Where does your franchise stand heading into 2020? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
Members of the Falcons organization, Falcons fans around the world and those who immediately started humming 2 Legit 2 Quit when you first saw those 1990s throwback uniforms ...
The Falcons are at a crossroads. There is no denying that they've been pretty much stagnant since blowing a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI, exiting the playoffs in the Divisional Round in 2017 and posting identical 7-9 records in each of the past two seasons. Yes, Falcons fans, I know you'd love to forget that moment in history -- but you need some tough love. You're like a friend who's been in a bad breakup; we were with you for the first couple of months as you sat around in your sweatpants, eating ice cream for breakfast, but at some point, you need to put the past behind you, instead of longing for what could have been. Take a look at what is in front of you: one of the best quarterback-receiver combos in the NFL, a budding superstar and a local hero who is coming home. It's time to move forward.
How the Falcons got here
Let's take a quick look at the ups and downs of 2019.
- Finishing with a 6-2 record in their last eight games. This came after Atlanta started the season at 1-7. That rally in the second half of the season is why Dan Quinn's still employed in Atlanta.
- Winning a 26-9 shocker over the Saints in New Orleans. The Week 10 game stands out especially because I was stacking Saints players in my fantasy leagues. All right, Michael Thomas had a monster game, but Drew Brees struggled. It was a pretty impressive victory for the Falcons. The kind where it made you feel better about making them one of your playoff picks at the start of the season.
- Being one of two teams to defeat three division champions during the regular season. The only other squad to accomplish this in 2019? The 14-2 Ravens.
- Getting yet another awesome season out of Julio Jones. He finished with 99 receptions, which is kind of like, come on, Falcons. Just let him get to 100. But we can still appreciate his awesomeness.
- Not to bring up old stuff, but … starting 1-7. A huge disappointment for a team that had playoff aspirations.
- Notching that second consecutive 7-9 season. This after the Falcons went 21-11 in 2016 and '17.
Head coach: Dan Quinn. The Falcons stuck with Quinn after a second losing season. Which was kind of a surprise, because the only thing shakier than a celebrity marriage is an NFL coaching marriage. And seeing that the Falcons and Quinn are still together is kind of like learning on Wikipedia that Will Ferrell has been married since 2000. Those things just don't happen. It would have been easy for the Falcons to move on. But the team has gone 43-37 under his watch. He did take them to the Super Bowl. And, as noted above, there was that strong finish to close 2019. Besides, who were the hot coaching candidates out there to replace him? I know that I compared Quinn to TGI Friday's last year. But what I wouldn't give to be able to go to a TGIF right now. This definitely seems like a risk worth taking. And it does feel like Quinn deserves one more chance to get this sorted. Sean Payton had three consecutive losing seasons a few years back, and now look at the Saints.
Quarterback: Matt Ryan. There is a new world order among NFC South quarterbacks -- and if Tom Brady and Drew Brees are Hollywood Hogan and Kevin Nash, then that would make Matt Ryan the Scott Hall. And I was a huge Scott Hall (and Razor Ramon) guy. Like Razor, who was a former IC title holder, Ryan is a former MVP, which is just about the same.
Ryan logged 11 games with at least 300 passing yards last year, which was the third-most in a single season by anyone in the Super Bowl era. He also finished with 4,466 passing yards and 26 touchdowns. One troubling stat is that his interceptions doubled from seven to 14 last year. Part of me wonders if that had to do with the shift to offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter -- even though he and Ryan had worked together before, switching schemes can still come with an adjustment period. Watching games, I also noticed that it looked like Ryan pressed a little more at times than usual, because his team tended to be trailing, especially early in the season. He had six interceptions in the first three weeks. But he finished strong and threw just two in the final four games. In other words, he's good.
Projected 2020 MVP: Ryan. Again, he puts up prolific numbers because his team often forces him into being in a position to throw. So in that sense, Atlanta is depending on the running game and the defense to be respectable. That said, the Falcons' season is ultimately going to come down to Ryan.
2020 breakout star: Calvin Ridley, wide receiver. A lot of people (especially me, from a selfish fantasy perspective) would love to see Ridley make a Chris Godwin-like leap in his third NFL season. Consider these numbers (all of which, of course, come from Next Gen Stats): Ridley was 16th in catch percentage last year (67.7%, among receivers with 50-plus targets), but sixth in catch percentage above expectation (59.0). Quarterbacks had a passer rating of 113.5 when targeting him, 12th in the NFL. Julio can still dominate like he does, but it feels like Ridley's time to take over.
New face to know: A.J. Terrell, cornerback. The Falcons selected the Clemson corner with the 16th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, and they'll need him to step up right away to replace Desmond Trufant, who is now a member of the Detroit Lions. Terrell grew up in Atlanta and went to Westlake High School in Fulton County, which leads me to assume Terrell was a huge fan of Deion Sanders growing up. It should be noted that Deion also noticed Terrell in college.
That was from the College Football Playoff National Championship, when Terrell surrendered an early touchdown for Clemson in the loss to LSU. I know you could make the joke that this qualifies him as the perfect Falcons corner. But I'm not going to do that. Terrell was one of the best corners in college football, and I wouldn't let one game -- one play, really -- cloud your judgement. The Falcons got a great one.
The 2020 road map
The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. I said this last year, and it should be repeated here: Ryan, who is 35 and headed into Year 13, is your quarterback, and you should be very competitive. I don't want the Falcons to get in a position at the end of Ryan's career and wonder what could have happened. Not so much when it comes to Super Bowl LI; rather, why they weren't able to rise to this State of the Franchise challenge.
Three key dates:
- Week 2 at Cowboys. Atlanta has a tough home opener against the Seahawks before going on the road to face Dallas. Getting off to a solid start will be paramount for Quinn to get off the hot seat, because I'm not sure another strong finish that doesn't also come with a playoff berth will help.
- Week 5 vs. Panthers. The Falcons don't face a divisional foe until Week 5 (as it should be), when they play host to the Panthers and new coach Matt Rhule.
- Week 15 vs. Buccaneers. Atlanta doesn't see the Tom Brady-led Bucs until Week 15 of the regular season, then play them in two of the last three weeks. How many times is Matt Ryan going to have to listen to talk of 28-3 during this stretch of time?
Will the Falcons be able to …
Get to the quarterback? The Falcons seemingly upgraded on paper when they allowed Vic Beasley loose in free agency and brought in Dante Fowler Jr. The latter has recorded 27.5 sacks and 43 quarterback hits during his four healthy NFL seasons, with a breakout coming in 2019 (11.5 sacks, 16 quarterback hits, 16 tackles for loss). And you're likely thinking to yourself, That's amazing, he's now just becoming the player that we all wanted him to be when he was drafted in the first round by the Jaguars. Well, I hate to be the jerk to point this out (although not enough to keep me from doing it, apparently), but how much of that stemmed from playing on a Rams defense that also included Aaron Donald? I'm not trying to say Fowler's success in Los Angeles was all because of Donald, but now Fowler is going to be expected to carry a team that recorded just 28 sacks last year -- the second-lowest total in the NFL. Only the Miami Dolphins (23) had fewer. Now you're in a division with Drew Brees and Tom Brady (and don't sleep on Teddy Bridgewater). You don't get to the quarterback, it could be a long season.
Continue trending upward on defense? There is a new defensive coordinator in Raheem Morris. And if you're asking yourself, oh yeah, where has Morris been coaching since he left the Buccaneers? The answer is, with the Falcons -- just on offense. That's right. Morris was the Falcons' receiver coach from 2016 until the Week 9 bye last season, when he began calling defensive plays with linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich. It shouldn't be viewed as a coincidence that the Falcons played much better after that move, logging 16 takeaways in their last seven games. This came after having just four in the first nine. Now, if they could rush the passer.
Get anything from Todd Gurley and Hayden Hurst? The Falcons finished fifth in total offense last year, and they topped 500 yards twice, tying for second-most in the NFL. But they were 30th in rushing. Now they're hoping Gurley will be able to carry the rock for them. Gurley's time in Los Angeles came to a tumultuous end marked by injury and a decline in production -- most notably in his reception total, which was cut almost in half, from 59 in 2018 to 31. Beyond Gurley, the team is relying on Qadree Ollison -- a fifth-round pick from last year who played in just eight games and ran the ball 22 times -- Ito Smith and Brian Hill to shoulder the load, unless the Falcons make a move.
The Hurst trade -- made necessary by the loss of Austin Hooper in free agency -- is really interesting, too. Hooper played a huge role for the Falcons over the last couple of years, catching 75 of 97 targets in 2019. It might be a lot to ask Hurst, who never became the player Baltimore expected him to be when selecting him in the first round, to fully take on that role. But Ridley and Gurley could help in receiving.
And also: Was Deion really mad about Gurley taking No. 21? I'm not even sure why that number is available for the Falcons, though to be fair, Sanders did win his Super Bowls with the 49ers and Cowboys. And if I'm being completely honest here, Deion is probably the second-most-famous former Falcon, behind Bill Goldberg. Did Deion win a WWE title in the last year? He did not.
One storyline ...
... people are overlooking: The offensive line could actually be improved. The Falcons allowed 50 sacks and 136 quarterback hits last season, but the team should start to see some returns on the investments general manager Thomas Dimitroff has made on the offensive line over the last two seasons. Right tackle Kaleb McGary, taken 31st overall last year, has a full season under his belt, even if he struggled in 2019, while right guard Chris Lindstrom, selected 17 picks before McGary, should be healthy after missing most of his rookie season with a foot injury. In 2020, Dimitroff used a third-round pick on the best center in the draft, Temple's Matt Hennessy, who allowed only one sack during his entire college career.
Now before you ask -- yes, Alex Mack is still the starting center for the Falcons. He's also 34 years old, and Hennessy projects as the long-term answer. Hennessy is expected to compete for the left guard spot, and if he can contribute, the Falcons will be huge up front.
... people are overthinking: Facing Tom Brady twice. Listen, I'm a Bears fan. I know what it's like to have to continually live with infamous moments. Like, anytime Patrick Mahomes does something great, we have to hear about how he was the second quarterback selected in the 2017 NFL Draft, eight spots after the Bears took Mitch Trubisky. I understand how much the Falcons' fans are over hearing about 28-3, and how much worse that's going to be now that Atlanta is scheduled to face Brady -- who, of course, engineered that collapse with the Patriots and joined the Buccaneers this offseason -- twice in the NFC South. That's pretty rough, and I feel for you. But hopefully after that first meeting, everyone will get it out of their system and move on. (Well, maybe not, after the Bucs trade for Julian Edelman at the deadline.)
For 2020 to be a successful season, the Falcons MUST:
Get back to the playoffs. As I said in the open, it's great that the Falcons gave Quinn another chance after his second 7-9 season. There will not be a third.
I'm really interested in seeing what the Falcons do here. Destiny is in their hands. Yes, everyone's talking Super Bowl for the Bucs with Brady in town, but he is making a new start. The Falcons, meanwhile, have continuity working in their favor. They could make a deep run here if they start to put it all together.