CHARLOTTE – There’s a point at which the story changes from, “They’re too good for this to continue,” to “Maybe this is who they are.”
Dropped passes. Bad penalties. Horrendous run-blocking when it matters most. A pass that shouldn’t been thrown. A sack that didn’t have to be taken. A fumble one game, an interception the next. Every week it's something different.
“We’ve played pretty average football and our record’s pretty average,” Matt Ryan said Sunday. “That’s where we’re at right now.”
The Falcons are average. Actually, they're less than average. Average teams don’t lose four times in a stretch of five games with superior talent, and after repeated assurances, "Don't worry, we've got this."
Average teams don’t score 17 or fewer points in those four losses, one year after scoring less than 17 points just once all season with almost the same roster. (The Falcons hate comparisons to 2016, but the contrast is unavoidable.) Good teams don’t average an anemic 8.2 points in the second half, because that's after coaches and players have made their half-time adjustments.
“It’s completely about us,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said.
Yeah, well, no argument. The Falcons lost to Carolina 20-17. They're 4-4, the third best team in the NFC South behind New Orleans (6-2) and Carolina (6-3) and the ninth best in the NFC.
In this latest loss, they committed eight penalties, converted only 4 of 12 third downs and in one key stretch of the second quarter had a first-and-5 at the Carolina 39-yard line, only to run four straight plays that gained 3, 1, 0 and 0 yards.
So began the unraveling. Carolina drove to a touchdown. On the Falcons' ensuing series, Austin Hooper tripped over a defender on a pass route and Ryan threw a pass he shouldn't have that was intercepted. Carolina scored again.
That wasn’t the worst thing about Sunday.
That wasn’t remotely within several zip codes of the worst thing.
Julio Jones dropped a touchdown pass. The man who regularly makes highlight catches had his low light worst in the fourth quarter. On fourth down from the Carolina 39, Ryan bought time and Jones got behind the Panthers’ secondary. He was in the end zone. He was all alone. There wasn’t a defender within five yards of him.
He ball arrived over his right shoulder. But it bounced off his hands and, when Jones scrambled to pull it in, he couldn't.
It was like Rembrandt dropping his paint brush ... and spilling his drink on the canvas.
“I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity,” Jones said. “I just missed it.
“No excuses. Just a missed opp.”
He showed little emotion. Don’t be fooled. He was still shaking his head as he walked through the tunnel and into the locker room after the game. A team aide patted him on the back. There were a few pats from the drop to the locker room.
The Falcons trailed 20-10 at the time so it changed the dynamics of how the Falcons’ offense would approach the rest of the game. When they drove to a touchdown with 3:25 left it obviously made a difference in what team was leading.
“He’s probably made more plays in this league than anybody,” Ryan said later. “It happens from time to time. But we’ll give him opportunities and he’ll make those plays almost every time.”
Here’s the thing. While the Falcons could have won the game if Jones made the equivalent of a lay-up for him, that would’ve merely rescued them for a week. The problems would still be the problems, and they’re everywhere.
“We all have a play or two in that game we’d like to do different,” Ryan said.
He’d like the interception back. He’d certainly like back a sack he took on second-and-1 late in the third quarter that could have been avoided with a simple throw out of bounds (he was outside the tackle box, so intentional ground would not have been called).
“I’m disappointed in myself for that,” said Ryan, whose seventh interception matched his 2016 season total. “I have to find a way to throw it away. That’s a bad play.”
One bad play wouldn’t be a problem. The Falcons’ problem is they’re stringing together multiple bad plays every week.
They’re doing dumb things like hitting a player late, or jumping on a snap count, or holding, or throwing a crack-back block.
Officiating was poor (both ways). Jones was clearly interfered with on one no-call. But Falcons coach Dan Quinn said what a coach should say when his team isn’t playing well: “It’s inside our locker room. It’s not on them. We’re not looking for calls.”
As for the offensive struggles, not everything is on offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian but obviously some is. There was a third-and-1 when Sarkisian attempted to cross up the Panthers’ defense with play-action. The problem: Jones had been taken out of the game before the play so the Falcons’ best receiver was off the field. A pass to a well-guarded Hooper was incomplete.
I asked Quinn if it's concerning that eight games into the season his team is still making too many mistakes?
“It is," he said. "We’ve been under the same roof with this team in 2017 for eight games. We continued to address the areas we need to improve and we’ll keep doing and we’ll work to find out what this team can be.”
What they can’t be and what they are may be two different things. The Falcons are halfway through 2017. They not very good and they have games against Dallas and Seattle coming up.
Several players in the locker room attempted to eliminate the “panic” narrative. Jones said he’s “not concerned.” But his thought didn't end there.
“We’ve got to get going, we’ve got to get rolling, we’ve got to put some games together and win,” he said.
Quinn had viewed his team's first division game as a new beginning. "There's a renewal of sorts," he said last week.
This wasn't a renewal. It was a repeat.
Maybe there's no new episodes coming.
FRESH PODCAST: New "We Never Played The Game" podcast with Ric "Nature Boy" Flair. He was a blast. Go here to AJC.com/sports-podcasts/#weneverplayedthegame_tab.
Subscribe to the, “We Never Played The Game” podcast with the AJC's Jeff Schultz and WSB’s Zach Klein on iTunes or on the new AJC sports podcasts page.
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