If you looked at football as one of society’s few, true meritocracies, it might take some kind of psychic medium to come in to explain the Atlanta Falcons’ role in everything, because there isn’t a soul in football who deserves this.
Since 2017, the franchise has known little but pain. But not just the typical pain associated with middling NFL franchises that constantly stumble downhill, depleting their roster through a series of ill-advised coaching changes. This isn’t the typical pain associated with poorly timed injuries, either. What is happening to Atlanta right now is something dark and otherworldly; the kind of (relative) pain that transcends reason and whips around with a macabre sense of humor.
Following a stunning loss to the Bears, in which Chicago swapped quarterbacks midway through, the Falcons have now blown 16- and 19-point leads in consecutive games, which would be an unfortunate series of events had they not already been the football team that blows big leads. Try as one might—and lord knows, Dan Quinn has tried everything to exorcise this idea—sometimes things just stick to your bones. There is not a lead this team can hold right now that is big enough to provide even a modicum of security.
The question is: What happens now?
Falling to 0–3 in a division like the NFC South is like returning your slingshots in the middle of an arms race. The Buccaneers and Saints are among the most talented rosters in football. The Falcons should be in the thick of things, but instead they are, as they have been, buried beneath their own past.
It’s a club in a strange position. Matt Ryan is an elite quarterback entering the final quadrant of his career. Julio Jones is 31, but with a lifetime of brutal, physical football in his past. Quinn, like his predecessor, Mike Smith, has a winning record over a demonstrable amount of time without the Super Bowl ring to negate the moments of underperformance. What is the cost/benefit analysis of keeping this entire bundle together knowing that, even under the best of circumstances, there is not a cosmic force strong enough to keep them in the lead at the end of consequential matchups?
A few weeks back, a person with knowledge of the coaching industry had estimated that owners would not be merciful given the pandemic; that they might end up more willing to pull the plug on an underperforming coach because they had the cover to make sweeping changes.
Quinn is now the earliest test of that.
In the past, he has been able to wriggle out of these holes. Last year, Atlanta played inspired football down the stretch after a 1–7 start. The Falcons spoke openly about performing for Quinn’s job and the consequences of losing any more games. Behind the scenes, he has meant a great deal to the organization and some of its most important players.
But now the spotlight is on owner Arthur Blank, who has to decide if the long-deserved tailwind is on its way to erase all of these painful defeats. Or if, as cold as it sounds, sometimes a team can just be inexplicably, irreversibly cursed.