In the NFL’s never-ending quest to lure the flash-over-substance, that’s-so-cool, video-game generation into its merchandise-dizzying world, the Falcons will wear “color rush” all-red uniforms for their Thursday night game against New Orleans.
The togs would pair well with a Power Rangers helmet and superpowers that would enable one to open a broken retractable stadium roof. But let’s not get crazy here.
There’s something far important on the line now for the Falcons than jersey sales. It’s recapturing their offensive identity. Because it was that flash that elevated them among the league’s talent, and that flash has too often been missing this season.
This has been a season of inconsistent play. The offense hiccuped for eight games, then had a nice little thing going for consecutive wins over Dallas, Seattle and Tampa Bay (10 offensive touchdowns, 1,131 yards) then got smacked Sunday at home by Minnesota (three field goals, one-for-10 on third downs).
The Falcons are averaging about 10 points less per game than a year ago. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has taken a beating in the social-media underworld, but that’s mostly from people who are looking for an easy target.
Coach Dan Quinn said opposing defenses are “on alert more” for key plays that the offense used a year ago, so the team has had to “adapt.” But the play-calling hasn’t been an issue for at least a month, maybe more, and truthfully it has been an overstated “problem” all season. Players just haven’t played well. The Falcons also are only 3-3 at home, which probably has something to do with the relatively sedate crowds.
There were penalties early against Minnesota. There were dropped passes by Mohamed Sanu and Julio Jones. There were errant passes from Matt Ryan. There was poor pass protection from the line and the running backs. Ryan was never sacked, but he was pressured often.
The Vikings have one of the NFL’s better defenses, but that’s no excuse for a team with the Falcons’ offensive talent to be being limited to nine points.
Players aren’t making excuses. Some want to make excuses for them, like perpetuating this, “They’re not getting enough possessions” narrative.
“It was just us,” Julio Jones said of the Minnesota game.
“I never say frustrated. That’s a negative word,” he said. “You’ve got to find ways to fix things. You can get frustrated and get stuck in your ways and then no one wants to communicate. Everything is team. We have to communicate with each other and fix this.”
More from Jones: “We’re better than nine points. We’re way better than nine points. But that’s over and done with now, and we’re onto the Saints. We’ll be good.”
It has been 12 games. By this point, a team usually is what it is.
The Falcons have produced only 10 takeaways in 12 games (0.83), a significant drop from the 22 in 16 games (1.37) a year ago. So yes, that’s a factor. But the offense’s 120 possessions in 12 games (10 per game) is not a significant drop from 165 in 16 (10.3) a year ago and consider the drops in these other categories from 2016 to 2017:
-- Offensive yards per play: 6.7 to 6.1.
-- Yards per drive: 40.5 to 36.2.
-- Points per drive: 3.09 to 2.18.
-- Percentage of touchdown drives: 35.2 to 22.5.
-- Percentage of drives that end in points: 55.8 to 42.5.
-- Points per drive: 3.06 to 2.54.
So this isn’t about the Falcons not having enough possessions. It’s about not doing enough with the ones they have. Players have lost too many one-on-one battles, both on the line and on the outside.
The Falcons struggled against the physical defenses of Carolina and Minnesota. Should we take anything from that? Sarkisian used a baseball analogy in response.
“Those guys might see five, six, eight pitches in an at-bat, and they might see one really good pitch to hit where they can drive the ball,” he said. “When you’re playing really good defenses in this league, we have to capitalize on those pitches you can hit, those really good clean opportunities to create explosive plays to score touchdowns. That’s the biggest takeaway for me.”
Sarkisian reiterated football games generally come down to “five or six plays,” and he doesn’t see a common thread in the Falcons’ inconsistent play. Quinn echoed those remarks.
“I assume the responsibility of being the offensive coordinator,” Sarkisian said. “I want the success of our offense to be for the betterment of the entire organization, from the owner to the general manager to Dan (Quinn) to the offense to the defense to the individual success of the players. We obviously put in a lot of time and effort to try to get wins. When that doesn’t happen, you go through the whats and whys and you try to figure out what to do different next time.”
If the Falcons win three of their last four games, they’ll probably get into the playoffs. Win all four and they actually could beat out New Orleans to win the NFC South. They won their final four a year ago after starting 7-5, but that came against four teams who finished with a combined record of 19-45. Their final four opponents this year are 30-18. Pesky facts.
They don’t have to be what they were a year ago. They just have to be as good as their talent says they are. Because there’s only one to describe a 7-5 season: underachievement.