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  1. The Falcons crept to the edge of 0-2 and potential early season doom before something unexpected happened late Sunday night. They won. They rallied to win a game over their recent tormentors from red-zone ****, Philadelphia. They managed to win on a night when their $30 million starting quarterback threw three interceptions in a span of four possessions, making everybody wonder, “What the **** happened to Matt Ryan?” “Turning the football over three the times, it’s hard to win when you do that,” Ryan said. “But you keep telling yourself, ‘All right, the score is where it’s at. We’re in a good position. Forget what’s happened until this point. Trust the play that’s coming in. Trust what you see on the other side. Go execute.'” Ryan makes it all sound so simple and systematic and tunnel-vision like. That thinking is what allows athletes to compartmentalize the noise and disasters and move forward. So the positive is that Ryan again proved he could face-plant in the mud — more than once — and still do something right in the hit. He read Philadelphia’s all-out-blitz, cover zero (no safeties) defense and burned the Eagles with a screen pass to Julio Jones, who blasted off 54 yards for a touchdown. The Falcons won 24-20. But there’s so much to forget. Early film review: • The first interception near the end of the first half when Ryan tried to stop Mohamed Sanu in his route but threw behind him, leading to a turnover and a Philadelphia field goal. Ryan: “I probably shouldn’t attempt that.” • The second interception against all-out pressure in the third quarter when he got hit as he threw and the ball was well short of Jones, leading to another pick and setting up a Philadelphia touchdown. Ryan: “It sucks when that happens.” • The third one, the worst of all, the one in the red zone when the Falcons had a chance to expand their lead from 17-12 when Ryan didn’t see weakside linebacker Nathan Jerry and Ryan’s pass for Austin Hooper was intercepted. Ryan: “That’s just a mistake on my part. But it’s something I can clean up.” He needs to. Otherwise, forget about the Falcons accomplishing anything of significance in 2019. They won a big game. They blew a 17-6 lead and allowed 14 straight points before winning on the last spasm. A beautiful game, it wasn’t. The teams combined for six turnovers. Instead of 0-2, the Falcons are 1-1. They might be the sudden favorites in the NFC South, with New Orleans losing quarterback Drew Brees to a potentially serious thumb injury. But slow down. Ryan has thrown five interceptions in two games, the worst start of his professional career. Some of it can be blamed on defensive pressure. But he has made far too many poor decisions for an 11-year NFL quarterback, let alone one whose pay ranks him among the elite. He knows this. Head coach Dan Quinn knows this. Turnovers submarine football teams, and right now Ryan is sinking his own boat. “He gets pissed,” Quinn said of Ryan’s response after interceptions. “But he resets quickly, whether it’s good or bad.” So it’s visible? “Yes, visible. And audible. “I don’t think (five interceptions in two games) is going to be the norm. It hasn’t been his history. It’s obviously not what he wants or we want. But it’s not a concern for me.” Ryan was not without impressive moments Sunday. He threw for 320 yards. He also threw three touchdown passes against an Eagles defense that held the Falcons to one touchdown and a field goal in a 15-10 Falcons playoff loss in 2017 and to four field goals in an 18-12 loss in the 2018 opener. Both games ended inside the Philadelphia 5-yard line. So greased the exit ramp for former offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Ryan also deserves credit for perhaps his greatest trait of all: resolve. He helped win a game that he surely would’ve been blamed for losing. “We’ve got each other’s backs. It don’t matter,” Jones said. “We’re an extension of one another. It’s not one person did that or one person did that. We set out to get a W, and we got a W.” Tight end Austin Hooper said even after the interceptions, Ryan’s mood was, “Unwavering. You’ve got to always believe, right? We’ve seen Matt do great things here. The true competitor, the fire, the spirit, the tenacity. That never goes away, whether a ball goes to our team or the other team. You saw him battle back. That’s what he does.” After Jones broke into the open field toward the end zone, Ryan ran around celebrating and pointing to nobody in particular on the Falcons’ sideline. “I honestly couldn’t tell you what was going on,” he said, laughing. “I was just running around like I was 10 years old.” His third touchdown was the 300th in his career. More importantly, it allowed him to move on from three throws he would like to have back.
  2. These are interesting times for Arthur Blank. His NFL team — the Falcons, who are coming off a non-playoff season — begins a new year Sunday in Minnesota. His MLS club, Atlanta United, won the league championship in only its second season and is starting to get its footing after a few bumps under new coach Frank de Boer. In his personal life, Blank went through a divorce from his third wife, Angela, and recently overcame a recurrence of prostate cancer, which he initially battled in 2016. Blank sat down Tuesday with The Athletic to discuss all of those issues, as well as ongoing contract negotiations with Julio Jones, which appear to be nearing resolution; the futures of Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff; criticism some NFL owners are receiving for supporting President Trump; and mandating PSLs for all tickets sold at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. When we set up this interview, my assumption was the Julio Jones contract would be done. Our assumption, as well. What can you say other than you hope a deal gets done? I think we’re very, very close. I’d be surprised and disappointed if we didn’t get it done this week. If you walked into a sportsbook, what day would be the favorite for the signing? I don’t know that. But it’s very reasonable to assume it gets done this week. What tells you that? Just where the negotiations are and the discussions are. Is this just posturing? It’s just a dance. There’s a lot of money involved for Julio. He deserves a lot of money, and we’ll make sure he gets it. We have to make sure he gets in a contract and a construct that’s fair to him and respectful to him and everything he’s done for us and will do going forward but respectful to the franchise, as well, and continues to give us the flexibility to make sure we have other pieces around the entire team. We need to have a winning formula. It’s not about one player. It never is, not even the quarterback. Last year, Matt (Ryan) didn’t have a great offensive line; he got hit 104 times and sacked 42 times. So we have to do the right thing for the franchise, and we definitely want to do the right thing for the players, including Julio. When was the last time you put forth an offer to Julio’s people? They’ve been going back and forth on a daily basis now. You don’t seem concerned at all. This has been an on-going situation for really two years. I’m not concerned. We made an adjustment last year. Julio played well and had a great year for us, and this year he’ll play well and have a great year for us. We’ll get the contract resolved. You don’t have a concern that if it’s not resolved this week, he may sit out the season opener? I don’t have that concern. He’s scheduled to meet with the media Thursday. Well, then, you can ask him about it. Maybe he’ll have a reason to be celebrating Thursday. How important is this season to the futures of head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff? You’re asking me if they’re on the hot seat. I never know how to define “hot seat.” I have great confidence in coach Quinn. I have great confidence in Thomas. You look back — Thomas has been with us since 2008. Coach, his first year was an average year because we were going through a transition, second year we were in the Super Bowl, third year we were in the playoffs. Last year was not a good year, but most of that I would attribute to the injuries that we had and lack of performance on the offensive line. But I think they’ve addressed that in the offseason, both in free agency and the draft. Barring any unforeseen injuries, which sadly is the nature of the sport we’re in, it’s not pingpong — maybe there’s injuries in pingpong, I don’t know — I think we’ll have a very competitive team this year. I like where we are. I like where we are offensively and defensively. Dan has taken over the responsibility of defensive coordinator and will call the plays himself, which I think will make a huge difference. All the players we had last year are coming back. I’m pretty optimistic about both sides of the ball. I think special teams will be good. I like the fact Money Matt (Bryant) is back with us. I felt badly for both Giorgio (Tavecchio) and Blair (Walsh). Maybe one of them will be in our future; you don’t know. Will bringing back Bryant require some adjustments financially with other contracts? It always requires some adjustments. We’re right at the edge of the salary cap, which is where we’re supposed to be. That’s where I want us to be. I want to spend every dollar we can to get the best players we can to give us the best chance to win. So the answer is: It will take some creativity. Between Thomas and (director of football operations) Nick (Polk), I think they’ll do that. They have to do it, I should say. Barring injuries, is there a minimum bar for success you’re looking at? Not really. You want the team to be competitive every week. I think we’ll win our share of games. The only people I’ll conjecture with are my kids. They’ll guess, I’ll guess, but that’s between me and my children. You’ll have to get it out of the game. I think we’ll have a competitive team, and if you get in the playoffs, single elimination, anything can happen. We have an experienced quarterback who’s playing at a high level, and physically, mentally he’s in a great place. We have a great receiving corps, running backs, the offensive line has been improved. I feel good about where we are. But so probably does every owner the week before the start of the season. Switching sports: Frank de Boer has been your soccer coach for about eight months. Any thoughts on the job he has done, considering the bar was much higher when he took over? There was no bar at first — there was a bar we envisioned but hadn’t established, and it turned out in the first two years, we exceeded that in every way we could. Frank has done an excellent job, in my view. When you change a coach, no matter which version of football you’re talking about, there’s always adjustments: the scheme, the players, players get to know the coach, the coach gets to know them, the chemistry issues. What can they do well? How can they adjust to my scheme? Is it a minor adjustment or major? In our case, it wasn’t major, but it wasn’t no adjustment. Frank has gotten to know our players now, and they’ve gotten to know what’s important to him. I think our team is peaking at the right time now, going into the playoffs. We’ve won three cups in the last 365 days. We couldn’t have a better year than that, and we want to continue to build that going forward and continue to win cups. I’m very happy with him. He understands us. He appreciates our fans and appreciates the players and what they’ve given to him. What were your thoughts when you saw reports of problems with players over his style or personality? None, really. I took that with a grain of salt because some of that was pulled out by the media. Some of the players don’t speak English fluently, and even Frank sometimes will use a word that’s not exactly the meaning. But I think when you have an elite group of players and everybody wants to play, everybody doesn’t understand why they’re being taken out of a match, but the coach has done a good job just explaining that and developing relationships with them. I think it’s fine. It takes a little bit of time for that to happen. He took some heat when he said he doesn’t favor equal pay for men and women in international soccer. Were you concerned, given your history of being inclusive and supporting such issues? I think Frank clarified his comments on that. I talked to him about that same subject several days before. We had a dinner at our house with several players and staff. Obviously, Frank believes, I believe and, hopefully, all our organizations and businesses believe the men and women are equal in terms of their competency and their abilities, and you pay people based on what their value is to the organization. I think the biggest issue with women’s soccer, and I said this to Frank, is I think it needs to be supported more on a global basis. That’s the essence of the issue. The success of the Women’s National Team in World Cup soccer and continued growth around the world — my son Josh took a two-week trip to Europe and spent some time with the women’s team in Lyon, France — it’s coming together. But there’s a history there, and it’s going to take a while. I would hope at some point in time equity would be there, regardless of gender, based on the model. Women’s soccer at the collegiate level is becoming more significant, and hopefully, that will continue to be a pipeline for women’s soccer at the professional level. You turn 77 in a few weeks. You seem to be in good health. I could lose a few pounds maybe but, yeah, my health is good. My cancer is gone. Hopefully, it will stay that way. You went through a scare with prostate cancer in 2016. And I had a reoccurrence last year, so I dealt with that. Did you have chemo or some kind of treatment again? It wasn’t chemo. But whatever the treatments were, I went through exactly what the doctor recommended and came out with a good result, so I’m happy about it. How did that impact you? Last spring it impacted me in terms of my schedule a little bit. But I would encourage all men to stay on top of their PSA. Get it checked frequently, and if you have any issues, deal with them sooner rather than later. Have you changed your diet or routine in any way? Yeah, there are some things I do now that I didn’t before. There’s a lot of issues in terms of what’s the cause of prostate cancer, and nobody is exactly sure. But I know it’s early detection cancer that you can deal with and get good outcomes from. Sometimes people go through a health situation and it causes them to step back and reflect. Did that happen to you? As you get older, I think you quite normally go through that. Probably dealing with that illness, it focused me a little bit more. I try to make every day an important day, every day a valuable day, every day a day with blessings, a productive day for myself, my family, businesses, people I care about. Your father passed away at a young age, correct? Yes, 44 (of a heart attack). I was 14. It was tough on me, my brother, Michael, and my mother, obviously, who was only 37 at the time. Staying on a personal level, in January it was reported that you and your wife, Angela, were divorcing. But you’ve also been seen together recently. Did something change? Obviously, we decided we shouldn’t be married, but we definitely should spend time together. I enjoy being with her; she enjoys being with me. I love her; she loves me. We enjoy social time. We also enjoy shared work in terms of our foundation and things she’s heavily involved in, including the transition of the military back home. Is that unusual that a couple would get divorced but still enjoy that kind of relationship? It’s a little unusual, but we get along really well, and we have shared interests. When you blend a family, it’s not always easy. But she has great kids. I love her kids, she loves my kids, and we spend time together. It’s all very public. And I have a great relationship with (second wife) Stephanie. We’re doing an event here for the Boys & Girls Club. She’s happily married, but we spend time together with our three children and in a variety of ways. Divorce is not death. People who are divorced still can have healthy, productive relationships — caring, loving relationships — at least around the things they still share together. At the risk of stereotyping, it’s not uncommon for highly driven, successful people to struggle in their personal lives. Is it fair to say this is an area in which you have struggled? I think that is a stereotype. I think we also see a lot of people who don’t come from a lot of wealth, and they come from broken homes. So I don’t think it has anything to do with being successful. Divorce is caused by many factors. When you get married, you always hope you’re going to be married forever. That certainly was true with my first wife, Diana, and I. But I’d rather celebrate the fact that I have great relationships with all three of them. I celebrate my life with them and my children with them. I’m not going to focus on those things which took place in my life that weren’t exactly what I wanted. I learned from them, I’ve moved on and I’m focused on today and tomorrow. On another subject, you bought a $180 million yacht. Did I get the price right? No, but that’s OK. It’s not important. Was this a bucket list item? Not really. I spent 30 years enjoying (late former Atlanta developer) John Williams’ boats. He was a close friend, almost a brother to me. Every year we would sail with him; he would give us a boat to use for the weekend, and we did. I always loved spending time on the water and spending time with the family in that setting. John and I started to do this together, and then, sadly, he got sick and passed away a year and a half ago. John’s memory is with me on the boat. It’s called “Dream Boat.” We had 17 family members all throw names into a bucket, and it turned out to be a really good name because it’s that kind of experience. Were you recently on a long trip? I was gone for two weeks. We were in Italy mostly, the Amalfi Coast. Just being away, being on the water. Part of nature that you’re connected to. Being on the water is almost a spiritual experience for me. The family loves it, and I love doing things with them. ****content omitted***** Since you moved into Mercedes-Benz Stadium, some fans have taken exception to your PSL policy and not selling single-game tickets. Do you believe the policy is in conflict with your fan-first philosophy? It’s not really in conflict with it. There hasn’t been a stadium built in a long time that doesn’t have PSLs, and a third to half the clubs in the NFL have PSLs. It gives season-ticket holders certain rights. We look at the value of the ticket and the value of the PSL together and make sure that the experience is going to be affordable for our fans. Whatever we feel, we feel, but fans across the NFL and Major League Soccer voted us No. 1 in fan experience. To be clear, the issue isn’t about having PSLs. It’s about having a stadium with 100 percent PSLs and not holding back any single-game tickets for a general sale, even a small block. You don’t see a need for that? No. There are no plans to ever? I wouldn’t say ever to anything. We have to look at what’s the right model based on where our fans are and what we’re hearing from them. We’re always open to changes and being responsive to what fans are telling us. (Editor’s note: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Tim Tucker recently reported the Falcons have approximately 1,500 unsold tickets, ranging in price from $750 to $5,000 for the season, including PSL cost. The team will continue its policy of selling those tickets only to groups of 10 or more.) Everybody seems to hate four or five preseason games. Should that change? Not everybody hates them. Players who are trying to make teams don’t hate them. There are coaches who don’t hate them because they need to evaluate them. But do there need to be four? No. It’s too many. Is the only trade-off for owners a long regular season? Whatever the CBA negotiations lead to, whether it’s an expanded season or expanded playoffs, I’ve said this publicly: An equal amount of weight has to be given to player safety, first and foremost. It can’t be a dilution of that commitment. But how the (preseason) is traded off for other opportunities, there’s certainly some flexibility in that area. How much longer will Arthur Blank be a sports owner? Hopefully a long time. My hope and aspiration is to keep these great teams in the hands of family — I can’t say forever, but for the foreseeable future. I love doing what I’m doing, and I love competing for our fans.
  3. This was another one of those NFL-sanctioned scrimmages. The players who really matter don’t play, or don’t play much, and just want to get out without so much as a hangnail. The Falcons’ first home exhibition against the New York Jets on Thursday night aroused so little interest in Atlanta that one could buy a ticket on StubHub for $7.86 an hour before kickoff, or you could just stand outside and wait for someone to hand you 10 or 12 for free. But it wasn’t a completely meaningless night for Vic Beasley. He was a sack machine and an All-Pro in 2016, the Falcons’ season of near glory. He’s likely at the end of his lifeline in Atlanta. Another mediocre season and the Falcons won’t want him back. A good season and another team is likely to offer more than Atlanta is willing to pay. So 2019 is really about two things: whether he can contribute anything in a pivotal season for this franchise and whether he has a future anywhere. There was a flash of the old Beasley in Thursday’s scrimmage, late in the first quarter. Working in the Falcons’ nickel package on third-and-4, he got a nice jump off the line to force Jets rookie tackle Chuma Edoga into a frantic backpedal, then overpowered him and fought off a block to sack quarterback Sam Darnold and force a punt. “That was the counter,” Beasley said later. “Coach Dan Quinn has worked with us a lot on having the fastball and then throwing a curveball. It’s like being a pitcher, switching it up now and then.” There was another third-down play early in the second quarter when Beasley and Takk McKinley came hard off the edge to pressure Darnold to throw earlier than he wanted. Grady Jarrett, Beasley’s former Clemson teammate, said of Beasley, “It was good to see him get a sack, and we expect a lot more. It’s important for everybody up front to work together and to show up so we can have a successful unit.” Beasley hasn’t always shown up. He’s not a malcontent or a malingerer or a disruption in the locker room. He just hasn’t done nearly enough to match his talent level or expectations, and by own admission. He isn’t oblivious to the criticism. He actually handles it quite well and is willing to stand in front of his locker and respond to difficult questions, putting him ahead of others on the team. The problem is that for three of his four NFL seasons, there have been reasons the questions are asked. Here’s an interesting exchange I had with Beasley after Thursday’s exhibition, in which he conceded he has disappointed even himself and responded to those who question his passion for football. Do you feel after such high expectations and two bad seasons that you need to prove yourself? I have expectations for myself, and I want to be that player. What are those expectations? To be a dominant player in this league. I know my capabilities. I know what I expect out of myself. I know what it takes to be a dominant player. You’ve seen me be a dominant player. There are always contributing factors not in your control. But what’s the level of frustration for an athlete who achieved at such a high level at Clemson and then in 2016 to drop off like you have the last two years? I’m disappointed in my statistics. But despite injuries, despite whatever else happened on the team, there’s still another level I can go to. Did you wonder if the Falcons would bring you back this season? I just left that in God’s hands. I’m sure you did. But were you concerned that your time here was over? I put it in His hands, and then ultimately Q (Dan Quinn) and Thomas (Dimitroff) made the decision. What were your conversations with Quinn like? I told Q I wanted to be consistent. He understood. My word for this year is consistency. So you can put that down. Do you have a number of sacks you wrote down? No. I’ve done that before. My first year coming into the league with the hype, I didn’t live up to that and didn’t get double-digit sacks like I wanted. So lesson learned. So for me, my goal now is just to be consistent each and every year. This may sound like a strange question, but do you still love football? What? Whenever a player’s performance drops off, there are questions about why it’s happening. I’m just being straight with you: There are people who’ve asked me and wondered whether you just don’t love football that much anymore. So I’m asking: Do you love what you do? Do you love what you do? Some days. It’s the same for me. Some days you love it. Some days it gets redundant. But I’m 60. I have an excuse. I have a gift from God. So why not give it my best. And I’ve got great coaches around me and guys who are pushing me. I need these folks. They challenge me. Everybody needs somebody to challenge you. On the field and off the field. Given the circumstances, I felt I had to ask that. We live in a world where there are assumptions. Everybody has their thoughts. Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion in a day. That’s the world we live in. And? Yes, I enjoy the game. Full disclosure: I did not expect Beasley would be back after he dropped from 15.5 sacks in 2016 to five each of the past two years. He looked more like a situational pass-rusher, not the game-changer most expected when the Falcons drafted him eighth overall in 2015 and certainly not one worth a $12.81 million salary. Paying that fifth-year option meant the Falcons would be limited in what they could do financially in free agency. The public narrative was that Quinn, who was returning to defensive coordinator duties and excelled as a D-line coach, believed he could get more out of Beasley. Maybe. But even Quinn doesn’t really know that. It’s believed a major contributing reason Beasley was brought back was to keep the peace. He’s represented by the same agency (CAA) that reps Jarrett and Julio Jones, both of whom were headed for major offseason negotiations (Jarrett has been signed; Jones remains in talks). In the NFL, it’s the way business is done. Quinn’s own future is linked, in part, to Beasley because an improved pass rush is a mandate for the Falcons. So Quinn has spent extra time with Beasley. “Most pass-rushers, you better have the other counter punch to that, which is all of your power to go after the tackle,” Quinn said. “This year, he’s done a better job of mixing those two up. You can’t just continue to float.” No, there has been enough of that.
  4. Once you get past debates about the offensive line, the seeming disconnect between Vic Beasley’s skill set and pulse rate and Dan Quinn’s borderline tone-deaf decision to bring an excommunicated former college coach (D.J. Durkin) to training camp, the story about the 2019 Falcons more than likely will hinge on two things: (1) injuries; (2) their ability to avoid turning to mush again when they hit. It was ugly last season. Injuries plowed the middle of the defense and doubled-over the running game. But what became painfully obvious and smothered playoff hopes was the remaining roster’s lack of leadership. The locker room was brood-heavy and resolve-light. “There was a void that took place at times when the common voices left,” Quinn said, acknowledging the lack of leadership. Quinn wasn’t alone with a close-up view. Matt Ryan saw it, too. He’s the Falcons’ acknowledged leader. He’s 34 years old and going on his 12th season with four Pro Bowls, All-Pro honors and an MVP on his résumé. He has experienced both ends of the spectrum in Atlanta, from six playoff appearances and a Super Bowl to the 10-22 record at the end of Mike Smith’s tenure. The Falcons started 1-4 last season and continued their spiral in November and December before bottoming out at 4-9. The losses of Deion Jones, Ricardo Allen, Keanu Neal, Devonta Freeman and others figured heavily. “It’s tough to overcome that, and we probably didn’t do as good a job as we could have,” Ryan said. He meant in how things were handled individually. As a leader, he denied feeling helpless about the situation, saying: “You control what you can control as a teammate. Even when you come out of one of those games where we scored a lot of points but lost, I looked at it as, ‘We had more opportunities. We should’ve scored more.’ You have to take responsibility for your role in it.” Quinn, whose defense lost two depth players (J.J. Wilcox and Michael Bennett) on the first day of training camp, didn’t manage lineup changes as well as he could have last season. He “second-guesses” himself for some. “When injuries happen, you have a tendency to say you’ll work through it with on-the-job training,” he said. “In some instances, that (worked), and in some, it didn’t.” Ryan also might handle things better in the future. Nobody logically can blame him for last year’s 7-9 finish. He finished with the second-highest completion percentage (69.4) and efficiency rating (108.1) of his career, as well as the lowest interception percentage (1.2). Despite criticisms of the offense, he threw for only three fewer touchdowns (35) in 2018 than in his MVP/Super Bowl season (2016). But he said in every season, he is becoming more attuned to the players in the room and the huddle. “It’s an ongoing process of 12 years trying to figure out how to be the best leader you can be,” he said. “The one thing I’ve learned more than anything is you constantly have to evolve. You have to be aware of your teammates and what they may need from you. It’s different every year. You have to be flexible. You have to listen more than you speak.” So what did he learn last season? “This league is about taking advantage of every opportunity that you’re given,” he said. “You can’t miss. We have to have that mindset in a game. When we’re given a chance in a game, we have to capitalize. We’ve got to put games away. It’s a lesson I learned other years, but it was reinforced last year.” A good leader deflects blame away from others — in this case, a defense that ranked 28th in yardage, 30th in percentage of drives that ended in points and 25th in scoring and takeaways. But the offense wasn’t blameless, partly because of inferior offensive line play and Freeman’s absence. The team held fourth-quarter leads in four losses: Philadelphia, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Dallas. The offense died in the red zone against the Eagles, had the ball last in regulation in an overtime loss to the Saints, managed only two touchdowns in 10 possessions against the woeful Bengals and kicked four field goals against the Cowboys. The Falcons have Super Bowl potential. They also have 7-9 potential. Ryan’s view: “I’ve learned along the way that expectations don’t mean a thing if you don’t put the work in and focus on the small things along the way. That’s a skill that you learn — and you learn from not doing it correctly. You learn from screwing up, and I’ve screwed up plenty of times with where my concentration and focus was. As a veteran and as a leader, that’s what you try to pass along to the younger guys: ‘Don’t make the same mistakes I did.'” They all can learn from last season.
  5. To understand how close defensive line play is to Dan Quinn’s heart and mindset as a coach, it’s important to know his background. He played on the line and briefly at linebacker in high school and college. He endured spinal stenosis, feeling pain with every collision. He worked in the weight room to increase strength in his neck and traps and believed he was in a good place physically, only to return to the field and suffer a torn ACL. “There was a three-year window there, starting as a high school senior, when I couldn’t play much,” Quinn said. “There’s a physical toughness but also a mental toughness that goes with playing on the line. The mental toughness is what gets you back off the ground.” With that as a backdrop, imagine Quinn’s reaction when he watched tape from the Falcons’ 2018 season. Quinn and his assistants watched every play from every game in game order. “I wanted everybody’s eyes on every part of the system — offense, defense, special teams,” he said. The reviews of defensive line play were predictably dreadful. “The people who played the best were Grady (Jarrett) and Jack (Crawford),” Quinn said. “In the interior, I was impressed by their ability to hit it on the move, and both from the pass rush standpoint were active. They met the standard of what I was hoping for.” Pause. “Past that, I didn’t think we met the standard.” So that’s two out of … “Eight.” That’s bad. “That’s really bad.” Reaffirming what should have been obvious: You didn’t learn anything about the Falcons’ defense in 2018 that Quinn didn’t already know himself from watching games, practice and tape. They were slugs on the field and statistically: 25th in scoring, 25th against the run, 27th against the pass, 22nd in sacks, 30th in pressure rate — 191 pressures on 644 dropbacks (29.7 percent), via the Buffalo News and Pro Football Focus — 30th in forced fumbles (eight) and 31st in fumble recoveries (four). That’s equal parts ability, direction and, yes, play-in-and-play-out effort. Quinn saw a combination of inconsistent and/or inadequate performances from players and a lack of players working together. He also saw scheme problems. He personally looked at “6,000 plays” from his defense during the past five years: 2013 and 2014 in Seattle and 2016 through 2018 in Atlanta. The plays were categorized by level of effectiveness. The Falcons head coach took note of how opponents’ pass routes that weren’t used too often three to five years ago were more frequent in the past two seasons. Obvious conclusion: Something had to change besides the players. “I thought now is the time to do some tweaking,” he said. “I wasn’t happy with the pressure package that we’ve had the last couple of years, due to some of the things that offenses were doing. That’s why I decided to make the changes I did. Let’s call them wrinkles — some tweaking to some concepts.” He understandably doesn’t want to give much away, and little will be shown in the preseason. But Quinn said, “You could say (there will be) some pressure packages in new areas and different coverage techniques. It’s been an invigorating time for me, and it’s been good for the players.” About the players: One can understand why Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff considered fixing the offensive line slightly more urgent than the defensive line, leading them to spend two first-round picks on a guard (Chris Lindstrom) and a tackle (Kaleb McGary). But the offseason changes on the defensive line have been significantly lower-profile. Defensive end John Cominsky was drafted in the fourth round. Defensive tackle Tyeler Davison, a run defender, was added in free agency. Adrian Clayborn (edge rusher) and Ra’Shede Hageman were brought back. Steven Means, whose late-season play for the injured Derrick Shelby also was praised by Quinn, also would have had a role if not for a torn Achilles. But is that going to be enough? The salary-cap-strapped Falcons could only watch when two NFC South Division rivals signed significant defensive linemen to relatively modest contracts in free agency: Tampa Bay landed Ndamukong Suh, while Carolina added Gerald McCoy. Meanwhile, the polarizing Vic Beasley was brought back for another season, and Takk McKinley has yet to play up to the expectations of being a first-round pick. Beasley, McKinley and Clayborn will be largely responsible for pass pressure. Quinn said he would’ve preferred that Beasley did not skip the voluntary OTAs, especially given Quinn has been implementing scheme changes. “It’s one thing to learn it in the classroom; it’s another to do it on the field,” he said. But Quinn doesn’t seem overly concerned about the situation. He told The Athletic that Beasley and wide receiver Julio Jones will be at the mandatory minicamp next week. But he isn’t as certain about Jarrett, who signed his franchise tag but remains in the middle of contract negotiations: “I don’t know that yet. I anticipate he will. He hasn’t told me he’s not.” Quinn and Jarrett remain close. Contract talks have not impacted their relationship. “Thomas and the guys do the business side, I do the coaching side,” Quinn said. “Sometimes they intersect. But Grady wanted, and I told him even last year I wanted, our connection to be about football. So let’s leave (business) out of it. That way we can talk about football and the team and not feel guarded by it.” There’s a boatload of “ifs” that can swing the Falcons’ season. Many are on the line. Beasley. McKinley. Edge-rushing depth. Run defense. Scheme change. Some feel unease. Quinn? “It will be the power of the group that will make it better,” he said. “It’s such an important connection — one guy goes high and another doesn’t. I am fully confident that kind of connection can happen, where we’re not independent contractors. With the additions and the improvement of the others, we’ll make a jump.”
  6. One of the most prevalent tattoos on Devonta Freeman’s well-decorated two arms sits above his left bicep, just below an arch of stars: “Failure is not an option,” it reads. Consider it a promise he made to himself to escape the horrible surroundings of his childhood in Miami’s housing projects, make something of his life and not end up dead in a pool of blood in the streets where he often walked or on a table in the mortuary where he once worked. “It’s one of my first tattoos,” he said, looking at the words. “It was a mindset growing up. Failure is not an option. You can’t go back.” This will be an important season for the Falcons in general and Freeman in particular. The team is coming off a 7-9 season, and Freeman played only two games, missing most of the year after groin surgery. He’s only 27 years old and should be viewed as being in the prime of his career. Freeman is the running back for one of the NFL’s (potentially) most explosive offenses. He was only the 103rd player taken in the 2014 NFL Draft, but he earned consecutive Pro Bowl honors in 2015 and 2016, rushed for 1,000-plus yards twice, combined for 27 touchdowns and 3,175 rushing-receiving yards in those two seasons and helped the Falcons get to a Super Bowl. Next came his reward: a five-year, $41.25 million contract extension. The little kid who survived the “Pork n Beans” projects in Liberty City was guaranteed more than $22 million in the first three seasons (ending this year). But the two seasons following the Super Bowl were filled with disappointment for the Falcons, and Freeman has struggled to stay healthy: concussions, knee, foot and ultimately the groin injury. Offensive line and occasional play-calling issues notwithstanding the past two years, the Falcons are at their best when Freeman is slashing defenses with his violent running style as a rusher or receiver. The first hint of that return came in 11-on-11 drills Thursday at OTAs, when Freeman caught short passes in space and took off. “You forget in the pass game the explosiveness that he has,” head coach Dan Quinn said. “The short plays that turn into long ones because he can break off (from) a linebacker or a safety.” There are doubts in the internet’s underworld of basement blogs. One carried a headline the other day: “Devonta Freeman is one of the worst signings in Falcons’ history.” Really? No room for debate? When you grow up like Freeman, words don’t account for much. “Where I’m from, people die,” he said. “People get shot in the head and never come back. That’s it. I’ve seen some crazy stuff. So, like, are you kidding (with doubters)? This is nothing. That’s not me just saying, ‘It doesn’t faze me.’ It’s reality. I’m from Liberty City. You can walk down the street and get shot in the head. You think I care about what somebody says? That’s cool. That’s good for them. Let them have that. I don’t entertain it because it doesn’t have any effect on me. It can’t affect me. I’m blessed. I made it here.” Freeman is a special guy, a spiritual guy, beloved by his teammates, always smiling and approaching each day as a gift. So it’s not surprising he would easily deflect criticism. In a game two years ago when New Orleans head coach Sean Payton famously tried to taunt Freeman with a choke sign, the Falcons running back actually laughed and said later, “That man don’t know nothing about choking. He ain’t from where I’m from.” Dealing with injuries, particularly last season when he was limited to two games, was difficult. When asked whether he has searched for any reason why he has had to go through this after the highs of 2015 and 2016, he said, “Sometimes you just have to be mindful. Nobody said it was going to be easy. My faith got stronger. My belief in God got stronger. He needed to sit me down so I can see stuff and learn. When you’re in a position where you can’t move, you have no choice but to visualize, see things, hear things, get other perspectives. The information I gained is priceless.” Such as? “Patience. Timing. Understanding the process,” he said. “Consistency, in terms of living it every day. Staying in the middle, not too high or low. It’ll make me a better player. I had to get injured, I had to have surgery, I had to go through that. I wanted to be out there competing with my brothers. But what do you do now? Go around moping and being mad at the world, or do you try to get better? I’m going to get better. I’ll be better. I am better.” Freeman said he got his most recent tattoo five years ago. It’s a large red star on his left forearm: a red star with the name of his late aunt, Tamekia N. Brown, who died suddenly at the age of 24. Freeman was 14. “She’s the reason I wear 24,” he said. “I was in the hospital when my auntie was lying in the bed and the white things (tubes) were in her mouth. She had already been pronounced dead, but I didn’t know you could die so young like that and not come back. I didn’t believe it. She was the one I connected to the most because we were both so young. We were both the babies.” Tamekia gave Freeman some advice at a young age that he has carried with him. “She told me, ‘Don’t put no lid on your bottle. Anything is possible,’” he said. “So I ran with that.” The Falcons need him running again.
  7. Scott Pioli kept his message short and personal. “We will get caught up — I promise it!” he said in a text message to The Athleticon Thursday. “Everything is good.” When a high-ranking sports executive suddenly steps down from his position, people often take the shortest distance between two imaginary points and jump to conclusions. He must’ve gotten fired. He must be sick. He must be taking another job. But when Pioli stepped down as the Falcons’ assistant general manager, ending a five-year run working for close friend Thomas Dimitroff, it wasn’t about sudden friction in the front office, or declining health, or his imminent departure for another job. It’s not like the Falcons were going to stand in Pioli’s way to take another job (read: New York Jets) or make him go through the exercise of a resignation announcement. “This isn’t to take another job right now,” Dimitroff told The Athletic. “This is just something Scott and I have been talking about for a while now. We talked about it a year ago at this time and we said we would revisit it after we got through the draft. We’ve been talking quite a bit over the last few days. Scott wants to look at other things. I don’t want to answer for him, but he’s in a great place and we’re in a great place.” There’s no evidence to dispute that. Pioli attended the Falcons’ minicamp last weekend. The two of us chatted briefly, and he appeared to be in a great mood, enjoying the post-draft exhale period that follows the January-to-April grind for scouts and personnel executives. He looked forward to spending more time with his family, doing social justice work and giving the commencement speech at his alma mater, Central Connecticut State, on Saturday. But there was more on his mind. As he said in a statement released by the team Thursday, “I’m ready for a change.” Pioli’s exit was not stunning from the standpoint that he stayed five years in what was expected to be a three-year term, at most. But he chose an interesting time to leave. Dimitroff and coach Dan Quinn are coming off consecutive non-playoff seasons, and everybody in the building is a little bit on edge, including owner Arthur Blank. There have been changes in the coaching staff and in the front office. Make no mistake: Pioli’s departure is a significant loss. The Falcons have lost not only a bright football mind but also one of the truly good people in the building. The culture at team headquarters has changed significantly in recent years. The atmosphere is far more corporate and less genuine than before, with some employees looking over their shoulder, particularly as Blank has started to take a step back. The marketing and business side of the franchise has increasingly crept into the football side of the building. This isn’t to suggest it’s why Pioli wanted to move on. He could not ask for a better ally than Dimitroff. It’s probably also a good time to move on, given the uncertainty of where things are headed. Mostly, this is about Scott Pioli. He’s a different guy. He’s not going to stay in a job just for a paycheck. The Falcons’ job was not moving him forward to his ultimate goal, which was to be a general manager again. He needs a new challenge. He can spend a year doing social justice work and focus on the issues that shaped him, as he spoke about at length with The Athletic in February. In a statement, Dimitroff called Pioli “a dear friend and he will be missed within our organization.” Pioli said in a statement that he “came in to work closely with Thomas on personnel structure, processes and decisions. I loved the concept, was confident I could provide value and have enjoyed the challenge.” But now, he said, it’s time to “pursue other potential opportunities.” What those opportunities are remain to be seen. He spent the 2013 season out of football after being fired as Kansas City’s general manager before yearning to return to a competitive environment. Dimitroff hired his former mentor (Cleveland and New England) in 2014. Pioli gave the Falcons an experienced and valued talent evaluator in the personnel department — where things had seemingly slipped — and it put him in Atlanta, the birthplace of the civil rights movement, something close to his heart along with other social action initiatives. Pioli sometimes fought perceptions that he cared more about social causes than football. Nothing could be further from the truth. He reaffirmed many times that he hoped to be a general manager again and believed he would be better with a second opportunity if that came about. But he said in February that he was not obsessing over it. “I’m not focused on that,” he said. “I just want to win, and I want to be a good dad. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking or worrying about anything else.” The Falcons job also gave Pioli a chance to rehabilitate his image, which took a beating after the Chiefs job. There was a belief that Pioli would get a phone call from an owner looking for a new GM within a few years. Surprisingly, that hasn’t happened. (Some expected him to get the Cleveland job in 2017 that went to John Dorsey.) The Kansas City firing and the criticism that came with it stung Pioli. Some was justified, some overstated. Much of what was reported about the Chiefs’ turmoil didn’t tell the whole story — some employees I spoke to came to his defense — but Pioli took the rare step of publicly apologizing “for not getting the job done.” When I asked him why, he said, “I failed. When you succeed, you don’t do it alone. When you fail, you feel like you’re alone as the leader, and you realize how many lives that will impact. “Change is difficult, and sometimes when leaders make change for the first time, you make mistakes. Obviously, some of the personnel acquisitions could’ve been better. I could’ve done a better job with some of the relationships. I come from a culture where everything was focused on football and winning games. The biggest mistake was probably I could’ve been more patient with the people who were unwilling to change and more patient as they adjusted.” Pioli deserves another shot at being a general manager. But he’s also too smart to take a job with ownership or an organization that he believes is set up for failure. If he doesn’t get another GM job over the next year or two, he would be the ideal person to head social action initiatives in the NFL. He also could do radio and television work, as he did in 2013. But the NFL is a lesser league and the Falcons are a lesser team without him.
  8. The picture Qadree Ollison uses as the background on his cellphone is that of an adolescent in his football uniform more than 20 years ago. There’s no hint of a young man whose life would include too many wrong turns and too many nights on the wrong corners. In the picture Ollison sees, there’s just the exuberance of youth and an older brother he would lean on for inspiration and guidance later in life. The Falcons held a minicamp for rookies last week. It was like most other rookie camps, except for one thing. On Thursday night, the eve of the camp, head coach Dan Quinn asked each player to stand up, state his name and share one thing about himself. Most were routine, until Ollison took his turn. “My name is Qadree Ollison. I play for my brother’s honor,” he said. Quinn later recalled the room being pretty quiet. “It was real,” he said. Ollison’s life is punctuated by a tragedy, the shooting death of his older brother, Lerowne “Rome” Harris, in 2017. But this isn’t a story about another senseless street killing. It’s about uncommon grace, spirituality and legacy. It’s about overcoming all forms of setbacks, from growing up in the projects in the open sore of a neighborhood, to thriving despite being sent to a distant school by your family for your own good and against your desires, to — in the strangest of juxtapositions — being mentored and counseled by an older brother about the right way to go through life, despite those being the same areas the older brother struggled in. When Ollison was growing up in Niagara Falls, N.Y., he sometimes would walk to a nearby general store for a snack. Rome, the troubled older brother, would see him and tell him, “Get out of here. Go home. I’ll get it for you.” “It’s no secret Rome didn’t always choose the right path,” their father, Wayne Ollison, said. “But he knew it only takes a few seconds for something bad to happen in the wrong neighborhood. He didn’t want Qadree to be any part of that.” Qadree was a young teen, and he fought his father’s suggestion that he attend Canisius High School, a private school 30 minutes away in Buffalo because of superior academics and athletics and to get away from negative influences. It was Rome who stepped in and told his younger brother: “Trust dad. He’s doing the best thing for you.” At every turn, in seemingly every moment, until the morning he was gunned down in a gas station parking lot, Rome sought to guide his younger brother to a better life than his own. Qadree was sitting on some pads in the Falcons’ indoor practice facility the other day, resting after his first weekend of practices as a professional. The moment gave him time to reflect on how far he had come and, more importantly, why it became possible. “I learned I can pretty much overcome anything,” he said. “It also humbles me because I know where I came from, and I know what I came from.” How did he avoid the pitfalls of drug- and crime-infested surroundings and become a star running back in high school, earn a scholarship at Pittsburgh and get selected in the fifth round of the NFL Draft by the Falcons? “It’s my oldest brother,” he said. “He made sure I always stayed on the right path. He made sure I stayed in football. He’s the one who made me go home if he saw me on the block. As a kid, you complain about it. But now I understand why he was doing it and what he was doing it for. Where I am now, he saw it a long time ago. He saw something special in me.” Many who’ve talked about and re-told Qadree Ollison’s story have focused on forgiveness, specifically referring to the letter he wrote for the sentencing hearing of Denzel Lewis, who killed his brother. But Qadree said something often lost in those stories: Not once in the 798-word letter do the words “forgive” or “forgiveness” appear. “People have looked at this as forgiveness,” he said. “I do think forgiving someone is something you need to do. But that wasn’t the point of it. The point was not having hate in my heart for someone. I never said ‘I forgive you’ in that letter. People mistake it for me writing this forgiveness letter. It was more, ‘I don’t hate you.'” On the morning of Oct. 14, 2017, Niagara Falls police responded to a call about a reported shooting of a man at 10:20 a.m. When they arrived at the scene, a parking lot outside of a gas station, a semi-automatic pistol was on the ground, but the man who’d been shot had been taken to the hospital. The victim was later identified as Ollison’s brother: Lerowne “Rome” Harris, 35. He was pronounced dead shortly after arrival. The shooter, Lewis, who was caught on video security cameras, was a former middle school classmate of Qadree’s. The news stunned and devastated the family. Rome, a standout athlete himself as a youth, dropped out of high school and made a series of poor life decisions. But he remained dedicated to his siblings, and the family knew the news would hit Qadree hard. The decision was made to not tell him of the tragedy until after Pitt’s homecoming game that day against N.C. State, believing it’s what Rome would’ve wanted. While Qadree didn’t know of Rome’s death before the game, Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi did. “I found out about a half-hour before the game,” he said. “After warmups, I was walking through the tunnel, and Chris LaSala, our operations director, walks up and tells me Qadree’s brother has been shot, and the parents don’t want him to know.” Narduzzi didn’t understand the decision to keep his player in the dark. But he complied with their wishes. He asked LaSala to go take Qadree’s cellphone out of his locker on the chance a friend would try to contract the player about the death. The family broke the news to Qadree after the game. “There was no joy that day, not at any point in the game,” Narduzzi said. Pause. “I don’t even remember who we played,” he said. “I don’t even remember if we won or lost. But I’ll never forget the day.” Qadree’s inner strength stems, in part, from his spirituality. It was about to be tested again. He endured. He returned home for the funeral later in the week, then back to Pittsburgh without missing a game. In May, Lewis pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter. In late July, Wayne was driving Qadree back to Pittsburgh for the start of preseason practice when he mentioned that Lewis’ sentencing hearing was coming up. Wayne told Qadree each family member had the option of making a statement. “How would you feel if I didn’t hate Denzel?” Qadree said in the car. His father was floored. He didn’t share his son’s emotion or perspective. “Imagine driving down the highway with your son, and he says, ‘What would you say if I told you I don’t hate the guy who killed my brother?’” Wayne said. “How can you not hate him? But after talking to him and understanding his values and what he believed in, I understood why he felt the way he felt. I wanted his voice to be heard.” Back at Pitt, Qadree spent two hours in his dorm room writing a letter. “It wasn’t something I found emotional,” he said. “It was just something I felt needed to be expressed.” He finished just before midnight on July 31, two days before the sentencing, and emailed it to his father. In court, Wayne, who had seen the crime video, said Rome was “murdered in cold blood. Shot three times, your honor, twice in the back as he ran for his life,” according to the Niagara Gazette. He read Qadree’s letter to Lewis, even though the words ran contrary to his own: “… I truly believe God hand-crafted each one of us and gave us life … We all learn how to love someone or something … I questioned myself for a long time, staying up all night and wondering why I didn’t hate you. I wondered why I felt just as bad for your family as I did my own … The greatest thing God gave us is life. The second-greatest thing He gives us is the gift of choice … I don’t hate you Denzel. I hate what you did, most certainly. But I still think your life is just as precious as the next person’s …” Qadree went on to express love for his family, including his mother, Vicki Harris, and Wayne: “Neither of you better question for one second that you didn’t do something right.” He concluded with: “To you, Rome, we miss you, and we love you. It hurt so bad to say goodbye, but it’s going to be so much better to say hello again one day.” Everybody in the courtroom was moved. Everybody except for Lewis. “He showed no emotion,” Wayne said. “At no time did Denzel even make contact with the family section. The only time he showed emotion was outrage when the judge said he’s sentencing him to 25 years.” Asked if has let go of the hate yet, he said, “It’s still a work in progress for me. Qadree is helping me get through the process.” Qadree Ollison is 6-foot-1 and 232 pounds, strong and athletic. Both of his parents played college basketball. Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said he has been “looking for a big back for years, but the search has not always been fruitful.” He and Quinn love Ollison’s size and versatility. As a freshman in 2015, Ollison stepped in for starter James Conner, who went down with a knee injury and later was diagnosed with cancer. Ollison rushed for 1,121 yards and 11 touchdowns that season. But he was still finding his way, Narduzzi said. Conner came back the following season, and Ollison was moved around, never getting back to significant carries until his senior season, when he shared duties and rushed for more than 1,200 yards (6.3 per-carry average) and 11 touchdowns (including a 97-yarder). Quinn views Ollison as an every-down back: two downs as a weapon, the third in pass protection, the fourth on the punt team. Narduzzi likened Ollison to another former running back from Northern Illinois during his tenure at that school: Michael Turner. “And he’s going to help that team in the locker room, too.” Ollison knows he will have to earn a roster spot, which seemingly would come down to him or Ricky Ortiz. He’s approaching the situation the same way he does everything else: “Whether you’re a first-round pick or a tryout guy, you can’t forget what it took to get here.” When he wakes up, he thanks Rome for helping him get here. He feels his older brother’s presence on the field. He understands now why Rome always looked out for him and pushed him to leave the neighborhood and go to Canisius, as their father wished. “I wanted to go to high school with my friends,” Qadree said. “I never went to Catholic school before. I didn’t know anybody there. You had to wear a shirt and tie every day. I don’t even think I owned a shirt and tie before. I didn’t know what a blazer was.” He switched from jersey No. 37 to No. 30 at Pitt to honor Rome, as it was his number in youth football. When he arrived at the Falcons’ training complex in Flowery Branch, jersey No. 32 was hanging in his locker (Ortiz currently wears No. 30). “It’s just the number they gave me,” he said. “But you know what? It was my brother’s first number, ironically.”
  9. If you’ve lost track of all the changes on the Falcons’ coaching staff this offseason — and of course you have — here’s a recap of the metamorphosis and, to some degree, bloodshed: Six coaches and staff assistants were fired. Head coach Dan Quinn took over as the defensive coordinator. Dirk Koetter returned as the offensive coordinator. (They’re getting the band back together.) Ben Kotwica was hired to fix the special teams. Mike Mularkey, another ex-Falcons offensive coordinator, returned as the tight ends coach. (The only thing missing now is Matt Ryan’s high school coach.) On the undercard of changes: Quinn hired a time-outs/clock management coach (Bob Sutton), two staff assistants (Bob Steele, Will Harriger), moved a scout to offensive line assistant (Bob Kronenberg), a running backs assistant to special teams (Bernie Parmalee) and a wide receivers assistant to running backs (Dave Brock) and kept two assistants who most assumed would be gone (Chris Morgan, offensive line; Bryant Young, defensive line). Also, fish sticks no longer will be served on Fridays in the cafeteria. At the center of all this is Quinn. “Emotionally tiring,” is how he summarized the changes. Yeah, well, desperate times, desperate measures. So sayeth Hippocrates, a former Greek head coach. Quinn was celebrated in 2016 when he led the Falcons to a Super Bowl berth and near title. Two years later, having to answer for a slide that has seen his team’s regular-season win total drop from 11 to 10 to 7 and a postseason fizzle from Super Bowl to second-round exit to out altogether, everybody is looking at him. At least everybody who’s left. The staff has been blown up, the owner is watching closely, and the fan base is divided on him. “The way I look at it, it does come to me first — to make sure we’re going to get the most out of the coaches and the players in every capacity,” Quinn said. “The changes are hard, but you have to do them when you don’t think it’s going to be exactly set the way you would like.” The Falcons decided to make their new coordinators available to the media Wednesday — for up to 10 minutes each, and not a millisecond more, or surely you would perish — before the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis next week. This wouldn’t normally be a thing Quinn would attend. But when he decided to fire his defensive coordinator for the second time in three seasons (Richard Smith, Marquand Manuel) and assume control of the defense, he qualified for coordinators media access day. Make no mistake about this: Quinn’s best chance to return the Falcons to title contenders is to fix the defense. The team certainly subjected itself to criticism during the OC search when it fumbled an opportunity to hire the best name on the board: Gary Kubiak. But it’s not like an offensive staff with Koetter, Mularkey, Greg Knapp and Raheem Morris coaching a unit with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, Mohamed Sanu and Calvin Ridley is going to faceplant. If the offense fails, the problems are bigger than we ever imagined. This is about defense. This is about Quinn. The only time the defense played to its capability, produced takeaways and competed with the edge Quinn seeks came after he quietly took over play-calling for the soon-to-be-fired Smith in the final month of the 2016 regular season. (Quinn didn’t confirm he was calling plays until Super Bowl week.) This season’s struggles largely could be attributed to injuries. But Manuel wasn’t blameless. Even with the team heavily dependent on backups, lapses in key moments ate at Quinn. So did the slow development (Takk McKinley) or under performance of some players (Vic Beasley, Brian Poole, Robert Alford). So enter Quinn. Again. This time officially. If he fails, the DC won’t be the only one who gets fired. “If I can have an impact on a defense and have us really play to a style, I should be the one making the calls,” he said. What does he believe he brings to a defense? “I’ve been a pretty good connector, so I’m hopeful I can increase communication, player to player, and I’m certainly going to try to feature the guys in the things that they do best,” he said. “Not calling things in-game can certainly be a big difference.” Quinn isn’t on an island in this regard. At least five teams are expected to have head coaches call defensive plays next season: the Falcons, Minnesota (Mike Zimmer), Denver (Vic Fangio), Carolina (Ron Rivera) and Seattle (Pete Carroll). At least three other head coaches heavily influence play-calling and/or game-planning: New England’s Bill Belichick, Buffalo’s Sean McDermott and Detroit’s Matt Patricia. Quinn said he felt all of the staff changes were necessary after concluding “the compass was off.” Specifically, he said, “Offensively our ability to have more balance in the run game. Defensively our ability to play at a more physical style.” As for the emotions of having so much turnover, he said, “As much as I love football, I love the players and the coaches even more. Those relationships, when you have to move on from them, it’s hard. But you have to do what’s best for the team.” So coaches are gone. Players are gone (Alford, Poole, Brooks Reed, Matt Bryant, Ben Garland). More changes are coming. If this extreme makeover doesn’t work, it won’t be pretty in Flowery Branch. Two years ago, nobody could have seen this coming.
  10. According to Jeff Schultz - not sure if conjecture or not.
  11. It’s common for pesky details to get lost by those who hold advanced degrees in Sports Revisionist History from the University of I’m Right And You’re A Blithering Idiot Now Get Off My Twitter. But here are a few things worth remembering before leaping headfirst into an empty pool in the Todd Gurley vs. Vic Beasley debate of the 2015 NFL draft. • The Falcons were coming off two losing seasons, during which they finished a combined 10-22, missed the playoffs twice and were such an unmitigated mess that they fired their most successful head coach in franchise history (Mike Smith). • The team finished 29th in sacks in 2013 (32) and 30th in 2014 (22). The defense ranked 27th in points allowed both seasons. It also ranked 27th in total defense in 2013 and 32nd — last — in 2014, allowing nearly 400 yards per game. If you really believe the Falcons should have drafted a running back (Gurley) over a defensive end (Vic Beasley, a two-time All-American and ACC defensive player of the year), I suspect you are blinded by loyalty to Georgia, and the circulation to your cranium possibly has been cut off by your Bulldogs boxer shorts being too tight. The Super Bowl is Sunday. Gurley, who has had a great career (when healthy), is a centerpiece of the matchup. He has a chance to be the star of the game because the Los Angeles Rams’ best chance to beat New England lies in their ability to run the ball and keep Tom Brady off the field. The Patriots allowed 4.9 yards per rush this season, so bad that it’s also what the Falcons allowed (third worst in the league). Gurley scored 21 touchdowns and rushed for 1,251 yards in 14 games (missing two with injuries). Beasley is coming off a mediocre season for the Falcons, who went 7-9. Gurley was drafted 10th overall, Beasley eighth. So this is prime screaming time for a referendum on the 2015 draft. Funny. It wasn’t prime screaming time in 2016. The Falcons went to the Super Bowl; the Rams finished 4-12, Beasley led the NFL with 15.5 sacks and six forced fumbles, and Gurley averaged a pedestrian 3.2 yards per carry and 55 yards per game. Sorry. Didn’t mean to dump on the narrative. Back to the outrage. There’s no question Beasley’s 2016 season has been the outlier in his four-year career. He hasn’t lived up to the billing of a top-10 pick. He had more sacks in 2016 than in the other three seasons combined (14). He has struggled with consistency, and at times passion and effort, which is important when you’re trying to get around 300-pound slabs of beef and attack opposing quarterbacks. It took mentoring from veteran Dwight Freeney to draw the best out of Beasley. That’s a problem, one which coach and once-against defensive coordinator Dan Quinn will attack next season. But the Falcons made the right decision in the draft, even if overall it has been the wrong result (to this point). Rams general manager Les Snead admitted “the thought crossed my mind” that the Falcons might draft Gurley, based on pressure from local fans. “I was nervous about it,” he said. “When I was reading clips, I got a sense there was a movement in Atlanta from fans to take Todd Gurley. But I know and you know Atlanta has been looking for an edge presence since John Abraham. And even though Devonta Freeman didn’t have his breakout season yet, you watched Atlanta film, and you could see that he had the ability to be that guy. They didn’t need a running back.” No. They didn’t. Gurley understood that on some level. But he shared a funny story this week about draft night when he briefly thought the Falcons were taking him. “I’m in the green room,” he said. “I got my phone. This is when the Falcons are getting ready to pick. A 404 number calls my phone. I’m like, ‘OK, OK.’ I pick it up. It’s one my homeboys from back home. I cussed him out. I’m like ‘Don’t ever call my phone.’ ” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff reiterated this week what he has said previously: “As an organization, we were never focused on taking a running back. We respected Todd on so many levels, but that wasn’t our focus. We needed a defensive end, plain and simple. It was needs driven. We have an expert at D-line and defensive coordinator who came on as a head coach. Dan and I were 100 percent were focused on Vic Beasley.” It’s not a stretch to suggest the Falcons won’t get back to the level of Super Bowl contenders if Beasley doesn’t get back to the level of 2016, or at least close. The Falcons are intending to bring back Beasley, just not at the $12.81 million he is scheduled to make in his option year next season. Expect him to sign a deal with a lower salary cap figure and guarantee. “Vic is a very talented defensive end; he’s athletic and explosive,” Dimitroff said. “With Dan’s focus on the defense this year, he’s going to continue to improve. He has the ability to be a double-digit sack guy.” Then maybe revisionist history will be revised again.
  12. D@mn good article..... “Jeff? It’s Scott Pioli. I just read your story, and I’m sitting here with tears rolling down my face.” My first conversation with Pioli of any substance was only the week before, when the Falcons, after three years of rejections, gave me and one other reporter their relative papal blessing, allowing an interview with their assistant general manager before the Super Bowl against New England, Pioli’s former team. This was different. Pioli, after Googling me, had just read a narrative I wrote for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the parallel roads of addiction and recovery for a parent and a child (my son). Suddenly, a person I had little contact with was opening up about the pain he experienced as a youth while living among alcoholics in his family and friends, sharing with me about people he had lost, about his quest to help others and his attempts to overcome his own flaws. Was this the same cold-fish NFL executive I had long read about, the former New England personnel director and two-time NFL executive of the year who won three Super Bowls with Bill Belichick? The man who helped build an organization that will play its ninth Super Bowl in 18 seasons this week in Atlanta? The one who ran point on the Patriots’ draft when they selected Tom Brady with the 199th pick because, even though the team didn’t need a quarterback, he was the last demerit-free player left in the top 100 on its draft board? Pioli: “We’re like, ‘Why is he still there? Is there something we’re missing? Is he dead?’” Is this the same man who left New England for Kansas City amid trumpets because he sought a new challenge, only to crash and burn and be painted as one of the most paranoid, tyrannical, reptilian sports executive in history — that Scott Pioli? The four years in Kansas City were so draining, the ending in 2012 so traumatic, particularly after the murder-suicide involving Jovan Belcher, who shot himself in the head in the Chiefs’ parking lot as Pioli and others pleaded for him to put the gun down, that Pioli needed a year away from football. Then, in 2013, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, a longtime friend and underling to Pioli in Cleveland and New England, hired his former boss as an assistant general manager. Once among the NFL’s highest-profile executives, Pioli is now in the background, helping with the Falcons’ draft prep, keeping his head down in the comfort of the shadows. What ever happened to Scott Pioli? Race, equality and healing It’s 8 a.m. Pioli has been up since before 5. He’s wearing an Atlanta Mission sweatshirt, having served breakfast to more than 100 homeless men, many of whom are struggling with addictions. This is the norm. Pioli does it once per week, every week. It’s not something he has ever advertised. But, even though he considers doing an interview “incredibly self-serving,” some close friends have convinced him it’s time to open up “Somebody said to me, ‘If you don’t tell people who you are, they’re going to find a way to fill the void,’” he said. So, after five years of stalling by the Falcons and reflection by Pioli, he agrees to talk, really talk, mostly about social causes and why he does the work he does but also begrudgingly about football, his career, Kansas City and whether he wants to be a general manager again. What he won’t say about himself, people will say for him. From Ryan Poles, the Chiefs’ assistant director of player personnel, who is black and whose first NFL job (scout) was given to him by Pioli: “He takes pride in giving opportunities to minorities because he knows it’s right. He’s a good man with a very big heart.” Dimitroff: “He’s a good football man with an ability to lead an organization, and with that, he has a very good soul. He may have an approach that can be tough and gritty at times, but that should not be construed as him being a hard-*** who doesn’t care about people’s feelings or is not empathic toward the people who are working for him.” Jocelyn Benson, Michigan’s secretary of state and former CEO of RISE (Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality), where Pioli is perhaps its most active board member: “Having done work in the civil rights area, you generally don’t see someone who has both depth and knowledge about what they’re doing plus sincerity and authenticity — all while not wanting publicity for it. I’ve wanted his story told with the hope that it would inspire other executives to do the same.” Pioli, as a financially secure white male, stands out for someone so emotionally and financially invested in social action involving the poor and disenfranchised, race issues, gender inequality, LGBT and mental health. An illustration of this came at a Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation awards dinner that was largely attended by African-Americans. “Every speaker would spontaneously spot Scott in the audience and say, ‘All of us here have done great things, but the one man who has helped me most is Scott Pioli,’” Benson said. “Then somebody else would do it. And he was one of the few white men in the room.” Pioli personally funds a number of scholarships. He serves on boards or is involved with several nonprofits, including RISE, the Women’s Sports Foundation, College for Every Student (CFES), which works with at-risk youths, the Black College Football Hall of Fame and the Women’s Intersport Network for Kansas City, and he endows two scholarships at Central Connecticut State, his alma mater. What drives him to do all this? “I’ve known people my entire life who were marginalized,” Pioli said. “Women marginalized. People of color. My best friend from childhood, his brother was gay. We watched all that unfold in the 1970s and ’80s. I watched two close friends who had brothers who were gay die of AIDS. It puts a very different spin on things during the AIDS epidemic when you know people.” He comes from a “low-middle class” Italian family, six people squeezed into a two-bedroom, one-bath house. His father was a laborer for Western Electric; his mother cleaned homes. Perspective came early. Each of Pioli’s causes had triggering moments. Race: His third-grade teacher, Elisa Cooper (Jackson), was the only black person in the school district who wasn’t a janitor or a bus driver. Her hiring sent a ripple through a community of white-flight parents who had moved from the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. At the age of 8, Pioli found himself exposed to racism, even in his own house. “You hear all this, and you expect to see a monster at the door,” he said. “And then you show up the first day of school, there’s this woman with an enormous Afro and multi-colored 1973 outfit, and the first thing she does is hug each kid. And every single day she touches you in some way. …” Pioli stops and chokes up. It’s four decades later, and he still can’t get through stories without showing emotion. Race and political issues of today bother many NFL executives, but they seldom speak of them for reasons of self-preservation. With Pioli, it sneaks out occasionally, like on Twitter, when a homeless man in Washington initially was denied a right to play high school football for eligibility reasons. Or before the Falcons’ playoff game against Philadelphia last year, when he saw a neighborhood sign that read in three languages: “No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.” But aren’t things better today than in the 1970s? “We’ve made progress, but what does progress mean when you’re starting below zero?” he said. “Have we even gotten to the ground level yet?” Benson recalls a panel discussion with RISE when Pioli was talking about cold-calling black coaches for an internship with the Falcons. “He just looked them up on the Internet,” she said. “I just thought, there’s this African-American coach out there, and he has no idea he’s about to get an invite from an NFL executive who didn’t ask somebody else to do it.” That coach turned out to be Rich Freeman of Morehouse, who was given a Bill Walsh NFL Minority Coaching Fellowship with the Falcons in training camp this season. In a recent story with the school’s news website, the Maroon Tiger, Freeman credited Pioli for his “zeal” and taking a genuine interest in him, believing other participating NFL teams “just do this just to satisfy (the requirement).” Gender equality: Pioli’s older sisters, both soccer players and “better athletes, better students, better behaved” than him, struggled for opportunities, even in the post-Title IX era. Among other things, he’s funding grants of $2,000 to $10,000 at the Women’s Sports Foundation to support those who pursue careers in football coaching and scouting. Alcohol and substance abuse: It was all around him in his youth, friends and family, including his father. Some lost their livelihoods, some their lives. His father ultimately found sobriety when Pioli was a senior in college, but emotional scar tissue from his youth lingers. “I started going to (support) meetings because of family members in high school,” he said. “Close friends, we all had family members who were addicted to alcohol or drugs. But my father took a leap (toward sobriety) near the end of my fourth year in college.” Ronald Pioli is 80 years old. His son said he’s the first in his family to live past the age of 58. LGBT rights: Friends or siblings of friends growing up were gay or lesbian. Some died of AIDS. Former Patriots and Chiefs offensive lineman Ryan O’Callaghan was so distraught about hiding his homosexuality during his NFL career that he abused drugs and became suicidal when he was with Kansas City during Pioli’s tenure. O’Callaghan felt comfortable enough with Pioli that he disclosed his sexuality to him in 2011. Six years later, the player went public on and credited Pioli for his support and compassion. When O’Callaghan told Pioli he had a problem to discuss with him and that he was gay, Pioli responded, “So, what’s the problem you wanted to talk to me about?” Mental health/suicide: Pioli has had at least two former athletes convey suicidal thoughts to him: O’Callaghan, who ultimately decided against it, and Belcher, who killed his girlfriend in December 2012, then drove to the Chiefs’ facility, told Pioli and head coach Romeo Crennel to make sure his infant daughter was cared for, then shot himself. An autopsy later showed Belcher had signs of brain damage similar to that of other former NFL players: chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. “It was a horrible tragedy for a lot of people,” Pioli said. “It impacted everybody. He had a family. She had a family. …” It’s still a difficult subject for him to talk about. “You don’t forget it,” he said. Does he derive anything from the fact he twice has been connected to people with suicidal thoughts? “And maybe more,” he said. Did anybody else go through with it? “And maybe more,” he said. Did the Belcher tragedy prompt his interest in mental health to grow? “It’s hard to associate the word growth with any part of that,” he said. Kansas City It wasn’t all bad. Pioli took over a franchise that had gone 6-26 the previous two years and, in his second season, the Chiefs went 10-6 and won the AFC West title. But then came the spiral. The team started 5-8 in Year Three, and head coach Todd Haley was fired. Crennel took over and went 2-1 in the final weeks and kept the job, but 2012 was a disaster at 2-14, and Pioli was gone. There’s a lot about the inner-building turmoil in Kansas City that Pioli declines to make public. But it’s known he remains close with owner Clark Hunt, who had taken over the team from his father and had a mandate to change the culture in the organization. It’s known that Pioli made the mistake of hiring the wrong coach in Haley, who has proven to have his own stability issues (and has been fired twice since). A story in the Kansas City Star painted an ugly picture of paranoia and secrecy in the front office, with Haley believing the building was bugged. Pioli declined to talk about the story or what precipitated some of the accusations. But when he was fired, he did the rare thing for a sports executive and released a statement with an apology: “The bottom line is I did not accomplish all of what I set out to do. … I truly apologize for not getting the job done.” Why the apology? “I failed,” Pioli said. “When you succeed, you don’t do it alone. When you fail, you feel like you’re alone as the leader, and you realize how many lives that will impact. There was an owner who relied on me, coaches and other people who lost jobs.” Pioli was prepared for the football side of the job but not everything else. He never had to deal with the media in New England and struggled in that area, which he can now laugh about because he holds a master’s in communications from Syracuse. He struggled to manage so many people, particularly office staffers. “Change is difficult, and sometimes when leaders make change for the first time, you make mistakes,” he said. “Obviously, some of the personnel acquisitions could’ve been better. I could’ve done a better job with some of the relationships. I come from a culture where everything was focused on football and winning games. The biggest mistake was probably I could’ve been more patient with the people who were unwilling to change and more patient as they adjusted. I came from a culture that not everything had to be explained. People (in Kansas City) wanted to know more about the why. There was resistance, and I didn’t do a good job managing that.” Poles said in conversations with Pioli, “On many occasions, he has expressed instances where he wished he had done things better or different so that I would avoid the same pitfalls.” Falcons and the future Let’s be clear: Despite everything about Pioli’s off-field interest, football is still “90 percent of what I do,” and it’s what he loves to do. So it follows that after one year off, doing some radio and TV work, he yearned to get back to a competitive environment. Dimitroff had offered Pioli a job immediately after his firing. The two carried on the conversation during the next year, before Pioli was hired in 2013. Their relationship extends far beyond football. When Pioli and Belichick were in Cleveland, Dimitroff’s father, Thomas Sr., was a scout. The younger Dimitroff did odd jobs, like working on the field and painting lines, then would walk into the building sweaty and smelly and sit next to Pioli to learn how to watch film. When Dimitroff left for a job in Detroit, Pioli helped take care of his ill father, sneaking out of the Browns’ building to drive Thomas Sr. to treatments for his cancer. The Falcons presented an ideal scenario for Pioli because he could in the background in personnel and with a close friend, and he was “dropped in a city that was in the heart of the civil rights movement.” He also credits owner Arthur Blank for setting a tone in an organization that values public service work. “This organization has allowed me to feel more free to do work outside of football than any other organization,” he said. Pioli won’t come out and say he wants to be a general manager again. But it’s logical to assume he does. Whether he gets that chance is uncertain. “There’s no question Scott should have another opportunity,” Dimitroff said. “Do I feel like he was scarred or misrepresented? Yes, and I think it’s unfortunate.” Asked if he would be a better GM the second time around, Pioli said: “Oh, yes. Any time you get an opportunity and then fail, you stand back and see some of the things you did and didn’t do well. You get feedback from people. There’s things I’d do differently.” Pioli’s life is full: family (his wife, Dallas, and daughter, Mia), friends, job and helping others. He enjoyed watching the AFC title game between the Patriots and Chiefs, his two former teams. But he says now he’s mostly focused now on the Falcons’ draft, the offseason and getting the team back to contending level. “I want to win again,” he said. As for another opportunity to be a general manager, he said, “I’m not focused on that. I just want to win, and I want to be a good dad. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking or worrying about anything else.”
  13. Arthur Blank went on one of his greatest rolls as a sports owner in 2016. In May of that year, Atlanta secured the rights to host the 2019 Super Bowl (beating out New Orleans on the final ballot). When all the bidding was done, Blank’s new stadium (still not built) landed the college football national title game, the NFL title game and the Final Four in consecutive years. Nine months after winning the 2019 Super Bowl bid, the Falcons found themselves playing in the championship game in Houston. But this is where Blank’s dream sequence ends. When next week’s Super Bowl is played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Falcons won’t be there. After starting the season with title hopes, they stumbled out of the gate, got hammered by injuries, imploded with a five-game losing streak and never contended for a playoff berth. Blank is trying to put on a happy face and says he’s ready to play the gracious host. He spent some time with The Athletic on Wednesday and addressed a number of topics, including his hopes for Super Bowl week, the Falcons’ season, his plans to possibly never sell the franchise, memories of the 2000 ice storm and the futures of Falcons head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff. Everybody in the organization has acknowledged the importance of next season. Blank reiterated that he has confidence in Quinn and Dimitroff to fix the problems, but perhaps Blank’s most interesting response came when he was asked if the head coach and GM are linked, as many have assumed, should next season go poorly. “That’s a whole year away,” he said. “They’re two different people with two different roles. I understand the question, and I understand the answer you would like. But the answer I’m giving is the honest answer, which is that we have a year for things to play out.” The following is my Q&A with Blank, held at his family foundation office: I checked the advance forecast for Super Bowl Sunday. It was a high of 53 and a low of 37 with a 40 percent chance of rain, so not bad. I’m not happy about the 40 percent chance of rain. Yeah, but it’s not like an ice storm. Are you saying a few extra Baruch-as? I’m praying as much as I can. There’s a lot of stuff to pray for. The last one was here in 2000 (Super Bowl XXXIV, Rams-Titans), and you know what happened. I was at that game. I remember the whole week was a disaster in terms of the traffic and getting people around. The game itself was a great game. It was decided on the last play. I was a guest of commissioner (Paul) Tagliabue, and I got to the game and experienced a great game. So did the fans. But it was difficult in Atlanta that week. What’s your dream for next week? Our hope is that Atlanta will do what it does well, which is host big national events. We did it last year with the national championship game; we’ll do it this year with the Super Bowl and next year with the Final Four. We’ve done it with the SEC championship and the Falcons and the MLS now. The whole community has done a fabulous job. I would imagine you’re happy that Mercedes-Benz Stadium has been well-received. It has every amenity you’d want, and I’m excited about sharing our food and beverage philosophy of low pricing. Will the roof be open, or is that contingent on the weather? I think we’ll have an opportunity to show off our hardware — show how the roof opens and closes. That’s my hope and the hope of the league. So maybe it’s open during the pregame and then closed for the game? You’ll just have to wait and see and be surprised like everybody else. Your dreams when Atlanta won the bid were to have the Falcons in the game. Does it feel like there’s a hole in the week? Candidly, yes. Obviously, we’d be the first team in 53 years to have hosted the game and played in it. We were competitive at the end of the year, winning three games in a row. Down 17 points in the last game (at Carolina) and winning it was important to the players and the coaching staff and the fans. But we didn’t have the kind of year we wanted, and Coach Quinn would be the first to tell you that. He’d be the last to tell you injuries were a factor, but they are reality. We learned a lot about our young players who stepped up. We’ll get the injured players back next year. The draft and free agency will be focused on the trenches, which is where it needs to be. How do we get better on the offensive line? How do we stop the run better? Are you going to pick a side to cheer for in this game? I ask that because you admitted to me that you were “happy” that New Orleans isn’t here. My side is the side of the NFL and the side of the fans. We want a close, competitive game. I’m close with both owners (Robert Kraft and Stan Kroenke). We have storylines on both sides. We have a historically great coach (Bill Belichick) in New England. We have an emerging coach (Sean McVay) with the Rams who comes from Atlanta, went to Marist High School, and his family is in the area. We have two running backs (Todd Gurley and Sony Michel) from the University of Georgia. Les Snead, the Rams’ general manager, worked for us for 13 years. John McKay, Rich’s son, works for the Rams. So we have a lot of connections on both sides. If Saints-Patriots was Atlanta’s nightmare Super Bowl, are you saying you don’t lean toward the Rams even a little bit? (Blank smiles.) I’m very close to Robert Kraft. He’s been a good friend to me. We wouldn’t have Thomas Dimitroff if it wasn’t for Robert. He had to intervene during the interview process to make sure we had an opportunity to interview him. He didn’t have to do that. And I have great affection for Stan Kroenke. Back to the Falcons. How difficult was it for you to deal with this season? Well, we changed three coordinators; that’s always difficult. The three we changed were all good people, and they worked hard. But sometimes you need a different approach, a different voice in the room. Sometimes they represent the kind of balance that the (head) coach wants. One great thing about Coach Quinn is he’s very honest with himself, and he’s willing to look at things objectively. He’ll be calling plays on defense, and the last time he did that, we went to the Super Bowl in 2016. So I’m encouraged by where we are, but we have to get through the offseason, get the players we need, the OTA, preseason, and then the bell rings. Is there anything you can say about the confidence level you have in Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff moving forward? Very high confidence level in the two of them. I said the same thing to them. I have no reason to think they won’t be successful and get us back to the championship level that we think we’re capable of. Are they somewhat tied at the hip? They’re tied at the hip in a positive way in terms of their decision-making. I’ve seen them disagree on things in a respectful way. They definitely have different views on some things, but we encourage that as part of our culture in all of our businesses. Usually, if they disagree on something, they move on and try to find an option they both feel better about. Would they be tied at the hip if things didn’t work out? I don’t know that. That’s a whole year away. They’re two different people with two different roles. I understand the question, and I understand the answer you would like. But the answer I’m giving is the honest answer, which is that we have a year for things to play out. You redefined the retail industry with Home Depot. That’s going to be your legacy in business. What would you like your legacy to be in sports? Whether it’s football or soccer that we were a great experience for the fans, that they felt we were competitive every year, the owner and the management team was doing everything they can to have a winning product on the field or on the pitch and that we leave no stone unturned in doing that. It is fans first, and I view myself as the steward for them. So when I have to make difficult decisions, I think about what’s right for the fans, what’s right for the people who are giving us their time, their passion, their financial resources. If you hit the finish line as an owner and you haven’t won a Super Bowl, how would you feel? I’d be disappointed. I assume the finish line means I’m no longer a body, just a soul? Am I just a soul floating around? Ha. Are you saying you’re never going to sell — you’ll own the Falcons until you die? Well, I have no plans on selling it. We love doing what we’re doing, and our family does. I’d like to see the family go on and run the businesses and really do what the fans and the community are telling us. I only brought it up because you told me once before you weren’t sure if anybody in the family wanted to run the Falcons, but you knew your son, Josh, liked soccer. All the kids have a variety of interests in all our businesses, whether it’s the ranch, the soccer team or the football team. Whether they have an interest or not is one thing. They have to have the capability and be properly trained. There’s nothing to be given to them on a silver platter. I feel that way, and their mother feels that way, and even more importantly, our associates and businesses have earned the right to have great leadership. Final question: Does it eat at you that Lowe’s is a major Super Bowl sponsor and not Home Depot? I appreciate the fact that Brian Rolapp, the chief revenue officer for the league, called me, and my first question was, ‘Did we ask H.D.’ He said, ‘Yes, we did.’ That’s the only obligation the league has, and they fulfilled it. Home Depot has been a great partner for us. I’m sure Craig Menear, our chairman and CEO of H.D. now, will not be thrilled to see blue banners and blue billboards everywhere. But Home Depot is running an incredible company today.
  14. When I moved to Atlanta nearly 30 years ago, the significance of the Falcons-New Orleans Saints rivalry eluded me. Neither franchise had ever played in a Super Bowl to that point, both were largely associated with spectacular failure, and this struck me as important of a rivalry as, say, a fish stick throwdown between Mrs. Paul’s and the Gorton’s fisherman. I came to learn otherwise. It is the closest thing you’re going to find to a college rivalry in the NFL, with each team reveling in the other’s misery. So it should not come as a surprise that in the eyes of many in Atlanta, a Falcons season mostly devoid of joy hit a high note Sunday when the Saints lost. After leading all but the final five minutes of regulation, the Saints fell, 23-20 to the Los Angeles Rams in overtime in the NFC championship game at the Superdome. What this means is the Rams are going to the Super Bowl — and as the key byproduct of this, the Saints are not. They won’t travel to Atlanta. They won’t play at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in two weeks. They won’t practice all week in the Falcons’ training facility in Flowery Branch. The Falcons are relieved. The Falcons are laughing. The Falcons are happy. Let’s start with the owner. “I am smiling,” Arthur Blank said via text message. “It was a hard fought game, and the Saints’ fans made a big difference early on — but the Rams’ defense played strong from the 1st Q on…” From there, Blank held his tongue (or his texting fingers) a bit. When asked if he had dreaded the thought of the Saints practicing at his team’s facility, he responded, “We welcome the best teams — period.” I texted, “Politically correct. Thanks.” He responded, “Correct.” I cannot confirm that a 76-year-old was sliding across a wood floor in his socks on the other end of the phone. In the AFC championship game, New England (Atlanta fans’ second least-favorite team) defeated Kansas City 37-31 in overtime. Had the Chiefs won, Atlanta might’ve thrown a parade Monday. Back to the Falcons-Saints thing. The negative feelings between the two franchises are real. That was never more evident than last month when it was confirmed the NFC champion would practice in Flowery Branch, and Falcons head coach Dan Quinn was asked about the possibility of the Saints being in his building. The question seemed to throw him for a loop, and as relayed by The Athletic’s Jason Butt, Quinn stumbled a bit in his response: “Whoever’s playing for the championship … this is the host … I guess I’m more disappointed that we won’t be playing and practicing at our site.” He then suddenly ended the news conference, walking out of the room. The Saints joyously mocked the Falcons for blowing a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl two years ago. In last season’s visit to New Orleans, a marching band spelled out, “28-3” during a halftime show. There also was repeated video board lampooning. Return fire was expected Sunday. It may seem a bit juvenile for the official Twitter accounts of NFL franchises to be taking jabs at opponents, but welcome to the middle school world of “professional” social media departments. The Falcons Tweeted, “Hey @RamsNFL” nice win,” with a winking emoji and a clip from a 1986 Rams’ music video, “Ram It.” Carolina, another NFC South team, followed: “We are really, really (…) happy the @RamsNFL won.” If we still lived in an adult world, Lombardi and Halas would be throwing down lightning bolts from the heavens. Falcons players also threw shots in cyberspace. Running back Ito Smith Tweeted a string of laughing/crying emojis, then followed with a quick video of him dancing to Choppa Style (by Darwin “Choppa” Turner), which has been the unofficial soundtrack of this Saints’ season. Carolina, another NFC South team, followed: “We are really, really (…) happy the @RamsNFL won.” If we still lived in an adult world, Lombardi and Halas would be throwing down lightning bolts from the heavens. Falcons players also threw shots in cyberspace. Running back Ito Smith Tweeted a string of laughing/crying emojis, then followed with a quick video of him dancing to Choppa Style (by Darwin “Choppa” Turner), which has been the unofficial soundtrack of this Saints’ season. (The video posted by @ItoSmith has been removed.) Jabs ranged from the spiritual (Mohamed Sanu) … To the thankful for a blown non-interference call (Damontae Kazee) … To the endorsing of the Rams (Brian Poole). (I had to consult Urban Dictionary: “No cap” translates to “Not lying.” I would be dead without Urban Dictionary.) To the artistically creative (Matt Bryant): And his wife (Melissa Bryant): The Falcons didn’t make it to the playoffs, but their players, fans and owner were spared further misery.
  15. It was about four years ago when the Falcons, having already fired head coach Mike Smith, allowed then-offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and all other assistants to interview for jobs elsewhere, even though Koetter had a year left on his contract. The clear reason: Impending new head coach Dan Quinn, who hadn’t yet officially been announced, was going to change the offense, bring in his own guy (Kyle Shanahan) and didn’t want Koetter. On Tuesday night, Quinn reversed field. He hired Koetter as the Falcons’ once-again offensive coordinator, confirming the move first reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and subsequently denied by the organization late Monday night. It’s a policy of mine not to pre-judge coaches, even coaches who’ve been here before and have a clear body of work that illustrates what they’re all about. So I’m not going to predict if Koetter’s hiring qualifies either as a brilliant decision that will put a non-playoff team back on the rails or doom Quinn’s future as a head coach. I like Koetter personally, and he did a solid job as the Falcons’ offensive coordinator for three seasons. That said, the jury is out on whether this qualifies as a real upgrade over Steve Sarkisian, considering the spoken parameters of the search. The job search certainly leaves one to wonder if the Falcons really spent as much time as they could have to try to find the best candidate possible, or if this just seemed like the safe decision. Quinn reversed field in so many ways. He said recently he didn’t want the Falcons’ offense to move away from the outside zone scheme that Shanahan brought in and Sarkisian continued. Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff had worked to rebuild the roster to fit it. But Quinn hired Koetter, who’s mostly known for a vertical passing game. In a team-issued statement, Quinn said the Falcons’ may benefit from Koetter’s “familiarity with our division.” He said nothing about scheme. Quinn said he wanted a coordinator who would provide more run-pass balance than Sarkisian. But he hired a coach who ranked significantly lower in rush attempts and success rate than passing in the six seasons he called plays for the Falcons and Tampa Bay (one year as a coordinator and his first two years as head coach). One exception was Koetter’s first year as the Buccaneers’ offensive coordinator, when he had 1,400-yard rusher Doug Martin at his disposal. Quinn hired a coach who actually had less success calling the Bucs’ offense than Todd Monken, who was handed play-calling duties this season. Koetter strangely took back play-calling for one game this season, a 16-3 loss to Washington, in which the Bucs had 500 yards in offense but went 0-for-5 in the red zone. So, yes, you could make a case the Falcons hired Tampa Bay’s second-best coordinator. If Koetter was the leading candidate from day one, as was reported, the Denver Broncos would not have felt compelled to block Quinn and Dimitroff from interviewing former head coach Gary Kubiak (who likely will return to play-calling duties this season, assuming he and the Broncos’ new head coach can work out a deal). Because you don’t block unless a request has been put in. So at best, that drops Koetter to the No. 2 choice. At the outset of the search, there was reason to believe the Falcons also liked former Miami head coach Adam Gase, who was a coveted offensive coach in Denver and Chicago and is a strong fit with the zone scheme. But there was a belief that Gase would fill one of the NFL head coaching vacancies. As of Tuesday night, Gase did not have an offer, but the Falcons chose not to wait and see if he would be available. Contrary to what Quinn stated last week, the Falcons also (presumably) chose not to wait to talk to another potential candidate who was currently is in the playoffs with another team. Basically, they did absolutely nothing what they said they were going to do. After the AJC reported late Monday that Koetter had been offered the job, the Falcons (read: Dimitroff, Quinn) vehemently denied to The Athletic that was the case, as if suggesting somebody had jumped the gun. There was enough apparent confusion in the front office to suggest that one party might have said something that the other party knew nothing about. Regardless, it was clear at that point that the Falcons were going down the Koetter road and had discussed at least the parameters of a deal. This much also became apparent about the Falcons’ search: One of the primary objectives was to make quarterback Matt Ryan happy. When Quinn was asked last week how much influence Ryan would have in the selection process, he responded, “As far as going to select people, that’s not part of his influence. All the players do to a certain regard. We want to keep the system going where Matt thrives in. So, he has a part of it, but not part of who, if that makes sense.” It’s well known Ryan and Koetter were close when the coach was in Atlanta. Ryan and Shanahan weren’t always close. But Shanahan certainly got results in Year 2. Ryan was the MVP in 2016. He also has had statistically his two best seasons in this offense (2016 and 2018). Now Koetter steps in. The extent of the changes to the scheme remains to be seen. Maybe this works. Maybe it was the safest hire the Falcons could make. Or maybe Quinn reached into the franchise’s past at a time when he should not have.
  16. Schultz: Quinn, Dimitroff acknowledge mistakes made on... Jeff Schultz 7-8 minutes Once you get past the postseason reflections on injuries, a five-game losing streak that smothered playoff hopes and the recent firings of three coordinators, here’s what the Falcons’ fizzled 2018 season comes down to: Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff screwed up. It doesn’t mean Quinn isn’t a good coach (he took an upside down team to the playoffs in two of his first three seasons, including a Super Bowl run), or that Dimitroff isn’t more than competent as a personnel man (his good decisions far outweigh the bad ones, critics notwithstanding). But as the co-builders of the Falcons’ organization, both acknowledge there’s ample evidence that their assessment of the depth on the Falcons’ roster was inaccurate. They believed they could let go of certain veterans because some young players would evolve into leaders. That didn’t happen. They believed they didn’t need to make moves early in the season after injuries to significant starters because their depth would rescue them. Instead, it buried them. They believed they hired the right two men as offensive (Steve Sarkisian) and defensive (Marquand Manuel) coordinator after the 2016 Super Bowl season. Wrong again. “I asked each of the players what are two or three of the plays or moments where you could’ve made a difference and how would that change,” Quinn said Thursday. “So for me, there must be 50 of them. I definitely feel that responsibility when we don’t hit that mark as a team.” Dimitroff, expressing disappointment in the team’s play after Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen and others were injured, said, “There are certainly people we thought stepped up, and there were people who we thought were going to step up and thrive for us but didn’t. That’s something I’m always going to be focused on.” If the right coaches are hired, if the right players are brought in to fill the gaps, the Falcons can accomplish next season what they failed to in 2018 —compete for a Super Bowl. If the wrong decisions are made, Quinn and Dimitroff both could be out of jobs. The realities of this season hit home for Quinn during a five-game losing streak that began in November in Cleveland. The Falcons had steadied themselves with three straight wins to get back to 4-4, then backslid. “I thought maybe we were back on solid ground,” Quinn said. “After the five-game stretch, that was a spot where it got frustrating. When you get eliminated from the postseason conversation earlier than you would like to and having to watch January football, it sucks. Those realizations hit you right in the face. The easy thing to do is (say), ‘Well, we just have to do better.’ But it’s way deeper than that.” There are a number of major personnel decisions the team must make, including satisfying Grady Jarrett (free agent) and Julio Jones (renegotiations) contractually and strengthening the offensive and defensive lines. But the single most important decision will be the naming of a new offensive coordinator. The potential candidacy of Gary Kubiak rises above all others. The former Denver and Houston head coach has expressed an interest in getting back into coaching, possibly as an offensive coordinator, after two years off for health reasons. Broncos general manager John Elway would like to keep Kubiak in Denver, where he has some nebulous adviser title. But too many have latched onto Elway’s words and not this simple fact: Kubiak has yet to say anything publicly. Quinn acknowledged Thursday that there is at least one candidate, possibly more, he’s waiting to speak with after the playoffs. Keep an eye on Jedd Fisch, a friend of Quinn’s and a former offensive coordinator in Minnesota and Jacksonville who’s currently with the Los Angeles Rams as a “senior offensive assistant.” As for Kubiak, I asked Quinn if he might also be waiting on a potential candidate who’s not in the playoffs now but is considering his options and is currently in the Rocky Mountain region. Hypothetically, of course. He laughed. Then he answered. “Hypothetically? Yeah, as we cast a wide net, you better make sure you go through the process (the best) that you can to explore all avenues,” Quinn said. “What I can say is there are a lot of people who want to be here.” If you’re into connecting dots, here are a few other things to consider: Kubiak is the best fit for the Falcons’ scheme, which isn’t going to change. He is close with Falcons quarterback coach Greg Knapp; the two worked together in Denver and Houston. One more thing, for conspiracy theorists: Quinn has fired four coaches to date: three coordinators (Sarkisian, Manuel, special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong) and one position coach. That assistant: tight ends coach Wade Harman. Why the rush to fire the tight ends coach now? One possibility: Brian Pariani, a tight ends coach, has been with Kubiak at every stop in his career, other than one season at Syracuse. Pariani was fired by the Broncos after Kubiak stepped down after the 2016 season and now works as a consultant. If Quinn can’t get Kubiak or former Miami head coach Adam Gase (who is interviewing for head coaching jobs), expect the coordinator to come from a group that includes former Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, former Falcons offensive coordinator and Tampa Bay head coach Dirk Koetter, possibly Fisch and others. Alex Marvez of SiriusXM NFL Radio reported the team interviewed former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey. I’m not sure if that was a courtesy interview or with something else in mind, but it would surprise me if Mularkey is a serious candidate to be a coordinator. Quinn won’t put a timetable on the search, logical because of potential playoff candidates and, presumably, the decisions to be made by Kubiak and Gase. But Quinn and Dimitroff also will be kept busy trying to fix the flawed roster. The lack of physicality in the running game and against the run bothered both. “When you have a difficult time like this, you hold the light up to it,” Quinn said. “It’s not always comfortable. You want to find where there’s a scab. You want to find where there’s something to address. You want to find where there’s something to clean up. Physicality on both sides of the line of scrimmage has to be better.”
  17. Schultz: Tanking would not be in Falcons' best interest,... Jeff Schultz 5-6 minutes This Falcons’ season has been about next season for several weeks, mathematical improbabilities notwithstanding. So it’s logical that many will arrive at this preferred strategy for the final two games: Lose! Spectacularly! Misery today translates to higher draft picks and sunshine tomorrow! It’s the Annie Theory of sports management. But losing is not the best option for the Falcons. It’s certainly not the option Dan Quinn is programmed to exercise. He’s a head coach who’s wired to compete. He’s also a co-team-builder with general manager Thomas Dimitroff, retaining control over the 53-man roster. But when the Falcons can finish anywhere from 5-11 to 7-9, significantly altering their draft position, can Quinn really have it both ways? “The benefits of playing and the way you compete, that’s at the forefront of our thinking,” Quinn said Thursday. “As a team builder, if you’re going to live that way, you better back it up and say, ‘Every chance we go, we’re going after it in all ways and all phases.’ I recognize the other side of the question, but for the team, everybody has earned that right to go for it as hard as you possibly can.” Translation: Quinn is not going to tank these final two weeks against Carolina and Tampa Bay. He’s not going to bench Julio Jones. He’s not going to ask Matt Ryan to run the option. Nor should he. Playoff hopes are dead. The mindset of fans to lose games intentionally is understandable at this point. After Carolina lost to New Orleans late Monday night, I sent a message on Twitter that the Falcons would win their final two games to finish 7-9, and it would anger fans. It was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but given the number of “likes” and retweets, it seemed to strike a nerve. But losing might reveal more problems than the Falcons want. Here are some things to consider, while you’re jamming needles in your Matt Ryan voodoo doll. To lose both games would theoretically give the Falcons a higher pick (depending on how other teams finish). But losing to a Carolina team that’s missing quarterback Cam Newton and a Tampa Bay team that has lost nine of the past 12 would suggest the Falcons have even more serious depth and leadership problems than they already believe. Despite a 5-9 record, the Falcons will be favorites to win their final two games. There’s already expected to be a significant rebuild of the roster. Imagine if more players spiral in effort or performance in the final two weeks. “I would be really disappointed if I saw that,” Quinn said. “That would be a clear sign of somebody who … we wouldn’t stand for that. We would make that change right away.” This is the NFL, not the NBA. To be clear, the Hawks every reason to tank. If they finish with one of the league’s three worst records, they will have the best chance (14 percent) in the draft lottery to secure the No. 1 pick and take a potential franchise-changing player, Duke’s Zion Williamson. The fact that so many NBA teams obviously tank for rebuilds is why the league constantly tweaks rules in an attempt to dissuade front offices from orchestrated faceplants. But in the NFL, the most plausible franchise-changing player is going to be a quarterback. The Falcons aren’t in the market for that. In the 2018 draft, teams that finished 5-11 drafted fifth to eighth overall; teams that finished 7-9 drafted 12th to 14th. The top three selections are all but locked up by Oakland (3-11), Arizona (3-11) and San Francisco (4-12, with games remaining against Chicago and Los Angeles Rams). Hypothetically, if the Falcons really wanted a player at fifth to eight, it wouldn’t take much to move up from their spot. But consider this: Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald went only 13th overall in 2014. The Falcons drafted Keanu Neal at 17th in 2016 (and Deion Jones in the second round at 52nd). This might seem trivial but don’t underestimate aesthetics. Closing the season with three straight wins and a 7-9 record looks far better on the front porch to free agents than 5-11. Granted, free agent signing decisions generally come down to the amount of guaranteed money that’s on the table. But players often have options when the money is relatively equal. They want to play for contenders. It would be an easier sell for Quinn and Dimitroff if they could attribute a 7-9 record to injuries than 5-11. Losing might seem the better option here. But if you believe the picture of the Falcons looks bad now, two more weeks of misery could make it even worse.
  18. Schultz: Falcons’ season decline stems from bad decisions, not just injuries Jeff Schultz Let’s begin with the words that nobody in the Falcons’ organization publicly will acknowledge right now but are a given when an NFL team slides from Super Bowl run to second-round playoff exit to barreling through “Stop! Road closed!” signs, then off the edge and down the embankment. There are going to be changes. Some will come within Dan Quinn’s coaching staff, probably on both sides of the ball. Some may come in the personnel department. Many will come on the roster. The Falcons are 4-8 in large part because they lost too many significant starters to injuries early in the season and the players who stepped in were either woefully inadequate or unprepared for expanded roles. That’s not an unusual malady in a salary-cap league, where the backups often are either young or on the fringes of league-worthy. But the organization needs to come to terms with this reality: Injuries are not the only reason things went south. The Falcons have ignored warning signs in these three areas for two seasons: Leadership It was noteworthy Quinn referenced “leadership opportunities” for players as he scrambled for positive talking points in his Monday news conference. It was his way of saying, “Step up.” But the Falcons have played 12 games. By this point, we know there’s a leadership void. Except for a few players, it’s not a great locker room when things are going south. There doesn’t necessarily seem to be much in the way of backbiting or personal agendas, but there’s very little in the way of tough veteran leadership. Quinn is big on the “Brotherhood.” It conveys a sense that no matter the circumstances or negative influences that attempt to permeate the locker room, the “Brotherhood” will hold things together. The problem with this version of the “Brotherhood” is it’s comprised mostly of players who are either young or have no clue how to lead or just aren’t cut out for the role when things go bad. There aren’t a lot of stand-up guys. There aren’t many (any?) players who seem inclined to get in a teammate’s face when they’re dragging. There aren’t many who others clearly look to in difficult moments. This team needs a couple of tough veterans — preferably who carry two-by-fours. That’s why teams lose eight out of 12. That’s why teams lose to Cleveland. That’s why seasons fall apart. Fix the room. Offensive line It’s no coincidence that the Falcons went to the Super Bowl following the same offseason when they fixed an important position: center. Alex Mack made everybody else on the line better. But that was the last significant thing the Falcons did to improve their line. Going into the offseason, offensive and defensive lines were the most glaring needs. But the team spent its first draft pick on a wide receiver, Calvin Ridley. I questioned the decision then, and I question it now. We’ll never know how good the run-blocking and pass protection might have been if guards Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco had stayed healthy. I suspect better but not good enough. They brought back Levitre, who failed to finish the 2017 season because of a triceps injury. He went down this season in Week 2 with … a torn triceps. Fusco was a modest free agent signing to fill the right guard spot, but Fusco went down in Week 7 after average play. Mack has struggled. In his defense, starting between Wes Schweitzer and Ben Garland can’t be easy. Right tackle Ryan Schraeder has had the worst season of his career (ditto on starting next to Garland). Football Outsiders recently ranked the Falcons 30th in run blocking and 18th in pass protection. Ryan has been sacked 36 times, which projects to a career high 48, and in past three games, he has been sacked 12 times and hit 29. Some often ask how Tom Brady can be so effective with seemingly average weapons around him. Simple: 1) He’s great; 2) The Patriots prioritize protecting him with their offensive line. This game is still about blocking and tackling. Pass rush I mentioned to an NFL scout recently that the Falcons have a number of major money decisions to make on the roster after this season, listing Vic Beasley, Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman for starters. He looked at me sideways and responded, “There’s no decision with Beasley.” As in, he’s done. The Falcons logically won’t exercise Beasley’s $12.8 million option for 2019. The question is whether they try to bring him back at a significantly lower number as a role player. He has played better the past few games but overall hasn’t been nearly the player the Falcons expected when they drafted him in the first round in 2015. He had 15.5 sacks in 2016. He has 12 total in the other three. But this isn’t all about Beasley. The Falcons’ 23 sacks rank 28th in the NFL. Pressure directly impacts takeaways, and the defense has only 11 of those (also 28th overall). The team lost two defensive linemen after last season: tackle Dontari Poe and end Adrian Clayborn. But they didn’t draft a defensive lineman until the third round (tackle Deadrin Senat) and did little else until adding Bruce Irvin late in the season. (Irvin has played 96 snaps in four games and has registered one quarterback hit and no sacks.) Back to the veteran thing: I suspect it’s not a coincidence Beasley had his best season when veteran Dwight Freeney was on the roster. Even if Freeney was at the end of his career, he mandated attention from opponents and provided leadership. When Freeney was not re-signed, he was not replaced with another edge rusher. Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who make personnel decisions in concert with each other, grossly miscalculated the growth and impact of others on the roster when they neither signed nor replaced Poe and Clayborn. It’s reminiscent of when the team let center Todd McClure go years ago, believing Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes were ready to step up. This isn’t just about injuries. It’s about mistakes. The Falcons have to live with them for four more games.
  19. Good article. Interesting note on Beasley. Imagine buying an old house in the belief that all it really needed was some paint and a couple of updates. Then one day, you’re sitting on the couch and the tub from the upstairs bathroom falls through the ceiling and crushes your television set, probably just as you’re getting ready to watch HGTV. This never happens to Chip and Joanna Gaines, but it happens to you, and of course the Falcons. There was more wreckage last week. The Falcons lost to Green Bay, which makes them 0-2 against teams that had just fired head coaches (Cleveland being the other). Analytics. They committed 13 penalties, threw a pick-six and fumbled three times (losing one), once again doing things that bad teams do, that teams with players who’ve mentally checked out do, that teams with coaches who are out of ideas do. They’re now 4-9 with five straight losses, in case you’ve stopped paying attention, and or course you have. The problem with seasons when the tub falls through the ceiling is that mandates a relative overhaul. Head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff, both of whom are safe, have several decisions to make even before deciding who to pursue in free agency (March 13) and the draft (April 25-27). Quinn was upset with the “self-inflicted wounds” and “lack of focus” in Green Bay. He’s gaining clarity on his players’ character (or lack thereof). Is the season also providing clarity on his coaching staff? “Same,” he said. Are some falling short? “Yes. I think if you’re at four wins at this time, then you have not met expectations.” Is there any coach who’s safe? “I’m not going to get into who is and who isn’t. I’ll just get into that when we look at everything and we evaluate everything, we’ll do what’s best for the team moving forward.” Coaching staff changes likely will be announced soon after the season, players thereafter. Here’s my view on some major decisions: Offensive staff: It would be surprising if offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is kept. That’s not to suggest all the failures are his fault — no scheme or play works when few can block. But Sarkisian has shown little creativity in failing to come up with a successful alternate plan to minimize the offensive line problems. I’m not sure where this leaves quarterback coach Greg Knapp or offensive line coach/running game coordinator Chris Morgan. That might depend on who takes over play-calling. Another question: Would a new OC necessitate an entirely new scheme, and if so, is that something the Falcons want to put quarterback Matt Ryan through again? Defensive staff: Coordinator Marquand Manuel has been given a little more of a pass than Sarkisian because of injuries to Ricardo Allen, Keanu Neal and Deion Jones. But Manuel shouldn’t, and a change wouldn’t be surprising. Here’s one option: Assistant head coach/passing game coordinator Raheem Morris spent most of his career on the defensive side of the ball until Quinn switched him to offense in 2016. Put him back on defense. He guided the NFL’s top pass defense in Tampa Bay. Line coach Bryant Young also could/should be in trouble. The pass rush and run defense are weak, and the development of Takk McKinley isn’t what it should be (possibly the fault of McKinley). Cornerback Robert Alford: Gone. He and Desmond Trufant needed to have strong seasons when safeties Allen and Neal went down. Instead, both have been mediocre. Alford has two years left on his contract. Cutting him would bring a $1.2 million salary cap hit. Defensive end Vic Beasley: Gone … maybe. He’ll never see his $12.8 million option. But he has been better since the Falcons significantly cut down his playing time. Beasley averaged 50 defensive snaps (more than 70 percent) in the first eight games but only 33 snaps (50 percent) in the past five games. First eight games: one sack, four QB hits, one tackle for loss. Last five games: three sacks, three QB hits, four tackles for loss. So it’s clear now: He’s best as a role player and will be paid as such. Running back Tevin Coleman: Gone. He’ll be a free agent and hasn’t done nearly enough to show he deserves the starting job during Devonta Freeman’s absence. Ito Smith is coming off a strong game in Green Bay and is under contract for three more years. Unlike Coleman, Smith took advantage of his opportunity. Freeman: Stays. Injuries have been an obvious concern, but when he’s healthy, he’s really good and makes this offense significantly better. He brings an element of a power running game the team needs and Quinn loves. “A former player said, ‘At the end of runs, he lets them know.’ That’s a clear illustration of Devonta,” Quinn said. “He’s able to drop his shoulder on a guy to finish a run over his pads and downhill.” Those who want him gone also should know: Cutting him would bring a $9 million cap hit. That’s not happening. Julio Jones: Stays. He’ll turn 30 in February and comes out for several snaps now. His last contract amendment was difficult, and his next could be tougher. But the Falcons can’t afford to let go of their best player. They know it, and he knows it. Mohamed Sanu: Stays. There’s a school of thought that it would be worth it for the Falcons to take the $2.8 million dead-money cap hit to use the salary on other team needs. But Sanu actually has been one of the team’s most consistent players, and frankly, rookie Calvin Ridley hasn’t shown he’s nearly ready to make up the difference. Offensive line: Alex Mack and Jake Matthews will stay. Ryan Schraeder has had a bad year at right tackle but cutting him would bring a $3.8 million hit, so he’ll be back. Nobody else is guaranteed a job. Quinn is assured of his first losing record. Expect noise after the final game.
  20. The Falcons are 4-4, and people are really excited. This is significant because 4-4 generally isn’t viewed as an exciting record, at least not since it was something to get excited about for this organization, like in the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s and the 1990s. But, moving on. There’s a reason 4-4 is kind of a big deal now: The team started 1-4 and projected to finish 4-12. But hope for the postseason exists again, and not merely because of Matt Ryan’s staggering level of play and the offense returning to almost 2016 levels. (Recall consecutive losses to New Orleans and Cincinnati, during which the team scored 73 points but allowed 80.) This is not about Ryan or the offense or the decrease on slapstick tendencies on defense. This is about Dan Quinn. The old adage about people’s character coming through in difficult circumstances is especially true in athletics, where emotions swing on a dumb penalty, a dropped pass or in the Falcons’ case, several body parts suddenly spontaneously combusting. Six significant starters, including arguably the team’s three best defensive players, went on injured reserve in the first seven weeks. Place-kicker Matt Bryant also was lost for an extended period. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, the team’s best lineman, missed games. To say this season could have gone off the rails would be an understatement. But with three straight wins and beatable opponents in the next two weeks — Cleveland on the road, Dallas at home — the Falcons realistically could be 6-4 going to New Orleans on Thanksgiving night. Quinn, the franchise’s leader, credited players Monday when asked if he derived a particular satisfaction in the turnaround. “I’ve had a real belief in terms of what I thought this ’18 team can be,” he said. “Although it started in difficult circumstances, I like the way they support one another; I like the toughness they’ve shown.” But this starts with him. Teams are a reflection of their head coach. If he panics, the players panic. If he lacks stability, so do they. If he’s borderline bi-polar, so are they. Quinn has been the picture of consistency inside the team’s headquarters in terms of his approach and his level of expectations. Publicly, he avoids criticizing players. Behind the scenes, the bar his high, and he let’s players know it. “It’s my job to push the buttons,” he said. Asked if he’s tougher in the building than in news conferences, Quinn said, “Yes.” He smiled and left it at that. Examples worth noting: Quinn said positive things about linebacker Duke Riley (a former third-round draft pick) and safety Jordan Richards (acquired from Washington for a conditional seventh-round pick) in public. But when it became clear neither could handle the increased responsibilities given to them, he made changes. The snap counts for Riley and Richards have dropped significantly in the past few weeks. Playing time for safeties Sharrod Neasman and Foyesade Oluokun has skyrocketed. But this goes beyond X’s and O’s and who starts. Quinn has learned from several head coaches he worked for but especially Nick Saban (in his Miami Dolphins days) and Pete Carroll (Seattle). “From Nick and Pete, really stay the course in your beliefs,” he said. “Those two guys were real fundamentalists. Their programs from afar looked different, but internally they both had a real vision how they wanted their teams to play and the identity of how to do it. During tough times, understand that people are watching you as a leader to set the course for an organization. It put that pressure on me. They were teaching me, just by the example they set.” After a season-opening loss at Philadelphia, a disastrous offensive showing that came on the heels of the playoff defeat last season, Quinn stuck by embattled offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and told players not to be discouraged. Quinn took heat for sticking with Sarkisian, but he has been proven right. Since going one-for-five in the red zone at Philadelphia, the Falcons have been staggeringly efficient in the red zone: 17 touchdowns in 21 attempts (81 percent) in the past seven games. They rank seventh in the NFL for the season at 69 percent. Ryan was 2-for-10 for 13 yards with an interception in the red zone against the Eagles. In seven games since, he is 21-for-23 for 186 yards, 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions. Ryan obviously gets the most credit for that production. But success also can be attributed to Sarkisian for play selection and quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp, a former offensive coordinator who was hired by Quinn during the offseason and communicates with Sarkisian from the press box during games. Things also have improved defensively. It still doesn’t justify the team showing no interest in then-free safety Eric Reid after injuries to Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen, but the defense stepped up against the New York Giants and Washington. Quinn’s message to his defense after the 1-4 start and consecutive losses to New Orleans (43 points), Cincinnati (37) and Pittsburgh (41) was to reaffirm the “core principles of who we are — the speed, the relentless. It can’t be about just one missed gap. It’s gotta be the effort that sets us apart. Let’s get back to things that we can do well. The last few weeks I’ve seen that come to light.” Does this guarantee anything for the second half of the season? No. But the chance that the Falcons would lose for reasons other than being undermanned stemming from injuries seems remote. Players continued to follow their head coach after the 1-4 start, so there’s no reason to believe that will change. “The good news is there can be some chemistry when you go through those tough times; the connection gets stronger,” Quinn said. “If it fractures during those times, it can be really hard to get back.” The Falcons still have fractures. Just not the kind he’s talking about.
  21. Dan Quinn has a tendency to turn news conferences into pep rallies. He speaks in doses of sunshine, like motivational bumper stickers. The man could be dropped into a field in Juneau in winter without shoes or a jacket and a half-eaten granola bar, and he would declare to the masses, “This is going to be a great test of our character! We are so pumped to get going!” So it wasn’t surprising when the Falcons returned from a bye this week, and Quinn, rested and oozing with enthusiasm, declared, “My battery is back to full green.” Also, “I feel like our best version of 2018 is still out there.” There’s no reason to doubt the man. Having been doubled over by an inordinate number of injuries, particularly to the team’s best defensive players, it’s not surprising the Falcons are 3-4 and sit well outside the playoff picture. The wildebeest-staring-into-the-headlights look they displayed during a 1-4 start improved ever so slightly during two wins over Tampa Bay and the New York Giants. But that’s the Bucs and Giants, two teams in full meltdown mode. Which leads to this question: If the best version of the Falcons is still out there, as Quinn contends, what is the best version? They may get linebacker Deion Jones back from injury (more on that shortly). But they’re not getting back two starting safeties (Ricardo Allen, Keanu Neal), or two starting guards (Andy Levitre, Brandon Fusco), or likely their starting running back (Devonta Freeman). We’ll see about their kicker with 43-year-old hamstrings (Matt Bryant). I got Quinn aside for a few minutes to ask what the potential best version of this team is. Here’s our exchange: Me: So what is the best version of you, since you’re obviously not getting a lot of bodies back? DQ: “That’s a good question. It’s different from what it was at the beginning. What I told the team, our 2018 second half will be defined by some of the lessons of the first half. Some of the mistakes we made, like (two players) playing different coverages. When you have those kinds of breakdowns, it’s hard to overcome. I feel like this group is starting to form a cohesiveness and chemistry that you need.” Me: But you don’t have a feel for what that ceiling is? DQ: “I don’t. I don’t want to put a measurement on it. I’ve gone through this one other time in my career where the first half really went below the line in terms of defensive performance, and we got ourselves going. I’m not going to compare this team to 2016. That team wouldn’t have looked good statistically, but we played better as the season went on. This team’s communication has improved. It’s one of those things, you can hear it before you see it.” Me: Most believe you need to go at least 6-3 the rest of the way to make the playoffs. Do you agree, and can you make the playoffs? DQ: “I think we can be a really good team.” Me: That wasn’t the question. DQ: “This team can be an outstanding team.” (Me: waiting.) (Quinn: pausing.) DQ: “I don’t talk like that. Yeah, of course we can. But I don’t think that way. I just can’t. … Why don’t you come back in a month and ask me how good we can be. If you really want that answer, I’ll have a better sense in a month. Let’s you and me get together after Thanksgiving.” So Quinn and I have plans to break down the Cover 3 and offensive line play over turkey sandwiches. But I have a feeling we’ll all know the answer in four games, anyway. Here are some thoughts about the Falcons going into the second half: It’s obviously going to be difficult to catch New Orleans (6-1) in the NFC South. This is likely a wild-card drive, and the Falcons are deep in a pack of nine teams for two spots. They need to go at least 6-3 and finish 9-7, maybe even 7-2 and finish 10-6. Winning road games the next two weeks over Washington and Cleveland would make that goal more realistic. Of the Falcons’ remaining nine games, six are on the road (Washington, Cleveland, New Orleans, Green Bay, Carolina, Tampa Bay) and only three are at home (Dallas, Baltimore, Arizona). Matt Ryan has 15 touchdown passes with one interception since Week 2, despite inconsistent offensive line play and a weak running game. He’ll have to continue to play at a high level because it’s doubtful this team will win many games scoring fewer than 27 to 30 points. Also, one note about Steve Sarkisian: The Falcons’ offensive coordinator obviously has taken a beating since last season and through the opening deja vu loss at Philadelphia. But the offense is 15-for-18 in the red zone in the past six games. There’s a limit to how good the secondary will be this season. The best hope for the defense is a significantly improved and healthy pass rush (led by Takk McKinley, Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett) and the eventual return of Jones, who covers up a lot of mistakes when he’s at his best. Quinn said getting Jones back from a broken foot would be “big,” but he was quick to add, “I don’t know when that’s going to be yet.” Jones ran straight-ahead drills last week and is working on change of direction this week. If all goes well, he will do some limited practice in seven-on-seven next week, then potentially could be practicing before the Dallas game in three weeks (when he’s eligible to be activated off injured reserve). But realistically it’s going to take time for him to get up to speed. Jones is needed. Something is needed. The Falcons rank 30th in total defense (419.4 yards), 30th against the pass (306.7), 30th in scoring (30.3) and 21st in takeaways (seven). In the red zone, opponents are 23-for-32 (71.9 percent), placing the Falcons’ defense 29th. Quinn said, after the injuries, “It took longer than I wanted for us to reset and come back. Our statistics are going to look poor after the stretch we went through. But over the last couple of weeks, I saw improvement.” As for where all this is going, we’ll know soon.
  22. Matt Ryan spent some time in the postgame nitpicking his performance, finding little flaws with the Falcons’ offense, because it just seems like that’s the kind of thing that a quarterback should do after a defeat. There was the three-and-out drive at the end of the first half that left New Orleans enough time to drive for a field goal. There was the drive at the end of regulation when Ryan faced a pass rush and didn’t have time to find an open receiver, ending a chance for a field goal drive. There was the fact that the Falcons didn’t score … I don’t know, 100 points. “Offensively we did a lot of good things, but we had situational things come up, and we didn’t do a good enough job,” he said. OK. This is let’s-be-real time. Ryan threw for five touchdown passes and 374 yards against New Orleans on Sunday. His 148.1 efficiency rating was the third highest of his career. Wide receiver Calvin Ridley had seven receptions for 146 yards and a franchise rookie record three touchdown catches. Oft-maligned offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian? His unit was four-for-four in the red zone — for the second straight week. And the Falcons scored 37 points. They still lost — 43-37 to the Saints in a game of relative Madden ease for the New Orleans offense. What happened Sunday was not on the offense. The Falcons are 1-2 on the season. Their ability to not let this season slide off the rails may be directly linked to how many dizzying offensive numbers they can put on the board. The upright remains of this team’s defense just isn’t built for 17-13 wins. Three defensive starters (Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, Takk McKinley) were missing. So was one rotational player (Derrick Shelby). A fifth defensive regular, starting safety Ricardo Allen, left the field on a cart in overtime with what was reported as a calf injury (it looked worse). What remained on that side of the ball for the Falcons was a group that was trampled for 534 yards and touchdowns on the Saints’ final four possessions. Tackling was atrocious. On Drew Brees’ game-tying 7-yard touchdown scramble with 1:15 left in regulation, Brian Poole and Robert Alford had Brees cornered, but Poole missed the tackle and bumped Alford out of the play in the process. This defensive performance moved even Dan Quinn, the Falcons’ normally guarded head coach, to say, “Some of these men have been in the system long enough to totally nail it, and we missed that mark on some plays (Sunday).” The Falcons may not always be as bad defensively as they were Sunday. But the wounded list suggests they’re going to have problems all season. They need replacements from the outside, via trade or free agency, which Quinn somewhat acknowledged is being explored. (Hint: safety Eric Reid is still out there.) But for the Falcons to win several games, the offensive likely is going to need more pyrotechnics like this. Not every opposing quarterback is going to engineer 500-plus yards in offense, but there’s not an opponent out there that can’t put 27 points on this defense, at least as it stands today. Asked in the postgame if he believed the offense needed to carry the team now because of the backdrop, Quinn responded with a nervous laugh, then said, “I certainly hope not. And that’s not (a viewpoint) from the offensive side. Whatever hair I once had, I think would be officially gone.” The Falcons should be encouraged by their offense. Against the Saints, Sarkisian designed a number of pass plays for Ridley. The receiver often was single covered because Julio Jones drew attention on the opposite side of the field, and Mohamed Sanu, lining up in the slot, drew the safety away from Ridley. Ridley put away Saints defenders with both speed and route-running, and Ryan hit him in stride. The rookie had three touchdowns, and he could have scored five, if not for being grabbed on one play in a blatant interference that wasn’t called and another interference that was called. Ryan was correct. The Falcons’ clock management and execution just before halftime was weak. It opened the door to a Saints field goal drive. Their normally effective two-minute offense sputtered late in regulation, sending the game to overtime. But 37 points should be more than enough. “We just go out there and do what we think we have to do offensively,” Julio Jones said. “We don’t look at the scoreboard. I didn’t know how many touchdowns Matt threw. We just play. “This game was a shootout. Every game is not going to be the same.” They hope. When New Orleans won the coin flip for overtime, there could not have been a lot of confident folks sitting in the stands. The Saints’ final three drives of regulation: 16 yards following a blocked punt for touchdown; 75 yards for a touchdown; 81 yards for a touchdown. In overtime, all Ryan could do was watch from the sideline. “I’d rather be out there,” he said. “I’d rather be the one with the ball in my hands and making the plays. That’s the hardest part about football. All of the other sports I played growing up, you were part of it offensively and defensively.” Ryan won’t be playing both sides of the ball. The Falcons aren’t that desperate. Yet.