I’m paid to have an opinion. Steely Dan’s (Walter Becker, R.I.P.) best song: “Doctor Wu.” Best Bond: Sean Connery, forever and ever. Best French fries: Still McDonald’s. See?
Regarding the 2017 Atlanta Falcons, I hold two opinions. This embarrasses me. I hate fence-straddling even more than I hate soggy fries. But I see a way this season will go very, very well, and I also see a way it could go … less well. I’ve tried to reconcile this, but no luck. I’m picking the Falcons to have a rather nice record and win the NFC South – that effort should be available in this space soon – because that’s how the majority of me is leaning. But it is, I confess, a majority of 51 percent.
But enough. Here’s what I like about this team – and what I don’t.
Like: Matt Ryan (duh). He’s good. He’s better than good. He’s coming off what was, by 10 miles, his best season.
Don’t like: Matt Ryan. He was 31 when he had that best-by-10-miles season. He’s 32 now, which isn’t old by quarterback standards, but still: When your breakout season comes in Year 9 of an NFL career, is a regression to the mean – not that Ryan’s mean is terrible – imminent?
Like: Vic Beasley Jr., the NFL’s leading sack man. He had 15 ½ sacks for a team that went whole seasons – slight exaggeration, but only slight – without getting 15 ½ sacks from its entire roster. He learned a new position and made the Pro Bowl. He’s 25. He should get better.
Don’t like: Vic Beasley Jr. as a bringer of constant pressure. As Bill Barnwell of ESPN has noted, those 15 ½ sacks came on 16 quarterback knockdowns. (Some sacks were strips, meaning he didn’t deck the passer.) That would seem the football equivalent of a .383 BABIP (batting average on balls in play.) The league average for BABIP is roughly .300. If you’re that far above the mean, you’re also a candidate for slippage. Note that Dansby Swanson’s BABIP was .383 in 38 big-league games last season.
Like: Desmond Trufant. He’s back. He might be the NFL’s best coverage cornerback.
Don’t like: Devonta Freeman, the NFL’s highest-paid running back. He’s good, but let’s face it – running backs in today’s football are kind of interchangeable. So are wideouts, unless you’re Julio Jones. Devonta Freeman is not Julio Jones. Two Septembers ago, he started the season as Tevin Coleman’s backup.
Like: Dan Quinn, fount of positivity. Were I an NFL player, I’d want to play for Quinn. He’s fun to be around. He’s adept with X’s and O’s. (He took over the Falcons’ defense late last season, to impressive results.) He’s almost everything you’d want in a head coach.
Don’t like: Dan Quinn, calming influence. Here’s where the “almost” comes in. Quinn’s first team fell apart after a 6-1 start, a slide he appeared powerless to arrest. The Falcons lost their final game of last season – a big game, if memory serves – because Quinn allowed his players and his offensive coordinator to get ahead of themselves. Aggression begat error which begat outright panic. He’s smart enough to learn from that, but what a lesson to have to absorb.
Like: The continuity of the Falcons’ roster. Most everybody who contributed to last season is back. This roster has been adjudged by Pro Football Focus as the NFL’s best. On paper, this team should be better than last season’s.
Don’t like: The lack of continuity in the Falcons’ coaching staff. Defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel could be an upgrade over Richard Smith, who was nothing special, but that can’t yet be known: Manuel hasn’t called a defense before. And there’s no way – none, zero, zilch – the offense will be as good under Steve Sarkisian. With the exception of a couple of calls in NRG Stadium on Feb. 5, Kyle Shanahan had a dream season. There’s no replacing him.
Like: Julio Jones running and leaping and catching. If you care to dub him the NFL’s best player at any position, I won’t argue.
Don’t like: Julio Jones getting injured. And it happens most every year. And he’s coming off foot surgery, his feet having been an issue since he was an undergrad in Tuscaloosa.
Like: The Falcons, defending NFC champs. They’ve proved they can play at the highest level. There should be no game too big for them.
Don’t like: The Falcons, Super Bowl losers. There’s much more pressure on them to prove the blown lead in Houston won’t Define Them than for the Patriots to repeat as champions. All Quinn’s happy talk can’t erase cold reality. When Texas A&M lost to UCLA after leading 44-10, your first though was, “Kind of like the Falcons.” When Georgia Tech lost a game it dominated to Tennessee, your first though was, “Kind of like the Falcons.” They’ve become a trope, a meme, an examplar of epic failure. That’s a lot to get past. Maybe too much.