As we bid adieu to Texas, we should be dreaming dreams of sweet tomorrows. The Falcons are, in the main, a young bunch. They made the Super Bowl ahead of schedule. They were no worse than the NFL’s second-best team. Their future should be as bright and shiny as a disco ball.
But – and this is about the biggest “but” ever – they blew the Super Bowl. That bit about them being a young and gifted team? It’s true. But this young and gifted team should already have a Lombardi Trophy.
Losing a Super Bowl can be a terrible thing, and the Falcons didn’t merely lose. They lost after leading by 25 points with 17 minutes and seven seconds left in regulation. And now the chilling part: The last Super loser to make it back the next year was Buffalo in 1994. That Super Bowl was played in the Georgia Dome, then just over a year old. That Dome is scheduled to be demolished this spring.
No team in American sports gets picked apart the way a Super loser does, and the picking at the Falcons will be unceasing. They were outscored 31-0 over the final 17:06 plus overtime. The coaches and quarterback who answered every question over 18-3/4 games froze at the end of the only game the masses – and, let’s face it, a lot of us Atlantans – will remember. They’d been so good for so long, and then they went so bad as to make us wonder, not for the first time, if this franchise can ever truly get it right.
Dan Quinn over the first 18 ¾ games: Bright guy, terrific coach, believer in his Brotherhood. Dan Quinn after the Super Bowl: Nonsensical in his attempt to defend the indefensible. Of the pass on third-and-1 that became the sack/fumble that changed the game, Quinn said: “We trust our guys, so we thought that was an opportunity to let it rip.
On not running the ball three times and kicking a clinching field goal after Julio Jones’ beyond-belief catch moved the Falcons to the Patriots’ 22-yard line: “We wanted to attack at every opportunity.”
With a Super Bowl there to be won by letting Matt Bryant do what Matt Bryant always does, you’re concerned with attacking? Is a 15-point victory somehow better than an 11-point one? Cue Herman Edwards: “You play to win … the … game.”
Over this long offseason, it will not go unnoticed that Quinn has, in the space of two years, presided over the two biggest fourth-quarter collapses in Super annals. In February 2015, his mighty Seattle defense yielded a 10-point lead to the pesky Pats. (Granted, he had nothing to do with Russell Wilson throwing the ball from the 1-yard line.) Now this. Now a team that had made no postseason turnovers calling a pass play on third-and-1 on which Devonta Freeman missed his block and Matt Ryan got blindsided and three brilliant quarters came unstuck.
No team has ever been so close to a Super Bowl title without winning. (According to ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, the Falcons’ win probability peaked at 99.8 percent.) That will test the strength of Quinn’s ballyhooed Brotherhood: Do you keep believing when your faith has been so spectacularly shattered? The Carolina Panthers of the NFC South entered this same game a year ago calling themselves a Band of Brothers with the league’s newly crowned MVP – and they lost. This season they crashed from 15-1 to 6-10.
There’s not much in the way of a Falcons antecedent, but what there is elicits a similar gulp: The 1998 team was 14-2; after botching the Super Bowl every which way, the 1999 Birds went 5-11.
Win the Super Bowl and you’re showered with confetti and handed a trophy and you go to Disney World. Lose the Super Bowl and, even as your record insists that you’re the NFL’s second-biggest winner, you’re branded a loser. That’s the nature of this game. That’s the history DQ and his Brotherhood must buck.
After the crash, Ryan was asked what he’d said to his teammates. His answer: “There’s not really much you can say.” Internally, maybe not. Externally, we’ll be discussing the night of Feb. 5, 2017, for as long as there’s an NFL, as long as there’s an Atlanta.
That last part might be the hardest knot to untie. The nicest thing about these Falcons was that they kept surprising us in a good way. Then, the finish line in sight, they collapsed in the epic Atlanta way – except that this was worse than anything our city had ever seen. (And we figured we’d seen it all.) The move next door to Mercedes-Benz Stadium will see a talented team take occupancy of a gleaming new arena, but the old stain just became indelible.
The Falcons led the Super Bowl by 25 points and didn’t win. No team had done that before an Atlanta team did it. This was a season easy to embrace until, like every nearly Atlanta embrace, it was broken. For all of us, it will take a very long time to get past this.