It wasn’t so long ago that I believed the Falcons’ manifest destiny was to win a Super Bowl. It was only last fall that I considered them a playoff lock after their 5-0 start. I mention this as a way of saying: I didn’t always consider this an organization incapable of tying its corporate shoelaces.
Today, however, I wonder.
I wonder why the reins of this franchise were handed to a man who’d never worked an NFL game as head coach. I wonder why a general manager was reassigned while letting him remain the titular GM, even as the building at 4400 Falcon Parkway was filling up with former GMs. I wonder why this brain trust waits until August to address pressing concerns – last year the offensive line, this year the pass rush. I wonder why whoever’s doing the drafting keeps picking first-rounders who get hurt.
Mostly I wonder about Kyle Shanahan, and we can’t have a discussion about Shanahan without mentioning Matt Ryan. Among Dan Quinn’s first moves as coach/czar was to hire an offensive coordinator who’d been fired by Washington after the 2013 season and who’d quit on Cleveland a year later. Was any other team desperate to hire Shanahan? Did Quinn hire him because he the right guy or the available guy?
With the Falcons, Shanahan oversaw an offense that yielded a 4,500-yard passer, an 1,800-yard receiver and a 1,000-yard rusher but managed only 34 touchdowns, which is essentially one per half. His offense rendered Roddy White, a most distinguished Bird, a non-factor. (It remains unclear whether White was still capable of getting open.) That same offense appeared to put Ryan in places where he was uncomfortable, and that was new. Since 2008, Job 1 for every Falcons OC – there have been three; the other two are now head coaches – had been to Make Matt Happy.
Matt himself hasn’t actually said he was unhappy, but his play wasn’t that of a contented man. He threw awful interceptions. He looked – dare we say it? – shaky. That was absolutely new. Even as a rookie, Ryan was self-assured. He knew the playbook, some of which was tailored for him. Has there been any indication that Shanahan’s schemes, such as they are, make allowances for the skill-set of this particular quarterback? If not, why not?
Or do we have this backward? Is it possible Ryan isn’t the player he was in his heyday? Matthew Berry of ESPN unearthed this odd stat: Since 2010, the only quarterback to throw 600 times and complete 66 percent of those passes without delivering 30 touchdowns is Ryan, who has done it not once but three years running. Which predates Shanahan’s arrival.
That’s what this forced marriage of coordinator and quarterback has made us do – question the one constant the Falcons have known since 2008. For five consecutive seasons, Ryan’s ability to win games at the end overrode his team’s middling-at-best defense. Then the rescues ceased, and the team that posted nothing but winning seasons under Ryan hasn’t finished above .500 since. Last year it couldn’t even with a 5-0 start.
Take away one play – the jaw-dropping D’Qwell Jackson interception that the Colts’ linebacker returned all of six yards for the tying touchdown in a game the Falcons would lose to a team working behind Matt Hasselbeck – and last season surely ends 9-7 or better, maybe even playoff-caliber better. Had that happened, we’d be having a sunnier discussion. And I’m reasonably certain Shanahan didn’t say to Ryan, “See if you can throw it to D’Qwell Jackson here.” But it happened, and this is a results-driven business.
And now I see a team that punted away a flying start at least partly through the largesse of its franchise player. I see a franchise that seems never to do the simple thing. I see trouble on the way. Wish I didn’t, but I do.