The Falcons Are Too Good to Be This Bad

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistNovember 23, 2018

NEW ORLEANS, LA - NOVEMBER 22:  Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons reacts during a game against the New Orlenas Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on November 22, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

You're welcome to consider this the unofficial obituary for the 2018 Atlanta Falcons, who tripped all over themselves in typical Falcons fashion in a big spot Thanksgiving night against the New Orleans Saints.

Even without starters Keanu Neal and Deion Jones on defense and Devonta Freeman, Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco on offense, the Falcons have one of the most talented rosters in the NFL. They've been hit hard by injuries, but so have the 10-1 Los Angeles Rams, the 9-2 Kansas City Chiefs and several other contenders.

There's no roster-related excuse for why the Falcons have lost three consecutive November games to fall virtually out of contention at 4-7. Few expected them to beat the burning-hot Saints in New Orleans on short rest, but they hardly put up a fight in a 31-17 defeat that included a garbage-time touchdown to make a one-sided affair look more competitive than it was.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - NOVEMBER 22:  A.J. Klein #53 of the New Orleans Saints reacts after intercepting a pass by Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on November 22, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

This is an offense with a former MVP quarterback in Matt Ryan, a future Hall of Fame wide receiver in Julio Jones, a sensational rookie wideout in Calvin Ridley, one of the game's top No. 2 receivers in Mohamed Sanu, a quality young tight end in Austin Hooper, a dazzling young back in Tevin Coleman and two strong veteran offensive linemen in Jake Matthews and Alex Mack. Yet it is one of just nine offenses that have been held to fewer than 20 points on five separate occasions this season.

The inconsistency is astonishing. They scored 12 points in Week 1, more than 30 in each of their next three games, 17 in Week 5, 34 in Week 6, 23 in Week 7 and 38 following a Week 8 bye. Now they've been held to 19 or fewer points in three consecutive losses to Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys and Saints.

Not that we should be surprised. After all, that was a trend throughout 2017 as the Falcons struggled to get acclimated to offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian's system. Last year, an offense that led the league in scoring in 2016 scored 17 or fewer points six times (something that happened just once in Kyle Shanahan's final season at the offensive helm).

That makes it impossible to establish a groove and make a run, which is why the Falcons haven't won more than three consecutive games since that unforgettable but now distant 2016 campaign.

But again, this isn't about the personnel. The Falcons outgained the Saints while registering more than twice as many passing yards as their streaking opponent Thursday night. They averaged nearly as many yards per play, but they were the inferior team in key moments. New Orleans was better on third downs, New Orleans was less mistake-prone and New Orleans was a better finisher.

The surface-level numbers indicate the Falcons generated 17 points on four red-zone possessions against the Saints. That number is too low to begin with (it should be at least 20), but it doesn't account for the fact that seven of those points came on that aforementioned garbage-time touchdown. As well, Atlanta lost fumbles inside the red zone on two plays that started at or beyond the 30-yard line.

Technically, the Falcons controlled the ball inside the New Orleans 20-yard line five times while the game was still within reach. They turned it over in three of those instances, and in another Ryan took a killer sack (one of six on the night), forcing them to settle for a short field goal.

That speaks to this team's mental fortitude, as well as its inability to rise to occasions.

That predates Sarkisian, who was coaching in the Pac-12 when the Falcons lost four of their first five playoff games with Ryan under center.

In the first seven years of Ryan's career, the 2008 No. 3 overall pick compiled an 80.8 fourth-quarter passer rating, compared to 91.3 in the first three quarters. From 2013 to 2015, 70 percent of his interceptions came in the second halves of games. And from 2013 to 2016, he threw an NFL-high 11 interceptions in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter (seven of those picks came in one-score games).

The pre-Sark Falcons had a reputation for blowing big leads, even before they blew the ultimate big lead against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI.

The Falcons masked their choker mentality in 2016 because Shanahan's offense was so damn good that they rarely had to grind out close games. They didn't face a lot of adversity, and we all saw what happened when they finally did.

But now Shanahan is gone, and Sarkisian hasn't gotten as much out of the talent on that side of the ball. As a result, the Falcons are just 14-13 since that Super Bowl loss, and their offense ranks 13th in football with a points-per-game average of 23.4 during that span.

A lot of that falls on their offensive coordinator, who—as former NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz pointed out with an eye-opening example Thursday night—seems to lack the ability to adapt and change his approach:

Jones, who remains their brightest star, has scored just six touchdowns in those 27 games. He's often the focal point when Sarkisian's red-zone offense is criticized—something we should expect more of following Thursday's debacle in New Orleans.

Don't forget that with the season on the line late in last year's divisional-round matchup with the Eagles, Sarkisian ditched his running game and developed tunnel vision. Ryan threw four consecutive passes on a final series inside the 10-yard line, three of which went to a well-covered Jones.

Philadelphia safety Malcolm Jenkins later mocked Sarkisian's approach by suggesting that he and his teammates knew what play was coming on fourth down "before they broke the huddle."

In the very next football game they played, against the very same opponent and in an eerily similar situation, they again leaned on a doubled-teamed Jones on multiple occasions. In that 2018 prime-time opener, the Falcons reached the Eagles' 15-yard line three times and came away with zero points on those drives.

So not a lot has changed, and it might be too late for minor tweaks. It's obvious Sarkisian isn't the right man for this job, and he should be relieved of his duties between now and Black Monday.

ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 30: Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian on the field during the second quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on September 30, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Im
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Beyond that, head coach Dan Quinn's job shouldn't be much more secure. It was Quinn who was in control during the most infamous championship-game collapse in NFL history, and keep in mind that he's a defensive specialist. That Falcons team's success had little to do with Quinn's area of expertise, and while the defense made tremendous progress in 2017, the admittedly beat-up unit has been a mess once again this season.

This isn't about the roster. Nobody expects the Falcons to give up on Ryan just months after signing him to a new five-year, $150 million contract, and his supporting cast isn't likely going anywhere. That young, fast defense can bounce back too, especially when Neal and Jones are healthy.

The Falcons possess Super Bowl talent, and that will likely still be the case next season, but the team's continued lack of consistent execution should lead to significant changes in the coming weeks and months.

Otherwise, we'll probably be writing this team's obit again before winter arrives in 2019.

        

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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