Mike Check

Michael Cunningham’s ramblings from the world of sports

The Falcons are going to be really good


The Falcons are a very good football team. They’ve got so much talent you’d have to make an argument why they won’t qualify the NFC playoffs (they are about even odds to do make it). A better case can be made that this Falcons team has more good players than the team that went to the Super Bowl in Houston. 

That’s my view. I don’t think it’s hyperbole. Among Falcons starters there are no more than three positions that are potential weak links. That’s pretty much it. Maybe two or three other teams can honestly say the same.

The NFL’s roster rules are designed to spread the talent around. The Falcons, largely via deft drafting and player development, have managed to concentrate lots of good player talent in Flowery Branch. 

Don’t believe me? Look to Pro Football Focus, which ranked the Falcons’ talent as second-best in the NFL behind the Eagles. As I said, the Falcons are stacked with talent. 

This does not mean that things can’t go awry for the 2018 Falcons. There are the factors that are mostly beyond their control, such as injuries and other elements under the broad heading of Tough Luck. But there’s more than that.

Among the potential pitfalls: coach Dan Quinn’s decision-making during games. By now it’s clear that Quinn is a very good NFL head coach with several strengths. Game management is not one of them. 

Quinn’s sideline slip-ups have cost the Falcons in at least one game during each of his three seasons. Quinn said he learned from his nightmarish game management during the Super Bowl collapse against the Patriots. It’s not always clear that that he did. 

I’m still willing to believe that Quinn can grow in that area, and he more than makes up for it in other ways. Quinn promotes a “Brotherhood” that his players seem to embrace. Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff have forged a winning partnership in team-building, and the coach knows how to squeeze the most out of the talent on his roster. 

There is, however, one Quinn decision made outside the lines that still could haunt him: hiring Steve Sarkisian as offensive coordinator last year. It was odd that Quinn tabbed a college coach to run an all-time great NFL offense. It’s more odd to hear Sarkisian talk about learning the NFL and becoming more comfortable in his position. 

This was not the job for that. The Falcons’ offense was a machine in Kyle Shanahan’s second season, and Quinn turned it over to an operator unfamiliar with its parts or the industry. But Quinn is committed to Sarkisian now, so the Falcons must hope that his on-the-job NFL training is complete. 

At least Quinn brought on Gregg Knapp as quarterbacks coach. Knapp is a longtime NFL assistant with 10 seasons of experience running offenses. He’ll help Sarkisian with game-planning and play-calling. 

That isn’t to say the 2017 offensive regression was all Sarkisian’s fault (and some was to be expected after the highs of 2016). The Falcons dropped a lot of passes in 2017. They had some bad luck with turnovers, especially on tipped passes (one reason quarterback Matt Ryan’s numbers didn’t reflect his level of play). 

Sarkisian couldn’t do anything about those issues. But he and Knapp can get the Falcons back to more play-action passes, throwing to running backs and pushing a faster tempo. Those parts of their 2016 offensive identity were lost in 2017. 

(Having Julio Jones healthy from the start should help a lot. There’s talent, and there’s an elite playmaker like Jones.)

The Falcons weren’t bad on offense last season and they should be better. The same is true for the defense. I don’t buy that the Falcons were as good on defense in 2017 as their top-line numbers suggest (ninth in yards allowed and eight in points). But the young players the Falcons have steadily added in the draft are seasoned now, and Quinn finally seems to have the pieces to field an elite defense. 

A refocused offense and blossoming defense are legitimate reasons to believe the Falcons will be better in 2018. The schedule shouldn’t be a hindrance. The Saints may be better in the NFC South, but if there is a gap between them and the Falcons, it’s smaller than the one from the Falcons to the rest of the division. 

Bookmakers have set the Falcons’ over/under win total at 9. I like the Falcons to win 10 games and earn a wild card, and that’s the floor. They have too much talent to expect anything less.


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About the Author

Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010.