Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2017 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.
For the Atlanta Falcons, we’ll present two different intros to their preview. Because either of these arguments about the 2017 Falcons make sense …
PREVIEW INTRO NO. 1
The Atlanta Falcons are set up for a great, long run. A disappointing loss in the Super Bowl might provide the necessary motivation.
By the end of last season, Atlanta was scary. Early in the season it was clear the offense turned a corner. Matt Ryan played at an MVP level all season. Julio Jones was Julio Jones and the running game with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman was fantastic.
Then the defense took a huge step forward. From the Week 11 bye through the NFC championship game, the Falcons’ young defense allowed more than 21 points just once (not counting when the Kansas City Chiefs scored 28, because eight points came from safety Eric Berry’s interception returns). The Falcons are young on defense, top cornerback Desmond Trufant returns from injury and free-agent nose tackle Dontari Poe was added. The defense should be even better and the offense is coming off a historic season.
The Falcons were dominant for most of the playoffs. Atlanta outplayed the Seattle Seahawks in a 36-20 divisional round win. The Falcons were up 31-0 on the Green Bay Packers early in the second half of an easy NFC championship game victory. And thanks to a great game plan, the Falcons led a dominant New England Patriots team 28-3 in the Super Bowl (you might know what happened after they took that lead). There was nothing weird about the Falcons’ playoff run. They were legit. And just about everyone returns.
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is gone, and that might be a huge loss. But every team loses something in an offseason, and there were few personnel losses off a deep roster. If the Falcons use a historic Super Bowl collapse as motivation, they can finish the job this season.
PREVIEW INTRO NO. 2
Just about every team that loses a Super Bowl feels the effect the next season. And that’s for your normal Super Bowl losses.
The last team to lose a Super Bowl and make it back the next season was the 1993 Buffalo Bills. The last team to lose a Super Bowl and win it all the next year? The 1972 Miami Dolphins. The Super Bowl hangover is real. You play three or four extra games, your offseason is a month shorter, and you don’t even have a ring to show for it at the end. The Super Bowl loser knows better than anyone how tough it is to scale the mountain and win a title. Getting mentally ready to make that trek again – not to mention avoiding bad luck, injuries and simply getting knocked off by the next ascending team in an ultra-competitive league – is tough.
And that’s for normal Super Bowl losses. Atlanta did not have a normal Super Bowl loss.
The Falcons experienced the worst single-game collapse in American professional sports history. No other team had ever blown a game like that, on that stage. No matter where the Falcons go from here, they’ll never forget blowing a 28-3 lead in a Super Bowl. How do you come back from that?
The Falcons have a fantastic roster. Just about everyone returns. The offense was one of the highest scoring in the history of the NFL, and Matt Ryan won an MVP. The defense improved tremendously late in the season. On paper, there’s no reason to believe the Falcons will take a step back. Then again, there was no reason to believe the Carolina Panthers would struggle last season after going 15-1 the year before and losing Super Bowl 50. They went 6-10.
The Falcons can say all the right things. But there’s a lot of history going against them, and there’s no blueprint on how to rebound from blowing a 25-point lead in a Super Bowl. No team before the Falcons had ever blown more than a 10-point lead and lost a Super Bowl. If the Falcons come right back and win a Super Bowl, it will be just as historic as their collapse against the Patriots.
…. now, which one do you choose?
It’s tough to make it through an offseason without losing anything. The Falcons’ big loss was offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Replacing him with Steve Sarkisian, who has been coaching in college since 2005 and had a messy departure from USC, is risky. But the roster didn’t lose much. Guard Chris Chester retired and fullback Patrick DiMarco signed with the Buffalo Bills, but the Falcons can handle that. The Falcons didn’t add much either, but bringing in former Kansas City Chiefs nose tackle Dontari Poe is a smart one-year gamble. First-round pick Takkarist McKinley can help the pass rush right away. Good teams usually get picked apart in the offseason. The Falcons didn’t, and that’s a win. Grade: B
The 2016 Falcons scored 540 points, tied for seventh in NFL history. That’s more than either of the St. Louis Rams “Greatest Show on Turf” Super Bowl teams, any of Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts teams or the Steve Young-Jerry Rice 1994 San Francisco 49ers team that cruised to a Super Bowl. And it was a diverse offense: The Falcons led the NFL in yards per pass attempt and were tied for fourth in yards per rush attempt. While Kyle Shanahan had a great season calling plays (I didn’t even really hate what he did in the final quarter-and-a-half in the Super Bowl, aside from a call or two), I don’t believe this offense collapses without him. Atlanta might not have a top-10 all-time offense again, but it could be the best in the league this season.
“It sucks. There’s no getting around it. You hang on to it for a little bit. You’re in kind of your spot, whatever that is, your dark place for a little bit. Then you realize life goes on.” – Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan on April 19.
After such a great 2016, what’s a realistic expectation for Matt Ryan? Ryan has always been a pretty good quarterback, but an MVP season came out of nowhere. A season before, he had 21 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and an 89 rating. There were legitimate questions about him going into last season. Then he put up 17 more touchdowns, threw nine fewer interceptions and posted a 117.1 rating. He had never posted a rating better than 99.1 in his first eight seasons. He had only one other 30-touchdown season, topping out at 32. He averaged 13.4 interceptions and never had fewer than nine. He had never thrown for eight yards per attempt in a season. Last season he posted an unbelievable 9.3. Since 1976, only Kurt Warner and Chris Chandler (huh?) posted a better average in a season. Given how far Ryan was ahead of his career norms, it’s impossible to believe he’ll have a full repeat. But he should have a pretty soft landing; whatever level he settles at will still be among the NFL’s best.
Julio Jones is the Falcons’ best player, but let’s go in a different direction and discuss Vic Beasley. Beasley, who had an up-and-down rookie season, was an All-Pro in year two. His sacks went from four to 15.5. It will be hard to repeat that sack total, which led the NFL. As Pro Football Focus pointed out, Beasley had those sacks on 56 pressures. That conversion rate of 28.6 percent is far ahead of the normal 15 percent rate for edge rushers. He also had 10.5 of his 15.5 sacks in four games. The Falcons can’t have Beasley’s sack total slip too much. He had almost half of Atlanta’s 34 sacks. Beasley will have to play better to repeat a great season.
From Yahoo’s Liz Loza: “I wouldn’t draft Matt Ryan expecting another 38-touchdown season. Heck, I’m not sure he’ll even clear 30 scores. There’s no denying that, in his second year with Kyle Shanahan, things clicked for Ryan … but the year prior, when the offense was new to him, he struggled woefully. While new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is a QB specialist this is a transitional season for Ryan. Save 2016 he has never – over eight separate campaigns – passed for more than 32 TDs (and that was all the way back in 2012). If you didn’t invest in Ryan last year then you lost out. He’s all floor and no ceiling in 2017.” [Check out Yahoo’s Pressing Questions for the fantasy outlook on the Falcons.]
Julio Jones averaged 100.6 yards per game last season. Amazingly, that was the lowest mark he has posted since 2012. He averaged 116, 106.2 and 116.9 yards per game from 2013-15. His 96.3 yards per game over his career is the best in NFL history, and it’s dragged down significantly by his first two seasons. Jones could actually be better in 2017 than he was last season. He had a 136-catch, 1,871-yard season in 2015. He put up “only” 83-1,409 last season. He had 203 targets in 2015, a number that fell to 129 last season. Jones might never get 200 targets again but he should get way more than 129 this season, and we know what he’s capable of when he gets the ball.
IS THE DEVONTA FREEMAN-TEVIN COLEMAN COMBINATION CAPABLE OF EVEN MORE?
The Falcons have perhaps the best 1-2 running back punch in the NFL. Last season Freeman had 1,079 yards on 227 carries and Coleman had 520 yards on 118 carries. They combined for 85 catches, 883 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns from scrimmage. Not many backups account for 941 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns, like Coleman did in 13 games last season. It’s hard to imagine those two topping last year’s production, though both were also very good in 2015. It’s a system that works well and the Falcons can probably count on about 2,000 yards and 20 total touchdowns again from their fine backs. It’s fairly amazing the Falcons have a rushing attack that productive and an MVP quarterback too.
It was hard to imagine the 2004 Boston Red Sox bouncing back to win a World Series after a horrendous 2003 ALCS collapse against the New York Yankees. But they did it. Three times the 1990s Buffalo Bills returned to a Super Bowl after losing one the previous season. The 2017 Golden State Warriors won a title this past season after blowing a 3-1 NBA Finals lead, but adding Kevin Durant helped. At least there are some examples of teams coming back from utter heartbreak and doing well the following season. Every Falcons player wants to make up for what happened in the final hour or so of the 2016-17 NFL season. That has to drive them. The talent is there to get right back to a Super Bowl and win it.
It would have been insane to predict a losing season for the Carolina Panthers a year ago. They had a great 2015 season, lost a Super Bowl but had almost everyone back. There was no reason to believe they’d go 6-10. I can’t envision any scenario, aside from a lot of key injuries, in which the Falcons lose double-digit games. But the NFL is tough. The difference between most teams is incredibly thin. Atlanta has a tougher schedule. They were relatively healthy all last season, and that’s never guaranteed to repeat. Atlanta had a storybook season (until it turned into a nightmare at the end), and that usually doesn’t happen twice in a row. It will be surprising if the Falcons don’t make the playoffs, but it’s not like we haven’t seen that story play out with Super Bowl losers before.
Those two intros at the top of this post? I have waffled between both sides for the Falcons all offseason. I look at their depth chart and it’s a championship-level team. I don’t know how anyone stops this offense, especially if second-year tight end Austin Hooper takes an expected step forward. The defense has a ton of young blue-chip talent – linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell, cornerbacks Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant, safety Keanu Neal, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and defensive end Vic Beasley. Yet, I thought the same things about the 2016 Panthers. Go back and look at how the Falcons dismantled the Packers in the NFC title game, and try to make a coherent argument that Atlanta losing a Super Bowl totally flips that. I’ve written previews on 30 teams so far and the Falcons might be the hardest of those teams to predict. Nothing would surprise me with the 2017 Falcons. They’ll be fascinating to watch.
32. New York Jets
31. Cleveland Browns
30. San Francisco 49ers
29. Chicago Bears
28. Los Angeles Rams
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
26. Detroit Lions
25. Houston Texans
24. Buffalo Bills
23. Indianapolis Colts
22. Baltimore Ravens
21. Los Angeles Chargers
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. New Orleans Saints
18. Washington Redskins
17. Philadelphia Eagles
16. Miami Dolphins
15. Cincinnati Bengals
14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
13. Arizona Cardinals
12. Denver Broncos
11. Tennessee Titans
10. Carolina Panthers
9. Oakland Raiders
8. Kansas City Chiefs
7. New York Giants
6. Seattle Seahawks
5. Dallas Cowboys
4. Green Bay Packers
– – – – – – –