In his first season as head coach, Jim Mora led the Falcons to an 11-5 record, a division title and the NFC championship game. He was fired two years later, having gone 15-17 since Year 1.
In his second season as head coach, Dan Quinn led the Falcons to an 11-5 record, a division title and the NFC championship. In his Year 1 and the first half of Year 3, the Falcons’ record is 12-12.
No, the parallels aren’t exact. Quinn took the Falcons to the Super Bowl. (Where a bad thing happened.) Quinn is the franchise’s czar of football, answering only to the oft-photographed owner; Mora answered to general manager Rich McKay. Mora was fired because he and Greg Knapp failed to maximize the talents of Michael Vick. Quinn has already maximized Matt Ryan, though what we’re seeing appears a regression to the mean.
Let’s just say it: Quinn is a better coach than Mora. (The latter is about to be fired by UCLA, where he again started well but fizzled.) Quinn has built a team in his fast ‘n’ furious image. But he’s not – let’s be honest about this, too – exactly a chaos-diffuser. His first team started 6-1 and finished 8-8. This year’s team started 3-0 and is 4-4. His best team led the Super Bowl by 25 points and finished second. DQ’s Falcons are world champs at falling apart.
The Falcons are widely viewed as the one of the NFL’s most talented teams. Quinn gets credit for this, having overseen the accumulation of much of that talent. But Ryan, last year’s MVP, ranks 13th in both passer rating and ESPN’s Total QBR. Julio Jones ranked first among receivers last season, averaging 100.6 yards per game; this year he’s third, at 82.3. The Falcons ranked fifth in rushing yards per game last season; they’re 13th now.
The defense is better, having improved from 25th in yards against to 12th. The Falcons’ 2016 defensive numbers were, however, skewed by a wretched start. From Thanksgiving on, that defense was actually pretty good, at least until everything unraveled on Feb. 5. That was in large part because Quinn took it upon himself to call defensive signals.
The two coaches who powered the Super Bowl run are no longer in signaling mode. Kyle Shanahan works in San Francisco; two other offensive assistants left after the season. Quinn has ceded defensive oversight to Marquand Manuel, in his first run as an NFL coordinator. So is Steve Sarkisian, hired to replace Shanahan. Manuel has done OK. Sarkisian has been substandard to the extent that some have suggested that passing game coordinator Raheem Morris should call plays, which might be an option except for this: Until last season, Morris had always been a defensive assistant.
Opponents averaged 25.4 points against the 2016 Falcons, which was sixth-worst in the league but didn’t much matter. Those Falcons averaged 33.8 points, seventh-best in NFL annals. Opponents are averaging 21.5 now, which marks an upgrade, and still the Falcons have been outscored on the season. Their offensive yield has dropped to 21.3, which comes to two fewer touchdowns per game, which is the distance between good and mediocre.
Since Sept. 24, the Falcons’ point totals are 17, 17, 7, 25 and 17. They’ve averaged 1.8 touchdowns over those five games. In that span, Sarkisian has moved from the sideline to the press box and been urged by Quinn to run the ball more and remember that Julio Jones is at his disposal. The Falcons ran it 18 times for 53 yards, both seasonal lows, in Charlotte on Sunday. Jones mustered 118 yards receiving, his season high, but dropped a touchdown pass.
The point being: There’s no mesh to this offense. The Falcons couldn’t run against Carolina but threw for 313 yards, and they generated their usual two touchdowns and 17 points. (Average points over the past five games, four of them losses – 16.6.) Apart from guard Chris Chester, these are the same players. They’re just not doing the same things. Like a teenager in a growth spurt, they’re uncoordinated.
Two weeks ago, we mentioned that it was up to Quinn to coach – as opposed to sloganize – his men through this rough patch. Nothing in the halting victory over the Jets suggested a corner being turned, and the loss to Carolina was a double reverse. It saw the Falcons waste yet another double-digit lead, and it happened against a division opponent.
With half a season in the bank, they’re back to .500. According to FiveThirtyEight, they have a 14 percent chance to win the division, which carries with it a home playoff game, and a 33 percent chance to reach the postseason. FiveThirtyEight now simulates their season ending with 8.6 wins, which rounded up would mean finishing 9-7, which probably wouldn’t suffice.
As much as I expected the Super Bowl collapse to hang over this franchise, I didn’t expect it to be an issue until the playoffs began anew. And I can’t really say I’ve seen much evidence of a Super “malaise” these past five games. I just a see a talented team that’s not very good.
I see a team that lost as a heavy home favorite in the game before its bye week and the game after. I see a team that hasn’t scored an offensive touchdown in the third quarter – that’s the one after halftime – this season. I see a poorly coached team.