What other team than the Atlanta Falcons could hold late fourth-quarter leads in consecutive weeks against the Buccaneers and Chiefs, the two Super Bowl teams, and still finish with a 4-12 record? Maybe the Chargers, but 2020 proved the Falcons are in a league of their own when it comes to blowing games in incredible fashion.
Show the Falcons a win probability chart and they will take it as an open challenge to finish on the wrong side of things. Atlanta led the NFL with five blown fourth-quarter leads. Some of the ones early in the season were so egregious that head coach Dan Quinn was fired after five games. Now the Falcons have to move ahead with a new coaching staff led by Arthur Smith and without longtime receiver Julio Jones, who was traded to Smith’s old stomping grounds in Tennessee.
Many of the top sportsbooks have the Falcons with an over/under of 7.5 wins, which still has them tied with Carolina for the basement in the NFC South. If the Atlanta Falcons had a brain, they would be dangerous. But if this team can finally finish more games under a new regime, then the Falcons could be in wild card contention.
On the Last Season of FALCONS: Congrats to the Best 4-12 Team Ever?
The 2020 Falcons were only outscored by 18 points on the season, the best scoring differential in NFL history for a team that finished 4-12 or worse. Owner Arthur Blank may want to hold off raising a banner, but it is a fitting end to the Dan Quinn era, which peaked on the same night it unraveled in a game we will just call “28-3.”
In Week 2 in Dallas, the Falcons did something almost as improbable as that Super Bowl loss. Despite leads of 20-0, 29-10, and 39-24 halfway through the fourth quarter, the Falcons could not put away Dallas. After the Cowboys scored a touchdown to make it 39-37, all Atlanta had to do was recover an onside kick, which rarely work anymore, and the game would be over. Instead, the Falcons casually watched the onside kick roll over 10 yards before Dallas recovered it. That set up a game-winning field goal and the Falcons made more bad history.
Atlanta became the first team in NFL history to score 39 points without a turnover and still lose the game. Teams doing so are now 475-1 since 1940. Teams that score at least 38 points without a turnover and with multiple takeaways are 507-1. Good job, Falcons.
The very next week at home against Chicago, the Falcons did it again. They led 26-10 in the fourth quarter, but Nick Foles replaced Mitchell Trubisky and threw three touchdown passes in the quarter to lead a 30-26 win. The 2020 Falcons are the first team in NFL history to blow two fourth-quarter leads of at least 15 points in the same season and they did it in consecutive Sundays.
The defense could not stop a nosebleed and the offense could not burn clock by moving the chains in these meltdowns. After an 0-5 start, Quinn was gone, replaced by interim coach Raheem Morris, who finished 4-7.
But so much of the damage was done before the bye week. The team started 3-6 but could easily have been 6-3 and still in contention for the division. One of the worst losses was in Week 7 against a bad Detroit team after Quinn was gone. Down 16-14, the Falcons just had to run some clock to set up a game-winning field goal as the final play of the game.
Detroit just used its final timeout with 1:12 left. Instead, the Falcons botched it when Todd Gurley scored a 10-yard touchdown run instead of going down short of the end zone. Of course the Lions would let him score, it was their best hope of still winning the game. The outcome was too predictable as Matthew Stafford drove the Lions right down the field for a game-winning touchdown on the final play.
Atlanta’s only win after the bye was a 43-6 blowout against the Raiders that really padded that scoring differential stat. The Raiders could not be any more disinterested in that game after losing a tough one to the Chiefs the week before, a game they treated as their Super Bowl. It was such an outlier for the defense as the Falcons had a season-high five takeaways and it was the only game where they held a team under 17 points.
While Atlanta’s defense improved under Morris compared to Quinn, some of that was the schedule and offenses around the league in general declining as the season wore on. The Atlanta offense also declined. After being fortunate to draw Taysom Hill twice in three weeks with Drew Brees injured, the Falcons blew both opportunities, losing 24-9 and 21-16. Atlanta even blew a close one to the Chargers in a battle of which team was the worst at holding leads this year. Matt Ryan threw a late interception that the Chargers turned into a game-winning field goal.
Finally, the Falcons spent the last three weeks playing the teams that would go on to meet in the Super Bowl: Tampa Bay and Kansas City. That first Tampa Bay game was quite the Christmas present to a fanbase that had gone a few weeks without a deflating fourth-quarter collapse. Atlanta led 24-7 halfway through the third quarter before, somewhat like 28-3, Tom Brady led his team back. The Buccaneers won 31-27 with Ryan unable to lead a comeback again. This game also got Antonio Brown going for Tampa Bay as he caught the game-winning touchdown.
Atlanta was the only defense to allow Brown to go over 70 yards last year and he did it twice in three weeks. The Buccaneers basically did everything they wanted to Atlanta’s defense in the final six quarters of those matchups.
The Falcons failed miserably to play complementary football last season. The offense wasted a really strong effort by the defense in Kansas City. Holding Patrick Mahomes to 17 points at home is a big deal. In trying to send the game to overtime, the Falcons made sure their special teams had one more eyesore on the season recap. Younghoe Koo, a Pro Bowl kicker who made 37 of his 39 attempts in 2020, missed a 39-yard field goal to end the game.
The heart of the collapses is on the defensive side of the ball in allowing too many touchdowns. But we saw big miscues on special teams. We saw instances where the offense failed to contribute or had an untimely turnover. 2020 was the first season in Ryan’s 13-year career where he did not lead a single fourth-quarter comeback or game-winning drive (0-7 in those opportunities). We also saw this continue after Quinn was gone so there is no easy scapegoat to pin this on in Atlanta.
It was a collective effort to put together the most painful way to go 4-12 in NFL history.
The Notable Changes for 2021
Short of drafting a first-round quarterback, the Falcons made some major moves this year. Terry Fontenot is the new general manager, replacing Thomas Dimitroff, who was there for the whole Matt Ryan era since 2008. Fontenot worked his way up with the Saints, a more consistently winning organization.
Arthur Smith is a 39-year-old rookie head coach. He worked his way up with the Titans, spending the last 10 seasons there in a variety of roles. He coached the offensive line and tight ends before moving up to offensive coordinator in 2019. His offense was basically a dud under quarterback Marcus Mariota, but once Ryan Tannehill took over that year, the Titans clicked with the play-action passing game, Derrick Henry got his rushing touches every week, and the unit was lights out in the red zone.
They rode that formula to the playoffs where they really took the air out of the ball and still won two games before losing in the AFC Championship Game. In 2020, they showed it was not just a one-year fluke and the offense was very successful for a full season before flaming out in the playoffs.
Smith would love to bring a similar offense to the Falcons and give Ryan some help after he led the NFL in attempts and completions in 2020. But it could be difficult as Henry was really a one of a kind back in this era. The Falcons were 31st in yards per carry last year as Todd Gurley only managed 3.5 yards per carry in his one year with the team. The Falcons could be looking at a committee approach with Mike Davis, Cordarrelle Patterson, and D’Onta Foreman. Is that group good enough to shift the offense towards more running? A lot of that will depend on the offensive line, which lost center Alex Mack and could be starting a right tackle (Willie Beavers) who has never started a game after being drafted in 2016 if former first-round pick Kaleb McGary does not step up.
One new toy in Atlanta is tight end Kyle Pitts, the No. 4 pick who is the highest drafted tight end in NFL history. The Falcons have never really had a dynamic playmaker at tight end during the Ryan era. Even Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez was just a possession receiver for the team, never doing much damage after the catch or more than 10 yards down the field. At Florida last year, Pitts caught 12 touchdowns in eight games and averaged 17.9 yards per catch.
Pitts could be a great one, but we will not see him and Julio Jones, the greatest receiver in Falcons’ history, play together for Atlanta. The Falcons traded Jones to Tennessee for a second-round pick in 2022 and a fourth-round pick in 2023. Calvin Ridley showed he can be a No. 1 last year with 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns in his third season, but this leaves the Falcons thin at wide receiver. This puts more pressure on Russell Gage, who had 786 yards last year in his third season too.
Still, with Ryan being a reliable passer, the Falcons have enough weapons to be credible on that side of the ball. What about the defense? Dean Pees comes out of retirement for a second time to rejoin Smith as his defensive coordinator after the two spent time together in Tennessee. Pees has a long history with the Patriots under Bill Belichick and the Ravens under John Harbaugh, coaching in multiple Super Bowls.
One of the biggest problems with Dan Quinn’s defense is that he came from the Pete Carroll philosophy that a defense should not blitz late in games. Do not take that risk, keep the play in front of you, and make the opponent march down the field. Unfortunately, we see offenses do that a lot in the NFL now, and it happened to Quinn with Seattle (see Super Bowl 49) and it happened repeatedly in Atlanta.
I think Pees can be more aggressive and better scheme players such as Grady Jarrett, Dante Fowler, and Deion Jones to put pressure on the quarterback. The Falcons did not add many pieces to the defense this year, so a lot of the responsibility falls on those players. Otherwise, it is a matter of seeing A.J. Terrell, a 2020 first-round pick, get better in his second season at corner. Safety Duron Harmon should have a better go at things in Atlanta than he did with Detroit’s putrid defense a year ago.
A smarter coached defense and an offensive philosophy that caters towards protecting a lead better could be all the changes the Falcons need to turn a 4-12 season like last year into a winning campaign. But this team is still far behind the likes of Tampa Bay, Green Bay, and some of the NFC West teams from a talent standpoint.
Rookie Alert: Kyle Pitts and Tight Ends
Since no tight end has ever been drafted No. 4 overall before, there will be a lot of pressure on Kyle Pitts by everyone from Atlanta fans to fantasy football fanatics. That is great if he makes one good block this season, but we all know he got drafted this high to have an impact as a receiver. The best tight ends in NFL history are known first for their receiving ability.
The only tight end in NFL history to have 1,000 receiving yards as a rookie was the first great tight end: Mike Ditka. Sixty years ago, Ditka had 1,076 yards and 12 touchdowns in 14 games for the 1961 Bears. It is a spectacular season for a team that only threw 349 passes. Shockingly, the closest rookie tight end to Ditka is Jeremy Shockey, who had 894 yards for the 2002 Giants.
Pitts has some peers to look up to such as Rob Gronkowski, George Kittle, and Travis Kelce. But none of those players were instantly the type of success we see them as now. Kittle had 515 yards as a rookie in 2017, which was impressive for a fifth-round pick, before he exploded for 1,377 yards in 2018. Gronkowski went to a great team in 2010 and caught 10 touchdowns as a rookie, but his yards were only 546 before he had 1,327 yards in 2011.
Kelce played one special teams snap as a 2013 rookie before injury ended his season. He had a couple of seasons near 900 yards before his first 1,000-yard season in 2016. None of the three were drafted in the first round.
This has gone on throughout all of NFL history. Tony Gonzalez was a high first-round pick, but he did not make the Pro Bowl until his third season. The great Kellen Winslow was also the 13th overall pick in 1979, but he had 255 yards as a rookie before exploding for 1,290 yards in his second season. Antonio Gates was an undrafted free agent who caught fire with Drew Brees in his second season in 2004. Shannon Sharpe was a seventh-round pick by the Broncos who had little impact until he made the Pro Bowl in his third season with 640 yards.
Keith Jackson (869 yards on the 1988 Eagles) and Charle Young (854 yards on the 1973 Eagles) are the only players to join Ditka and Shockey with at least 750 yards as rookie tight ends. All four were first-round picks. Even in a league that passes the ball a lot more, it is surprising not to see more recent seasons near the top. Another first-round pick, Evan Engram (722 yards on the 2017 Giants), is the closest player to Shockey since 2002.
Pitts has some unusual advantages working in his favor. First, he enters the league at a time when it expands to 17 games, which makes that 1,000-yard season easier to attain. Second, he plays on a team that throws the ball a lot as Ryan averages 607 passes per season since 2012. Third, he is going to a team that just said goodbye to the most prolific receiver in franchise history. While injury cost Julio seven full games last year, he still averaged 85.7 yards per game. Someone has to pick up that slack and it is unlikely going to be Olamide Zaccheaus or Hayden Hurst, the more traditional tight end in Atlanta. Last year was the first time in the Ryan era that the Falcons (13th) failed to rank in the top 10 in yards per drive, so some more explosive plays are needed from Pitts.
It will be interesting to see how the Falcons use Pitts, who can certainly play like a wide receiver. In Tennessee last year, Smith’s offense saw Jonnu Smith catch eight touchdowns as a red zone weapon. Julio notoriously never caught many touchdowns for the Falcons, who have had their share of red zone struggles over the years and ranked 26th in touchdown rate there a year ago. Atlanta settled for way too many field goals in 2020. Could Pitts perhaps be a stud in the red zone?
Given the historical struggles of rookie tight ends and Pitts’ unique talent and situation, setting the bar at 800 yards and eight touchdowns feels both too high and too low at the same time.
With Carolina and New Orleans downgrading at quarterback, going 3-3 in the division is not out of reach for the Falcons. Home games against the Jets and Lions are probably the best opportunities for wins the team has all year. Hosting the Eagles in Week 1 with their new head coach may also be a well-timed game on the schedule.
Playing the NFC East in general is a good thing if you want to win some games in this league. Beating three NFC East teams, three division wins, and the Jets and Lions could get the Falcons to eight wins. That is without mentioning two trips to Florida (Miami and Jacksonville), which are more favorable to a dome team than going to Chicago or Green Bay.
Now no one is going to trust Atlanta to beat Tampa Bay or win in Buffalo in January, but those could be the only three games all season where Atlanta plays a team that wins 11 or more games. The Falcons faced seven such teams last year and went 0-7 in those games. Even if San Francisco gets back on top, that would only be four games out of 17.
For my NFL picks, I feel confident enough in Smith and the Atlanta schedule for the Falcons to get to at least eight wins this year. The team is not good enough to take the division, and you certainly cannot trust them to do something good in the playoffs. But going 8-9 is not asking for much. Besides, Atlanta is one of the easiest teams to hedge on. Just live bet their opponent’s moneyline if you see them leading in the fourth quarter.
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