There’s a scene in the movie, “Semi-Pro,” when basketball player Jackie Moon wrestles a bear for the sake of a franchise-saving promotion. It doesn’t go well. Dewie the bear flattens Jackie, then he escapes the ring and Jackie yells, “Oh my God! There’s a bear loose in the coliseum! There will be no refund!”
Falcons coach Dan Quinn, who's fond of catchphrases and showing his players old boxing matches and movie clips for motivation, has played that scene in team meetings in the past, using “Dewie” as a metaphor for disorganization and chaos.
The bear came up in a conversation I had with Quinn the other day. We were discussing the Falcons' situation, that despite their hiccups through seven games, despite the problems on offense and inconsistencies on defense, they're only now beginning play in the NFC South, which ultimately will define their regular season. Everything is still on the table.
“We definitely feel it’s all there for us, and we had that feeling when we came back from New England,” Quinn said. “As much as people from the outside are saying, ‘The bear is loose,’ I really felt, even in the game against the Jets with the rain coming down and blowing sideways, that guys were like, ‘Let’s go get it.’ There’s a certain aspect of that that comes into play now, even though we’re kicking it off late in the division.”
Eight weeks into the season, no team in the NFC South is performing as expected. The Falcons haven’t looked like a playoff team, let alone a Super Bowl team. Tampa Bay, thought to be a team on the rise, is a mess at 2-5. New Orleans, thought to be a team on the decline, has won five consecutive.
Carolina, the Falcons’ opponent Sunday in Charlotte, has been Sybil-like. They won at New England, but lost to Chicago. This week, the Panthers surprisingly traded wide receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, for a draft pick, which confused and somewhat irritated most fans -- was Carolina conceding its season at 5-3 -- and certainly didn't thrill quarterback Cam Newton, who lost both a weapon and a close friend.
Six of the Falcons' nine remaining games come against NFC South teams. They're the only team in the NFL that hasn’t played a division game.
“It’s a little weird,” Grady Jarrett said. “But division play is like a beast in itself, and it’s all ahead of us.”
We’re still debating what’s behind the them. The Falcons have been the league’s most psych-analyzed team. When you’re coming off what they’re coming off and you start a season the way they have, that’s to be expected.
For all the conjecture about a Super Bowl hangover and whether the Falcons haven't snapped out of their funk, it’s worth wondering just the opposite: Are there some players, particularly young players, somewhat operating on the assumption that success is a given? Have they effectively forgotten what it took to get there last season?
There’s a term for it: athletic amnesia.
“What’s the saying? He fell asleep and woke up on third base and thought he hit the triple?” Quinn mused. “That was a Bill Parcells-ism. I recognize people can think that way. So that’s why I think the process is important. We haven’t played our best yet, but I do trust where we’re going. I don’t sense guys are thinking, ‘We’ll be good, we just have to turn it on.’”
So there’s no credence to that theory?
“I would say no. But I recognize the question because I had to ask that question. I looked to see if that was the case, and I was happy with the work and preparation that was going in. I’m always watching. I just think each year is different, new players and everything. This is more about how, in 2017, do we become the best version of us.”
The Falcons aren’t there yet. They’re not nearly there yet. They started 3-0, but easily could have lost either the Chicago or Detroit games, or both. They played poorly at home against Buffalo and lost. They blew a 17-0 lead against Miami and lost. They looked like the picked-on little brother against New England and were embarrassed on national television.
The win over the New York Jets wasn’t a thing of beauty. But they won. They needed to exhale. The one positive about their start is they remain unbeaten in the conference games (3-0) because all of their losses have come to AFC East teams. That could be a factor if playoff tiebreakers come into play down the line.
The negative is what’s coming. This next three-game stretch includes the game at Carolina, then home against Dallas, that back on the road at Seattle. Going 2-1 in that stretch would leave them 6-4, workable for the final six weeks. Anything less could be a problem.
"We haven't peaked yet, but you don't want to peak early in the season," safety Ricardo Allen said. "I think we're hitting our stride at the right time. Last week we didn't mess up the small things that were messing us up in other games. We got off the field (on defense) when we needed to. We made plays when we needed to. It's going to come. It's going to keep coming."
Quinn, not intending to sound religious, said of this second half of the season, "It almost feels like there’s a second coming right now. There’s a renewal of sorts."
Time isn't a problem. Yet.
EAR-CANDY ALERT: Fresh "We Never Played The Game" podcast with Ric "Nature Boy" Flair. He was a blast. Go here to AJC.com/sports-podcasts/#weneverplayedthegame_tab.
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