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Found 15 results

  1. According to Jeff Schultz - not sure if conjecture or not.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.”
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. There are several ways to draw up the ideal way to have a successful season in the NFL. None of them look like this. Lose two defensive starters in the opener, one for the entire season and one for at least half of the season. Lose a starting running back. See your replacement safety ejected in the second game for such an obvious helmet-to-helmet hit that he may draw a suspension. See a starting a guard and defensive linemen go down to more injuries. This is the third paragraph, and I haven’t even referenced the red zone yet. “That’s just life,” Falcons safety Ricardo Allen said Sunday. “There’s never been an NFL depth chart that started the same and ended the same. No, you don’t want all of these injuries. But you preach effort, and you just go. We’re cool with being a bunch of ‘try-hards.’ Everything else takes care of itself.” Not always. But this week, yes. The Falcons weren’t brilliant against Carolina, but they won an important game, scars notwithstanding. They won 31-24 on the final spasm when a 31-yard desperation pass from Cam Newton was whiffed by defender De’Vondre Campbell in the end zone, and the ball then bounced off the arm of Panthers receiver D.J. Moore, then cornerback Robert Alford’s hand and then hit the ground as time expired. Exhale. It was the Falcons’ first win since their wild card win in Los Angeles on Jan. 6, considering they were 0-6 since (playoff loss to Philadelphia; four exhibitions; season opener). So not brilliant but borderline Mensa-like compared to the season opener. The Falcons’ offense was perfect in the red zone Sunday: four tries, four touchdowns. Steve Sarkisian is a god. The offensive line was dominant, keeping Matt Ryan clean and opening holes running backs Tevin Coleman (100 yards) and Ito Smith (46), with Devonta Freeman out with a knee injury that could sideline him for one or two more games. But the most important thing about this win was simply that the Falcons did not unravel Sunday. There certainly were opportunities to do so. Safety Damontae Kazee (replacing the injured Keanu Neal) being ejected early for an avoidable helmet-to-helmet hit on Cam Newton (who referenced it later as a “cheapshot”).The Falcons’ offense — coming off a miserable opening night and the red-zone hangover from a year ago — managed only three points in the first two possessions But the Falcons were impressive simply by enduring, and against a divisional opponent, and against the daunting possibility of starting 0-2. They started the game without Neal, Freeman and Deion Jones and they finished it without three more regulars — Kazee, guard Andy Levitre (elbow) and defensive end Derrick Shelby (groin). “I’ve played long enough to know that all games all shake out differently,” Ryan said. “Some start great and don’t finish great; some don’t start great and then finish really well. You just have to keep your head down and keep playing.” When asked, given all of the media and fan criticism, if he felt more pressure than usual during the week, Ryan said, “They’re all tough after you lose. How you process that (and) how you put it aside and work on your craft, to me, that determines the mindset of your team. Our mindset is really good. We did a good job of that this week.” Great seasons can come together simply from surviving ugly stretches. The Falcons need to fix issues on the second and third levels of their defense. Linebacker Duke Riley still makes too many mistakes. Defensive back Jordan Richards, acquired from New England two weeks ago for a conditional draft pick, looked dreadful. But what’s that saying? Progress, not perfection. “A lot of guys fixed a lot of mistakes,” Ryan Schraeder said. And this from Grady Jarrett: “It was the first game of the season. I don’t know the last time anyone had an undefeated season.” Schraeder said head coach Dan Quinn and the staff did “a good job closing everything (distractions) out. It was actually really positive all week. I don’t recall anyone being down or negative.” Ryan wasn’t sacked once, and the Falcons rushed for 170 yards, averaging 5.3 per carry. The team also committed only two penalties, down from the 15 flags in Philadelphia. Ryan looked like a different species from the opener. He went only 21-for-43 with a 57.4 efficiency rating against the Eagles but completed 23-of-28 with a 116.1 rating against the Panthers. The offensive performance also affirmed what most rational people understand about what makes a successful game plan. Julio Jones does not need to be targeted for every pass in the red zone or the end zone. Calvin Ridley was far more involved this week and caught a touchdown, as did Austin Hooper. Hooper and Jones each had five catches, Ridley and Coleman had four. Progress, not perfection. With the Falcons leading 24-10, Desmond Trufant had a chance at an interception late in the third quarter but the ball bounced off his chest. That proved costly as Carolina subsequently drove to a touchdown. After missing the interception, Trufant dropped to the ground and did push-ups. “When we drop a ball in the secondary in practice, you’ve got to do 10 push-ups,” he said. “It’s self-discipline.” It was a teaching moment for a team that’s still a work in progress.
  15. There is angst among some Falcons executives and fans because Julio Jones skipped voluntary “organized team activities” – Arts and crafts? Three-legged races? – and did not show up for a three-day minicamp, which took place more than six weeks before training camp and nine weeks before the first exhibition and 13 weeks before the season opener. There is angst that one of the best conditioned, most dedicated, mature, intelligent and self-less players in franchise history, a player not only considered the best on the Falcons’ roster but one of the top 10 in the NFL, according to a player vote for the NFL Network -- Matt Ryan, the quarterback, came in at No. 29 -- wants a raise only two years into a five-year contract. Truth is, he probably deserves it. (More on that shortly.) I’ve covered several NFL negotiations. In some of my early beat-writing days in Los Angeles, it wasn’t uncommon for the Rams to have a training camp with holdouts/nasty contract negotiations involving a dozen players. I saw players like Eric Dickerson hold out valid reasons and others like Henry Ellard, a terrific wide receiver, get manipulated by disturbed agent, Mike Blatt (who told me Ellard would jump to Hawaii of the USFL, which was a remarkable threat considering Hawaii didn’t have a USFL franchise). What’s going on now is Jones’ call -- not the steering of agent Jimmy Sexton, nor the influence of Terrell Owens, one of Jones’ new workout buddies in California, as some fear. In the end, I believe Jones will get an adjusted contract and he will report to training camp and then everybody can find a new reason to meltdown about on social media and sports-talk radio. Here are some things you may not be aware of: • The Falcons never expected for Jones to play to the end of his five-year, $71.256 million extension. They budgeted for a renegotiation. Problem is, they budgeted for it next offseason. They anticipated the focus this offseason would be new deals for Grady Jarrett and Jake Matthews. But Jones wants an adjustment now because he has received all the guaranteed money in the contract: $47 million. (Seldom reported: The full contract’s actual total cash value on paper was $81.442 million, including tweaks to his 2015 compensation.) • NFL players often get branded as ungrateful or disloyal when they don’t “honor” a contract. Funny. Nobody talks about disloyalty when a team cuts a player with time left on a deal. NFL contracts aren’t like those in major league baseball or the NBA because they’re not fully guaranteed. The Falcons obviously aren’t going to cut Jones now before the season. But theoretically, they could cut him after the season, when he turns 30 years old. Jones is right to want some security. His next deal almost certainly will be his last. • The Falcons will make an adjustment to Jones’ contract for 2018 and then likely give him a new deal after the year. I believe this based on the fact that owner Arthur Blank understands Jones’ value to the franchise and he told me last month, “You can just say work will be done,” on the deal. Speculation from former agent Joel Corry (now of CBS Sports) that the Falcons will give Jones incentives and shift base salary from 2019 to 2018 is logical. • Falcons coach Dan Quinn is upset because he expected Jones in minicamp. He fears for cracks in the “Brotherhood.” I get that. But this damage is neither serious nor irreparable. Certain players have more cachet than others. It’s doubtful any teammate has a problem with Jones’ stance. As for concerns the Falcons are opening the door for others to renegotiate early, the Falcons have an easy rebuttal: “You’re not Julio.” • The only time I suspected the Falcons could have an issue with a special rule for a player came in 2013. They went to the wall to talk Tony Gonzalez out of retirement. Gonzalez had stipulations for his return, including leaving training camp to spend time with his family. It wasn’t a business matter that all players could relate to. It was a case of a player prioritizing something or somebody over the team in training camp. Gonzalez was in shape and played well, but I’m convinced that had a ripple effect on a Falcons team that fell apart. Some in the organization privately second-guessed the team’s decision. • Jones’ only public comment on this subject has come to TMZ, outside of a West Hollywood restaurant: “I'm not going anywhere. I love the team, I love the organization, I love everybody there. We're good.” When his verbiage begins to tilt negative, then it’s time to worry. Not yet. Jones may have surprised the Falcons with his minicamp absence, but he’s not wrong to use this time to get his point across. Look around the NFL. He’s not alone. Because in the big picture, for as much as critics want everybody to be holding hands and singing Kumbaya in May and June, this time really doesn’t matter.