As August is upon us one’s thoughts turn to football again (finally). The year began with great joy and heartbreak for the Atlanta Falcons. As the new Mercedes Benz Stadium prepares to open at the end of the month the team will be trying to put behind them the final 22 minutes of Super Bowl XLI.
Having been a long time Falcons fan (going back to my youth) I have been accustomed to disappointment. Numerous times over the team’s history I would get my hopes up only to have them dashed. Of course I had modest goals as a kid. If the team finished at .500 I thought it was a good thing. Back then the main NFL teams were the Giants, Cowboys, Bears and Packers followed by everyone else. Of course that was before the NFL became a near trillion-dollar industry and became more of a lifestyle than a sport. To be honest, I miss those simpler times. Coaches remained coaches through good and bad unless they were truly awful. Players played their entire career with a team and were a part of the community until the very end with only a few exceptions and trades. But then money got involved – a lot of money.
The Falcons for the majority of their 51 years have been a mediocre team. Original owners, the Rankin Smith family just seemed to be happy to have an NFL team in their city. This of course led to mediocrity. Of course in the ‘60s and most of the ‘70s the sport of football was still considered by many as a novelty. I still remember back in late 2001 season when it was announced they sold the team to Arthur Blank, co-founder of Home Depot. All of a sudden it wasn’t just enough to put a football team on the field, instead it was and remains Blank’s goal to put a winning football team on the field. As of this writing the Falcons are exactly 100 games under .500 in the 51 seasons they’ve played and 9-13 in the playoffs that now include two Super Bowl losses.
As we stand of the precipice of a new season let’s not look back in anger of that evening in February but realize we’ve come a long way. I hate the term Super Bowl hangover, although that best describes many winners and losers like most recently the Broncos and Panthers. But Atlanta has a lot to be thankful for since Blank bought the team from Rankin Smith at the end of the 2001 season. Here are some numbers that are easy for you to digest. Smith owned the team for its first 36 years in the league and averaged just six wins a season. If you take out the 1998 season when the team went 14-2 losing in the Super Bowl to Denver then they won only an average of 5.5 games a season including playoffs. Not counting playoff wins and losses they won 5.8 games a season under Smith. Since Blank took over in 2002 they have won 8.9 games a season factoring in post season and 8.6 without. Since Blank took over ownership of the team it is 19 games above .500 – a far cry from being over 119 games under while Smith was in charge.
Prior to Blank the team never had back-to-back winning seasons. From 2008-12 under head coach Mike Smith the Falcons not only record five consecutive winning seasons, they made the playoffs four times and twice were the number one seed in the playoffs. Compared to the Rankin Smith era when the Falcons made the playoffs on an average of once every six seasons they now make the playoffs almost half the time (seven out of eight seasons) and have had ten .500 or better seasons compared to five losing seasons.
The only real criticism there is of Blank is the fact he is often too quick to pull the trigger on firing coaches. Some see the dismissal of Dan Reeves, Jim Mora and Mike Smith a little too premature. Reeves and Mora were mainly let go because of Michael Vick. Vick was an enigma as a quarterback. At the combine he ran a 4.33 40 and it was said he was also timed at 4.25 making him the fastest quarterback. The trouble with Vick was his decision making. He had a great arm, but no accuracy and if a receiver wasn’t open immediately he ran. And while that was exciting he was also a turnover machine. In 69 games with the Falcons he lost 28 fumbles or in 41 percent of the games he lost a fumble. He also threw 52 interceptions or in 75 percent of the games he played for Atlanta. Combined, he accounted for over one turnover for every game he played. He got the team to the playoffs twice losing in the NFC Championship game in the 2004 playoffs to the Philadelphia Eagles. His poor decision making and ball hog mentality despite his exciting play led the Falcons to two playoff appearances and only two winning seasons in five years as a starter. He missed parts of three two of the five seasons because of injuries. Despite Vick’s inconsistency as a quarterback in the league was blamed on coaches Reeves and Mora who were let go by Blank. Many around the league mumbled under their breath that Vick was a coach killer.
Vick’s lack of judgment went beyond the football field and made national news in the spring of 2007 when he was indicted on bankrolling a dog-fighting ring. Vick spent 18 months in a federal penitentiary thus ending his career with Atlanta. This also ended up costing the new Atlanta coach Bobby Petrino to lose his job – or actually quit 13 games into the season, thus ushering in the Matt Ryan era.
Since Ryan took over under center in 2008 he hold almost every Atlanta passing record and is the reigning NFL MVP. A far cry from the quarterback carousel the team has had for the majority of their existence that include to name a very few names like Bob Berry, Bill Lee, Steve Bartkowski, June Jones, Chris Miller, Joey Harrington, Doug Johnson and Chris Chandler. Not many household names. To give you an example of the futility of quarterback play, from their inception the Falcons has over two dozen staring quarterbacks. During that same period of time the Miami Dolphins had four.
Many have been critical that Ryan couldn’t win the big game ore wasn’t as exciting as Vick. Ryan’s quarterback rating and completion percentage is roughly 15 points higher in both categories. And with little expected of them last season as they were supposedly in a rebuilding phase they led the league in offense in almost every category and only the Rams’ “greatest show on turf” scored more points in a single season. The defense that had been a liability for five years showed marked improvement as second year defensive lineman/linebacker Vic Beasley not only led the league in sacks he single-handedly had more sacks than his team had as a whole the year prior.
Add to that another strong draft class for defense and a young offense with Ryan perhaps the oldest position player at 31 with everyone under manageable contracts you have a recipe for continued success. The only x-factor in the equation is that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanihan led after the Super Bowl loss to take the head coaching job in San Francisco. Many including yours truly believed he basically called it in during the second half of the Super Bowl as Atlanta blew a historic 25 point lead to lose in overtime. Steve Sarkisian takes over this year after an embarrassing stint as USC head coach that including him losing his job because of alcohol abuse and a stint in rehab. However contrary to popular belief the true leader of the offense is Ryan and not whoever is the coordinator. Sarkisian will be Ryan’s third offensive coordinator in four seasons.
The Falcons will be able to deflect a lot of talk of a hangover following the historic second half meltdown to New England because the architect of the second half offensive play calling is gone and a defense that was at least another season away from being legitimate may indeed scare people this season – perhaps not like the offense but pretty close and there is still time to wheel and deal before the season begins.
Unlike fans of the past that were quite frankly just happy to host an NFL team they now want it all or nothing. Blank has done his best to go along with that since taking over ownership. To give you a comparison it took the Falcons only 9 seasons under Blank to attain five winning seasons compared to 17 seasons under Rankin Smith. The longest drought between winning seasons for Atlanta since Blank has taken over ownership is three seasons and you can negate one of those if you like because included in those three is a .500 record or a non-losing season. During one stretch the Falcons went nine seasons between winning seasons and on average averaged only one winning season per six losing seasons as a whole.
And while the microscope is firm place upon Matt Ryan fans need to remember Atlanta was truly never a winning franchise and remains as of this writing 100 games under .500. It takes more than a win or two to change the culture and that’s exactly what continues to change under Blank and his reigning MVP quarterback. However it may not be for another ten or more years that you totally appreciate the entire body of work.
However we need to live in the moment. The Falcons unless something completely unexpected happens will be fine this season. While the offense may not begin as domineering as 2016, since the arrival of Dan Quinn getting the defense into shape and actually making the squad younger overall has been a priority. The defense is starting to take the look of the 2013 Seahawks except they are unproven at this point but all indication are they will at some point resemble the 2013 Seahawks unit to a degree. The defense took major strides during the season and the playoff run and through this past draft if the players are plugged into the right places they will be under contract for a long time. And that could spell doom not only the NFC South, but also the NFC in general.
– Dave Weinthal
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