Today’s AJC contained a little something bearing the headline: “The Falcons’ Plan A fizzled. What’s Plan B?” Some among you might quibble with that, seeing as how this coaching staff and its Plan A has had but a season to work. I’d quibble with the quibbles, suggesting that:
1. The Falcons played what was, according to Football Outsiders, the NFL’s second-softest schedule. (The only reason it wasn’t the softest was that Carolina, which ranked last, couldn’t play itself twice. Three teams from the NFC South — Panthers, Falcons and Buccaneers — were 32nd, 31st and 30th.) Given that the Falcons were 6-10 last season against a slightly tougher schedule (the 27th-toughest, again according to Football Outsiders), finishing 8-8 seemed no great achievement.
2. Indeed, the Football Outsiders Almanac — a publication that has been prescient about this team over time — listed the Falcons’ mean projection at 8.9 wins. It’s hard to credit a team with a great leap forward when it actually underperformed by one game.
3. But wait. It gets worse. And so, per Football Outsiders, did the Falcons. Even at 6-10, the 2014 Falcons were rated as the NFL’s 20th-best team according to DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), the site’s proprietary measure. These Falcons were 26th.
4. OK, so the defense was better. It almost had to be, given that the 2014 Falcons finished last in that category according to DVOA. The 2015 defense was an encouraging 22nd. The offense, alas, fell off a cliff. Last year Football Outsiders ranked the Falcons’ offense 10th; this year it was 23rd, or worse than the defense. (Special teams were ranked 22nd, which means the Falcons weren’t very good at anything.)
5. That the’s scariest part of the whole season. The Falcons had a 4,500-yard passer, an 1,800-yard receiver and a 1,000-yard rusher — and still they scored only 34 offensive touchdowns, which is roughly one per half. The Tennessee Titans, who finished 3-13 with a rookie quarterback who was hurt twice and with Mike Mularkey as their interim head coach, scored 35.
6. You’ll recall that Arthur Blank proclaimed last winter that his team was not in rebuild mode. He had good reason. The Falcons had a Top 10 quarterback, which is something 6-10 teams seldom do, and probably the most impressive new coach of his hiring class; they were about to play what was then rated as the league’s easiest schedule. But the Top 10 quarterback finished 20th in passer rating and third in interceptions and was a major reason the 5-0 start became a non-winning season. And if the regression of Matt Ryan has truly commenced, this franchise won’t win anything anytime soon.
7. The 2014 Falcons essentially gave away two games (Detroit at Wembley, Cleveland here) via Mike Smith’s mismanagement. Dan Quinn flubbed a fourth-and-goal decision at San Francisco, but every coach whiffs occasionally. (Even Belichick.) More problematic were the game-changing interceptions thrown on first down by Ryan against Indianapolis, where he didn’t see linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, and again against New Orleans, where the quarterback failed to spot two Saints who had a better chance to catch the ball than did Devonta Freeman. (The first came when the Falcons led by a touchdown, the second when they were tied. There should have been no desperation involved.) The part about not scoring touchdowns can be heaped at the feet of Kyle Shanahan; the part about throwing the ball to the wrong team with the game on the line cannot.
8. The Falcons were 5-0 and had eight games against teams that would finish 8-8 or worse remaining. They lost six of those eight. Even if they weren’t as good as 5-0 suggested, a halfway decent team could have scrambled to 10-6 after that rolling start. (At 5-0, Football Outsiders gave the Falcons a 93 percent chance of making the playoffs.) That they couldn’t indicates they weren’t, at least by season’s end, a halfway decent team.
9. Bottom line: The Falcons had an impressive new coach, a franchise quarterback (or so we thought) and a bunny schedule. This should not have been just a garden-variety transitional season. This coulda/shoulda been a playoff season. That it wasn’t tells us the Falcons are even flimsier than we’d thought. Meaning: Whoa, Nellie.