injuries around him, and some of the decline is attributable to that.

That’s why Cousins is taking his time now to unplug and consider everything. It’s unlikely he’d consider a deal before the start of the league year, which means he’ll either be $35 million richer or a free agent at that point. And if that latter happens, he’d be the rare available quarterback young enough to be a long-term answer for a building team, and tested enough to be a win-now guy for one on the precipice.

It’s not a bad spot to be, if you’re looking to get rich.

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