Before we get into the Atlanta Falcons 2017 season and the questions that will determine their success or failure, let me be the first to apologize as a Falcons fan for what you all witnessed during the Super Bowl.
Complete collapses with big leads are usually the dirty little secret only reserved for those Falcons fans who religiously watch our team throughout the season. Sometimes it bubbles to the surface when they decide to stop scoring in the second half, like the NFC Championship game vs. the San Francisco 49ers five years ago, but mostly it happens on a random Sunday like vs. the Chargers when they throw drive-ending INTs and miss field goals late in the 4th quarter.
But I digress.
Three Big Questions For The 2017 Atlanta Falcons
The 2016 season and Super Bowl LI are behind us now. But for Dan Quinn and the 2017 Atlanta Falcons, their chances of having a successful season will hinge on the answers to these three questions.
Will The Falcons’ Young Defense Continue To Emerge?
After such an impressive offensive season, the Falcons’ defense is often overlooked as a liability that the team wins in spite of. But don’t be fooled; the defense overachieved in 2016 with a roster composed mostly of players 25-years old and younger. Defensive coordinator Richard Smith has now been replaced with Dan Quinn-protégé and former Seattle Seahawks assistant, Marquand Manuel.
As the Falcons’ secondary coach in 2015, Manuel’s unit ranked in the top 10 in INTs (15) and INT/TD ratio (1.27). While comparisons to Seattle’s Super Bowl-winning “Legion of Boom” secondary is laughably premature, the architects of that defense are doing their best to bring their version to Atlanta.
In addition to rising stars Keanu Neal, Robert Alford, Brian Poole, and Desmond Trufant (returning from an injury-shortened 2016), the Falcons’ notoriously ineffective front seven improved. If newly-signed Dontari Poe can not only help plug the middle of the D-line but also draw extra blockers against the pass, young stars Vic Beasley and Deion Jones could be given more freedom to attack opposing QBs.
If rookies Takkarist McKinley and Duke Riley provide even the slightest contribution commensurate of their draft positions, Quinn will have laid the foundation of a formidable defense for years to come.
Will The Falcons Offense Thrive Without Kyle Shanahan?
One of the Falcon-related stories of the off season was Kyle Shanahan’s departure to become the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Under Shanahan, the Falcons offense ranked 2nd in total offense and 1st in points per game. While a statistical regression is highly likely, new offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian shouldn’t be under a tremendous amount of pressure to get too creative. The Falcons’ offense is a seasoned group of vets who have an established chemistry and star receiver, Julio Jones, is coming into 2017 the healthiest he’s been since his rookie year.
For as well as Shanahan did during the Falcons’ Super Bowl run, it was only two short seasons ago when many Falcons fans were not happy with his elementary offense. Many plays would involve the play-action bootleg where Matt Ryan rolled to his left to either pass it to Julio Jones, scramble for a yard or two, or just throw it out of bounds.
Former WR, Roddy White’s numbers dropped precipitously, which some attributed to him losing a step, but White’s offensive contribution was more a byproduct of the scheme.
If Sarkisian deploys an offense befitting the talent and experience of its weapons; one that establishes the run with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, stretches the defense occasionally with Taylor Gabriel and Muhammed Sanu, and allows Julio to be Julio, the offense should not see a significant decline post-Shanahan.
Will A Leader Assert Himself On Either Side Of The Ball?
If there has been one aspect of the Falcons’ franchise that has been conspicuously absent, it’s on-field leadership. Since being drafted in 2008, Ryan was anointed the Falcons’ de facto leader in the post-Vick era. Over the past nine seasons, Ryan has accepted the role and thrived in many instances. But the Atlanta signal-caller has demonstrated a lack of killer instinct that lends itself to 2nd half collapses. Matt Ryan simply doesn’t hate losing as much as other great QBs like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning.
Quarterbacks are generally assumed to be the heart of the team but that’s not always the case. Take the Super Bowl winning 2012 Baltimore Ravens for example; fellow 2008 1st round draft pick, Joe Flacco, was never the presumptive leader. The defense made up of Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, and Ed Reed fueled Baltimore against adversities NFL teams face in pursuit of a championship. Regardless of where they were in their careers, there is no way Lewis, Reed, or Suggs would ever allow a second-half, 23-point lead slip away, especially in a Super Bowl.
That’s not an indictment on the Falcons’ defense; it’s a reflection on not a single player being able to challenge the Patriots’ will to win. If the Falcons hope to be anything other than a playoff participant, the franchise will more than likely be led by the next Kam Chancellor rather than the next Tom Brady.
The Atlanta Falcons will have a tough road to another Super Bowl appearance in 2017. The NFC South is one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL and their out-of-division contests are no cakewalk as they face Green Bay, New England, Dallas, Seattle, and Minnesota. But in every place the Falcons lack experience, they make up for in young talent. Dan Quinn should have his team ready when they kick off on September 10th against the Chicago Bears.