Our perception of how an NFL team should go through its internal checklist after a bad season is at once probably far too optimistic and not optimistic enough. There are some owners who steep their organizations in complacency. Some who are more comfortable with the familiar. Some who blow it all up because some middling former quarterback on ESPN told them to. Perpetually good teams don’t normally have that problem because they are good at self-analysis. Of course, some teams get good for a little while and lose the ability to do that as well.
So that’s why we’re here. With each team that drops from playoff contention, we will answer a 10-part questionnaire on where they are, where they’re headed and how to fix the holes along the way. Some projects will be bigger than others.
Which brings us to the Falcons, who fired head coach Dan Quinn after six years and a 43–42 record. A fun fact: Quinn is the second straight Falcons head coach to be fired after posting a winning record over the course of his tenure there (Mike Smith, 66–46). General manager Thomas Dimitroff was also let go and, according to an ESPN report, has already interviewed for the Lions’ general manager vacancy.
1. What went right this year?
The Falcons clawed back from an 0–5 start under interim head coach Raheem Morris, who has certainly restated his case to enter the head coaching candidate pool once again. Matt Ryan still piloted a top-six passing offense. The Falcons are sixth in the league in percentage of drives that end in a score. They were also solid against the run, thanks to an otherworldly season from Grady Jarrett. That’s the thing about the Falcons—and this has been true for years now—there is a lot of talent on the roster. Jarrett had a great season. Deion Jones had another great season. Mykal Walker, a fourth-round pick in 2020, has the single best coverage grade among qualifying NFL linebackers. A.J. Terrell may end up being the best of the four cornerbacks picked in the first round this year. The point is that this job will be a coveted one, and the cupboard is not bare like it is in New York or Detroit.
2. What went wrong this year?
The Falcons were never able to recover from the emotional weight of two theatrically blown leads. This was an unfortunate substory to the Dan Quinn era, where a game like the Cowboys one, which featured a 99.9% win probability according to ESPN’s in-game metric, would all too often melt in the final seconds. In a lot of ways, they are a less-talented version of the Chargers, in that somehow a combination of injuries and chaotic in-game mishaps define a season that should by all accounts be ending in a playoff berth.
3. The Big Question this offseason
Who is going to coach this football team, who is going to be the general manager and what are the long-term plans for Matt Ryan and Julio Jones?
4. Coach/GM outlook
I think Eric Bieniemy looks good in red and black. A lot of this will depend on the team’s new general manager and where they end up going with the search. I would argue, perhaps unsuccessfully, that in a league where the GM hit rate on draft picks is largely scattershot, Dimitroff did a pretty good job of hitting on players—especially those in the later rounds who ended up as significant contributors. The next coach and GM are walking into one of the more player-friendly environments in the league, which could be a challenge if there is a drastically different player relations style on tap.
We saw how electric this offense could be with a great coordinator like Kyle Shanahan. We’ve seen how effectively fine it can be with a blasé offensive coordinator. If I were Arthur Blank, someone like Bieniemy, Arthur Smith (who has perfected a fun offshoot of the Shanahan offense in Tennessee), Mike McDaniel in San Francisco or Tony Elliott from Clemson would make a lot of sense.
5. Key free agents
• Younghoe Koo, kicker
• Alex Mack, center
• Todd Gurley, running back
• Keanu Neal, safety
• Blidi Wreh-Wilson, cornerback
• Charles Harris, outside linebacker
• Damontae Kazee, safety
• Darqueze Dennard, cornerback
6. Top priority
Outside of the coach and the general manager, the Falcons are going to have to find a way to get out of some of the massively player-friendly deals that are weighing them down. Even if they wanted to start fresh and deal Matt Ryan or Julio Jones to reap draft capital, it would make little financial sense due to the dead money they’d have to take on. This team needs breathing room on the horizon, even if it can quickly rebound next year with a more imaginative coaching staff. While no one would blame the Falcons for pushing this window of opportunity as far as it could go, they need to start planning for life beyond Jones and Ryan.
7. Positions of need
Center, defensive line, safety, backup quarterback, kicker, cornerback, edge.
8. Sensible plan to fix them
As we outlined up above, there are plenty of capable offensive coordinators ready to elevate to head coaching jobs who can drum up nine or 10 wins with this team in Year 1. I don’t think that is an unrealistic expectation. But do the Falcons want to be sensible, realizing they are toeing the line between the team they are now and the team they are hoping to be two or three years down the line? The Falcons were adamant about not moving Jones or Ryan before the trade deadline, allowing the incoming head of personnel to make those decisions. So it seems Atlanta will continue rowing the boat in that direction.
9. Outside-the-box idea to fix them
Find a team to eat large chunks of Jones’s and Ryan’s salaries, trade them for draft capital, sit out the remaining year of Tom Brady playing in their division (and whatever is left of New Orleans’s top-seeded roster) and enter a full and methodical rebuild. I’m not sure it’s warranted, but this would be the kind of radical change that may seem attractive to Atlanta after relying on the same small cast of star players for so long. Atlanta is a team that had been in contention for long enough (or had been aggressive in trying to reboot that contention) that they were either picking late in rounds or needed to sacrifice capital to move up. With no guarantees in personnel after the ouster of Dimitroff, maybe attaining more picks isn’t the worst path.
10. Next time we'll realistically see them in the playoffs
2021. The beauty of the NFC South is that both of the top contenders are maxed out. The Buccaneers and Saints have such a small window to compete and win from now until teams playing the long game (think Carolina right now) can take over. There’s no reason to think that Atlanta can’t dial it up for one more run.