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  1. 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.
  2. It doesn’t appear the Falcons will be too active in free agency. At least that was the vibe general manager Thomas Dimitroff gave off a couple of weeks ago during a meeting with local reporters. Dimitroff said the team won’t go out of its way to sign numerous players once free agency begins. He also noted that the fixes next year’s team needs don’t necessarily require a complete overhaul. Therefore, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Falcons go after only a couple of free agents in March. “I think there’s a draft out there that can be really beneficial to us, potentially on both sides of the ball,” Dimitroff said. “Front-wise, you can acquire in the draft, as well. We will be very manageable and mindful about how we will be approaching free agency. We will not be throwing out money for the sake of it.” While acquiring quality players through the draft is a favorable scenario for just about every team, that won’t address the short-term fixes Atlanta needs to make. The Falcons probably will need to at least splurge on one player to address the issues on the offensive or defensive lines. With a month to go before free agency begins, here are five high-priced and five budget upcoming free agents the Falcons should potentially look closer at. High-priced free agents OL Ju’Wuan James (Miami): James will be one of the top offensive linemen teams look at once free agency begins. James, who played under his fifth-year option with the Dolphins this past season, had one of the best years of his career. A solid force at right tackle, and at 6-foot-6 and 317 pounds, James is the prototype for what the Falcons are looking for at the position. The Falcons are expected to have a competition brewing at right tackle, considering Ryan Schraeder was benched during the latter portion of the 2018 season. James would cost a decent amount of money, considering he ranks among the top linemen in this year’s free-agent class. DE Dante Fowler, Jr. (Los Angeles Rams): Fowler is only 24 years old and would be a great get for just about any team once free agency begins. Looking toward the future, the Falcons certainly could use a pass-rushing defensive end. Assuming that Vic Beasley is brought back on a new deal, he will be in a make-or-break situation. Bruce Irvin, if he is re-signed, is 31 years old. Atlanta could use another young defensive end with experience on its roster. DE Frank Clark (Seattle): Clark is coming off of a 2018 season that saw him post 13 sacks. Those are the type of numbers that should get head coach Dan Quinn quite excited. The Seahawks drafted Clark in the second round of the 2015 draft, which is the year Quinn left Seattle for Atlanta. Clark should have familiarity with Atlanta’s defense, considering his coordinators in Seattle — Kris Richard and Ken Norton Jr. — previously coached under Quinn. DE Brandon Graham (Philadelphia): Even at age 30, Graham has plenty left to give on the field. While he only had four sacks in 2018, Graham is the poster-child of a pro football player giving everything he has on each play. His career highlight was the strip-sack he had against Tom Brady to help seal Super Bowl LII. Considering his past accomplishments, Graham wouldn’t come cheap in free agency. He also has roots in Philadelphia, seeing that he has been with the franchise the past nine years. But if the Eagles decide to move on, perhaps the Falcons at least take a look. OL Rodger Saffold (Rams): As noted, the Falcons need help along the offensive line at right tackle and at both guard spots. Safford actually would fit the bill for both. A versatile lineman who can play tackle and guard, Saffold has been a consistent presence for a Rams offensive line that has produced big games for Todd Gurley the past two years. Safford, however, publicly said he would be open to a hometown discount if the price is still right. Therefore, a team like Atlanta probably would have to pony up more than maybe the market would dictate, just for the hope of potentially landing him. Budget free agents LB Thomas Davis (Carolina): Davis likely would come at the veteran minimum and on a one- or two-year deal. While Davis has been able to defy physics by lasting this long as he has in the NFL, he is 35 years old and is coming off a season that saw him fail to record a sack for the first time in six years. Still, Davis would be a valuable locker room presence as someone who has seen the highs and lows the league can bring. That was something the Atlanta defense missed a year ago. OL Billy Turner (Denver): The Broncos had a positive season on the offensive line, which was overshadowed by poor quarterback play and numerous coaching blunders. Part of the line’s success can be attributed to Turner, who was asked to play both right tackle and left guard in 2018. While Turner, 27, hasn’t been a dominant offensive lineman as a pro, he has steadily improved as time has gone on. Given up on by Miami after two-plus years, Denver coached up his technique to make him a steady presence up front. QB Ryan Griffin (Tampa Bay): Matt Schaub’s contract is expiring, with the longtime veteran holding a cap hit of $4.5 million in 2018. Needing space, the Falcons are unlikely to bring Schaub back on a similar deal. With Dirk Koetter returning to be Atlanta’s offensive coordinator, it wouldn’t be out of the question for the team to take a look at Griffin, the Buccaneers’ third-string quarterback this past season. Griffin made just less than $1.4 million in 2018 and probably would not hold more than a $2 million cap hit. DT Malcom Brown (New England): Patrick Chung declared Brown the team’s most underrated player near the end of the season. Even so, Brown, a former first-round pick, is set to hit free agency since the Patriots declined to pick up his fifth-year option. Brown’s stats aren’t much as he has only 8.5 career sacks and 14 tackles for loss in four years. In college, however, he played anything from zero- to five-technique, which shows he offers versatility up front. Plus, at 320 pounds, Browns could serve as a space-eater in Atlanta’s 4-3 defense. As a potential role player, Brown could be a bargain in free agency. DE Margus Hunt (Indianapolis): Hunt is coming off the two best years of his career with the Colts, especially as a run defender. In addition, he also posted five sacks this past season. The 6-8 and 298-pound defensive lineman was a steady presence for a much-improved Colts defense in 2018. Hunt, 31, is probably looking at a two-year deal averaging $3-to-4 million each season. At the right price, Hunt potentially could be a solid role-playing addition to the Falcons’ defense.
  3. I'm a little late posting this article, so just ignore the Brooks Reed part..... Matt Bryant earned the nickname “Money” for good reason. Time and again, through his 10 years in Atlanta, it seemed as if Bryant came through with a clutch field goal to put his team ahead late in a game. In 2018, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn made the gutsy call to have Bryant attempt a 57-yard field goal to put Atlanta up by five against Tampa Bay. If Bryant missed the kick, the Buccaneers would have great field position to win with a field goal. But Bryant, as he typically has, came through with a big-time make, albeit at the expense of his right hamstring. The injury kept him out of the lineup for three games, which forced the team to sign Giorgio Tavecchio. In relief, Tavecchio was perfect on each of his attempts, which included a 56-yard field goal against the New York Giants. Tavecchio did more than enough to remain on the roster for the remainder of the season, even when Bryant was ready to resume place-kicking duties. But with Tavecchio sticking around, the chance of Atlanta deciding to move on from the veteran Bryant became a real possibility. Now, that’s a reality. Bryant, 43, revealed that the Falcons were parting ways with him on his Twitter account Wednesday. Later in the day, the Falcons announced that they will decline the team option of Bryant’s contract. This news came fewer than 24 hours after the team confirmed that Robert Alford was being released after six seasons. In 17 NFL seasons, Bryant has made 86.2 percent of his kicks. In 10 years with Atlanta, he made 88.7 percent of his attempts. He is Atlanta’s all-time leading scorer with 1,122 points and ranks 15th all-time in NFL history with 1,717 career points. In 13 games in 2018, Bryant made 20-of-21 field goal attempts, with his lone miss coming in the freezing cold at Green Bay. Helping his team beat the Bucs early in the year, Bryant also kicked a 37-yard field goal game-winner at Tampa Bay with no time remaining on the clock. That ended up being Bryant’s final field goal as a member of the Falcons. Even at his age, Bryant clearly still can kick the ball at an elite level. This move, however, signals the need for the Falcons to free up all of the cap space it can find. Bryant was scheduled to hold a cap figure of $4.16 million for the 2019 season. By releasing Bryant, the Falcons will save $2.83 million as they will still be on the hook for $1.33 million in dead money. That $2.83 million might not seem like a lot, but for the Falcons, a couple of million dollars here or there could be the difference in a needed offensive or defensive lineman in free agency. By prioritizing other positions, the Falcons were forced to sacrifice Bryant’s place on the roster. By taking Alford and Bryant off the books, the Falcons now have an estimated $36.5 million in cap space to work with. Bryant’s release shows that any NFL player can lose his job, even when he is still among the best at his position. The salary cap forces teams to make decisions like this, especially in situations where there are other positions that need to be addressed. And that brings us to this central question. If Bryant can lose his job, could anyone else on the chopping block? Here are a few players the Falcons could make decisions on in the coming weeks: DE Brooks Reed: Financially, Reed would clear a decent amount of cap space if he is let go. Reed is set to earn $5.44 million in 2019 while holding only a $940,000 dead money number. By releasing Reed, the Falcons would save $4.5 million. In 2018, Reed recorded 24 tackles as a rotational member of the defense. Reed, who has been with the franchise for the past four seasons, is entering the final year of his contract. DE Vic Beasley: Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff indicated the franchise wants Beasley back on the roster in 2019. It’s just a matter of whether it can work for both parties. Atlanta may not feel inclined to keep Beasley at his fifth-year option price tag, which is valued at $12.81 million for 2019. A new deal significantly could reduce the cap figure for the upcoming season, and a new deal for Beasley is certainly a plausible scenario. The Falcons have until the new league year begins in March to make a decision as to whether Beasley plays under his option amount. RT Ryan Schraeder: Schraeder seems to be the perfect candidate for a restructured contract. He has Atlanta’s seventh-highest cap figure for 2019 at $7.75 million. He was benched near the end of the season for Ty Sambrailo, who ended up performing better in the role. No one expected for Schraeder to have a down season, considering how well he played in previous years. Schraeder is entering the third year of a five-year deal but is now in position to be competing for a starting job. If the Falcons want to keep him around, they may feel inclined to re-do the deal to free up some cap space. The other option would be to part ways, which would leave the Falcons on the hook for $3.8 million in dead money, albeit with a savings of $3.95 million. WR Mohamed Sanu: Much like the move to part ways with Bryant, releasing Sanu would not be popular with the fan base. The team probably would be advised to not do such a thing, but if the Falcons can cut Bryant, anything is possible. The savings would be $4.6 million for the Falcons in doing so. But would it be worth it? Probably not. Sanu just posted a career-best 838 yards with four touchdowns this past season. Sanu has been a reliable receiver in the slot and complements both Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley almost perfectly. Given his productivity, Sanu shouldn’t accept a request to restructure his current deal either. It seems doubtful the Falcons would release a productive player like Sanu, although you never say never in this league. C Alex Mack: To start with, Mack isn’t getting released. Shortly after the season ended, Quinn said the two positions on the offensive line he felt good about were at left tackle and center. But Mack does have the sixth-highest cap number on the team at $11.05 million. Restructuring his deal, without Mack losing any future compensation, could be on the table if the Falcons are hard-pressed for some cap relief. An easy sell would be to ask Mack to assist the organization so that it can help him out with some quality players up front. The Falcons also will be able to free up some short-term cap space with receiver Julio Jones’ impending contract extension. As of now, Jones holds a 2019 cap figure of $13.46 million. A new deal could move some money around and save the Falcons a sizable sum for the upcoming season. That stated, the Falcons also have to work on a new contract for defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who isn’t on the Falcons’ books at the present time. But generally, the first year of new contracts tend to be salary-cap friendly, too. The Falcons didn’t expect to be in a position to endure what could be a busy offseason. Last summer, most positions appeared set for the near future. Now, up to three-fifths of the offensive line could be up for grabs, with the Falcons also seeking extra help on the defensive line. As a result in improving those areas, the Falcons probably will have some other tough decisions to make regarding veteran players.
  4. Growing up as an aspiring football player in Mobile, Ala., Ito Smith never had the opportunity to attend a clinic led by professional football players. As a youth, it probably didn’t seem like a big deal as he worked his way into being a high school standout and a college star at Southern Miss. Following his rookie season with the Falcons, Smith was given the opportunity to teach some football skills to a group of elementary school children at a recent clinic at Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta. Smith said it was a good way to spend some offseason downtime while giving back to his new community. “We’re tossing the football around and handing out autographs,” Smith said. “It’s motivating and inspiring them to be like us.” The event was hosted by Panini, a licensed trading card company that was in town for the Super Bowl. Smith, along with NFL players such as Denver running back Phillip Lindsay and Cincinnati receiver Tyler Boyd, was on hand to go through some drills and to sign some autographs for the kids. The players led the kids through some basic drills and taught some fundamentals. Smith said it was good for the school children to get a first-hand experience with the players they look up to on Sundays. “To give back and be there so they can actually see you in person — they see us on TV all the time,” Smith said. “To see us in person, they can say, ‘I saw him! I got his autograph!’ That’s very motivating. It’s a cool thing.” Smith figures to be in line for a bigger role from the start in 2019, especially if Tevin Coleman heads elsewhere in free agency. Selected in the fourth round of the 2018 NFL draft, Smith began last season as the third-string running back and expected to see most of his time on special teams. Injuries to Devonta Freeman relegated him to only two games, which propelled Smith into a greater role. Smith showcased his potential as a shifty and agile runner, with his best highlight coming against Carolina when he spun off of a tackle attempt from linebacker Luke Kuechly. Smith’s rookie season ended with 90 carries for 315 yards and four touchdowns. He also caught 27 passes for 152 yards. Smith’s year concluded before the final two games, however, as he suffered a meniscus injury against Arizona. Prior to the Super Bowl, Smith caught up with The Athletic to discuss his rookie year, his health and what he learned to get through his first long NFL season. How is the knee doing? Are you feeling better, and are you ready to get back in the swing of things? Yeah, I can’t wait to get back. The knee is feeling really good. I’m almost back to 100 percent. I’ll be back for OTAs, and I’ll have a full offseason. I’m just ready to get back out there with my teammates to get that sour taste out of our mouth. Obviously, there were a lot of expectations going into the year. If you could pinpoint something that led to the 7-9 season, what do you think it was? It was just execution and too many mistakes. Turnovers, that killed us. Just execute, man. We have to play better football, sound football. If we make the plays we’re supposed to make, we’ll be fine. Did you all (as players) put that on yourself as a team, as a collective group? Were those things you think you can correct on the field, and not necessarily from anything coaching related? Coaches coach, and we go out there and play. You can watch the games, and we made a lot of mistakes. We have to play better football, like I said. What have you been doing since the offseason began? I assume you’ve been doing some rehab, but what’s been your timeline since that last game? Just rehabbing and relaxing, trying to get my body feeling really good. It’s a long NFL season. I had workouts at pro day, so last year was a really long year for me. I’m trying to get my body back right. I’ll relax while I got the time and enjoy it with my family. I’m going to get my mind right, so I can be 100 percent ready for next season. Are you already anxious to get back? I say that because obviously there is some uncertainty with Tevin being a free agent. If he does go somewhere else you’re that No. 2 back. Are you anxious at all to take on a big role? I’m a competitor so I’d embrace it. I want that bigger role. Tevin did a great job, but whatever happens, happens. Whether I’m the No. 2 or No. 3 guy, I’m going to go out there and do my job the best I can for my team so we can have a better season next year. What do you think you learned the most during your rookie year? Just staying focused. It’s a long season. The weeks, they get redundant. You’re doing the same stuff every week. It’s staying focused and sticking to it. It’s chugging on, I guess. It has to be tough — you get to Week 10, 11 and 12, the hits are harder than they were in college. It’s such a high level. And you still have six weeks to go, and if you’re still playing like right now, it’s up to 20 weeks. How do you keep your mind right with such a long year? On your off days, it’s having a real off day. Get you a little studying in but other than that, you have to get your rest. You can’t be staying up all night. It’s taking care of your body, doing all your rehab — therapy, hot tub, cold tub, needle room, massages. Do whatever you got to do so that when Sunday comes around you’re full-go. Have you had a chance to speak with Dirk Koetter yet since he became your new offensive coordinator? I have not spoken with him yet. Are you familiar with his offense or have you studied any of it yet? They say he’s a very balanced guy so we’ll see. He’s known for a lot of inside zone (runs). I feel like that fits you. Do you feel the same? I’m a good inside zone runner. I’m a good outside zone runner, too. I am a better inside zone runner than outside. I did do a good job with the inside zone runs. It’s continuing on and building off of that. Who or what was your biggest inspiration, whether it was to play football, whether it’s to succeed? I don’t want to say inspiration, but growing up I used to like Reggie Bush. I used to like his style and stay up late watching him when he was on the west coast in college at USC. He was a really good college player. Mainly him.
  5. The beginning of the end for Robert Alford as a high-priced cornerback in Atlanta, came during a freezing-cold trip to Green Bay. Early in the second quarter of the Packers’ 34-20 win, Alford was taken out for rookie Isaiah Oliver, who was used sparingly on defense until that point of the season. Oliver took his lumps that day but continued to rotate with Alford at the position. That rotation would continue throughout the final few games, with Oliver steadily progressing and earning confidence in the spot. That was the first true sign that the Falcons were ready to move on. On Tuesday evening, it appears that what many long expected has come true. Alford confirmed on Twitter that the Falcons are planning to cut ties with him after six seasons. For Alford, it goes to show how life can change in the NFL in two short years. Two years ago to the day, on Feb. 5, 2016, Alford returned an interception for a touchdown Super Bowl LI, which would have gone down as one of the city’s greatest sports moments had the game not been squandered away. Alford jumped Danny Amendola’s route and picked Tom Brady off before zooming past everyone en route the end zone. Of course, that did not become a go-to highlight of jubilation for Atlanta. It was just another moment of what could have been. Alford was a dependable corner early in his time with the Falcons. Never afraid of a challenge while possessing great speed, Alford posted nine interceptions during his first four years. Before the 2017 season, Alford signed a four-year contract worth $38 million. Since then, however, it hasn’t been rosy for Alford. And his rocky 2018 season, which ended with zero interceptions, allowed the Falcons to make this decision, which was certainly needed from a financial standpoint. Just like the Falcons invested a second-round pick in Alford back in 2013, the Falcons spent another on Oliver in 2018. Oliver represents the future at the position and will now be a candidate to step into a starting role next season. Oliver is 6-foot, weighs 210 pounds and has nearly a 7-foot wingspan. His length is a trait that Falcons head coach Dan Quinn covets when it comes to cornerbacks. After Atlanta’s second win over Carolina in December, Oliver, who recorded his first career pick that game, noted how much he was able to learn the position from seeing the increase in live reps. “With playing time that’s going to happen,” Oliver said. “I feel it progresses you as a player so much more being out there on the field, being able to learn on the fly.” Cap ramifications By releasing Alford, the Falcons will save $7.9 million in salary cap space for the 2019 season. Alford was previously due a base salary of $8.5 million and held a $9.1 cap figure. The Falcons will be forced to keep $1.2 million in dead money on the books from Oliver’s deal. The NFL salary cap is expected to be between $187-191.1 million in 2019. By moving Alford off of the roster, and by using the $191.1 million figure, the Falcons are now projected at roughly $33.7 million under the cap.
  6. Thomas Dimitroff arrived at the Georgia World Congress Center ready for a round of radio row interviews at around 9:30 a.m. on Thursday. His method of transportation to and from wasn’t the norm for most of the other attendees of the event. Dimitroff rode an electric bicycle from his Buckhead home to the Super Bowl media’s downtown headquarters. It was an estimated 10 miles each way, with Dimitroff taking a shortcut, with the temperature down in the mid-30s. Considering his love for bike riding, Dimitroff didn’t miss the opportunity to get some exercise to fulfill a media obligation he agreed to. Electric bicycles, e-bikes for short, have an integrated motor, which aids in propulsion. With this electric bicycle, Dimitroff noted he can get up to a speed of 29 mph. The e-bike does have a governor, which helps slow it down as it goes downhill. The plan was to ride the e-bike back home afterward. He can’t go to his Flowery Branch office since the Los Angeles Rams are using the Falcons’ facilities for Super Bowl practices. When he arrived to radio row, Dimitroff stopped by two Atlanta stations, 92.9 The Game and 680 The Fan, first. He ended his day with an appearance at the Pro Football Talk tent. Following a slew of radio shows, Dimitroff briefed the local media on the latest news with the Falcons. He provided an update on contract negotiations with both Grady Jarrett and Julio Jones and discussed whether the Falcons need to make a big splash in free agency. On the team’s top priorities this offseason: “Our priority is to jump into focusing on Grady and trying to get that (contract) taken care of and move toward Julio, of course. Then we have some other guys, and we’ll look in free agency, as well. We just need to hone in and take care of our finance situation and see where we are.” How are talks with Jarrett’s representation going? “We will kick off our conversations after the Super Bowl and continue to work on them. We’ve had a number of conversations. We still have a ways to go, of course, but we are confident he’s going to be here for years to come.” On Jarrett’s value to the franchise: “He’s done a really good job for us, on and off the field, as you know, from a leader standpoint. He continues to produce. Interior D-linemen, that’s not an easy place, right? You have one guy out in L.A. (Aaron Donald), he had a lot of sacks. You have a lot of good football players in this league who are in that six, seven and eight area of sacks. You have to look at everything.” Is there a comparable player to Jarrett when it comes to negotiations? “I don’t think we’ll struggle to find a comparable. I think we’re just going to be focused on what we think he is to our organization and make the call between myself and (head coach Dan Quinn) ultimately and decide where we are going to settle on it.” On Jones’ status with his upcoming contract extension: “The Julio thing, we had a great discussion toward the end of the season. Again, we’re really confident that’s going to be done. We’re in a great place. I talked with Jimmy Sexton about it, as well. Once the Super Bowl is over and we can look at it, those are the two that are going to be important. They’re going to set the tone for how we continue into free agency.” On the Rams making multiple major moves prior to the 2018 season: “I think Les (Snead’s) approach to go all-in with Sean McVay as co-team builders and to say not only are we going to get different personalities, but we also have a head coach who knows how to manage them and a defensive coordinator that can handle some of the defensive personalities, I think they all understood what they were getting into. That’s admirable at a lot of levels. They have some really good football players on that team. I think a lot of teams out there, when they start putting teams together and players together, they’re really concerned about making sure they have the character that fits for that head coach and that team. That’s always going to be there. That’s never going to be something you put aside. The team fit is very important. They’ve done a really good job managing it.” Should the Falcons make similar bold moves this offseason? “I don’t think necessarily we need to make a whole bunch of bold moves. I think we have a lot of good football players on this team. We have a very good coaching staff and a head coach that knows how to get the most out of everyone. We have some regrouping to do in a number of different areas, of course. I don’t think that necessarily means dropping a whole lot of money in free agency. I think there’s a draft out there that can be really beneficial to us, potentially on both sides of the ball. Front-wise, you can acquire in the draft, as well. We will be very manageable and mindful about how we will be approaching free agency. We will not be throwing out money for the sake of it.” With Kyle Flood leaving his clock management post for an assistant coaching position at Alabama, has Quinn started looking for a replacement? “Dan is in the market right now. He’s got a really definitive understanding of what he’s looking for. Again, we’re confident we’ll pull someone out for sure that’s going to be beneficial. That’s going to be the wave. We see that in the league. You have some great coaches in this league, and it seems every fan base and every media base is making comments about the head coaches in their respective city. I just think there’s so much on their plate that you need to make sure you have someone in a good spot who (when) the mute button is on and the two of them are talking about what the idea is moving forward. I think Dan has a really good grasp on what he wants there.” On if the Falcons’ draft will center around addressing needs or selecting the best player available: “We really have to sit down and see who we end up with and what moves we make to clear some space, and then we’ll have more of an idea if we’re directed toward best player or need. Again, we are always going to be focused on our need. I want to make sure we’re never going to sit out there and pull a position where we know we have good depth at just because that’s the best player. Need is going to be driving us, but we’re going to be very mindful of the best player, as well. I know that is a very (on the) fence answer, but is the reality of it all.”
  7. 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.
  8. 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.”
  9. 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.
  10. MOBILE, Ala. — It was a sight Thomas Dimitroff was happy to see. When the South team, coached by the San Francisco 49ers’ staff, lined up for one-on-one drills in the trenches, the offensive and defensive linemen were engaging more physically with one another than in years past. That actually has been a common complaint from front office personnel, that these interior drills at the Senior Bowl, haven’t been as physical as they need to be. That wasn’t the case during the first practice of the week, which took place Tuesday. Offensive linemen Tytus Howard (Alabama State) and Dru Samia (Oklahoma) stonewalled their men repeatedly, with Howard putting one defender on the ground. Defensive linemen Jonathan Ledbetter (Georgia), Montez Sweat (Mississippi State) and Jaylon Ferguson (Louisiana Tech) showed speed and aggression off the edge. The sheer sight of this was great for a general manager like Dimitroff, who will be tasked with filling holes and adding depth to both the offensive and defensive lines this offseason — with perhaps an emphasis being on the offensive line. A lot needs to play out before the team’s picture becomes clearer in terms of what position it might target in the first round of the NFL draft. The Falcons always could address these positions in free agency and feel good about taking another position earlier instead. In between the South and North teams’ practices at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, Dimitroff took a few minutes to speak with The Athletic about what he is looking for when scouting offensive linemen as the Falcons’ unit could see position battles at left guard, right guard and right tackle this offseason. He also addressed Grady Jarrett’s upcoming contract extension and where things stand with Vic Beasley and the $12.8 million fifth-year option Atlanta picked up last year. With a new offensive coordinator, does that change how you evaluate offensive linemen? Obviously, that’s a position group a lot of people are interested in right now. Offensive line is going to be important for us. We will continue to look at it and build. I want to be very clear to everyone. We have a lot of focus on that position. We not only have myself and Dan Quinn involved, we have our personnel directors and assistant general manager and three O-line coaches (looking at it). We have a lot of focus on it. We know how important it is just like every team in the NFL does. It’s a different situation now with a lot of players coming out (compared to) the way that they used to. Work rules are different. There’s just a lot of things you have to be really honed in on to make sure that you have the right fits. To your question, when you bring a new offensive coordinator in, you’re mindful of the type of nuances to the offensive system. That said, we’re going to be very much consistent. We’ll continue, as Dan mentioned, to not only be on the outside zone scheme, but we’ll be moving inside, as well. That’s important for us as it gives us an opportunity to consider more of a pool of players on the offensive line than strictly being set outside or inside. On top of that, what are you looking for in this week of scouting from the few days you’ll be here? To get an opportunity to see these guys move around against the top-notch talent in the college ranks. That’s a big thing for us. Of course, you don’t get a chance to see physical drills as much — although the O-line and D-line drills (Tuesday) were fantastic. Kudos to (49ers head coach) Kyle Shanahan and the way they approached it. Every year we come in here and complain to the staffs about wanting more physicality. They did a great job; they ran really good O-line and D-line drills, which is good for a lot of us who are maybe looking for those positions. We get to an opportunity to see these guys move around. It’s good to see them physically because during the season some schools you don’t get to. You get an opportunity to see not only the big-time schools against the big-time schools, but you also get a chance to see some of the smaller schools against some of the top-notch schools out there and see how they stack up. Was there anything that stood out in those one-one-drills up front? Yeah, again, without getting into specifics about players … Which is what I wanted you to do … There was some physicality there. And quite honestly, there were a couple of players out there that when you combine their athleticism, and if you’ve done enough research, you can know who those guys are, they were also showing some physicality. When you are deemed an athletic offensive lineman, usually you come here, and you have to show you have physicality to you, as well, and you’re not just considered as finesse. I thought a couple of guys did that. Switching gears a little bit to some contract stuff. With Grady, I believe March 5 is the tag deadline. If you don’t have a deal with him by then, is that a possibility or consideration to franchise or transition tag him? I think with the way it’s set up in the league, you always look at that if you can’t get something done. But our focus is to see where we’re going with this negotiation. Again, he’s a very important part. He is our priority right now. We tabled it, as you know, in the fall, and we focused on the season. Of course, he did a very good job. We love what he does for us, not only on the field but off the field. We’re encouraged we’re going to get something done. On Vic Beasley, you picked up his option last year. What’s the status with that, and is (playing under the option) the plan? Or are you still working through that to figure out what you want to do with him? We’re in the spot right now of looking at the entire team. When the Super Bowl is over, Dan and I will spend a ton of time on it. We’ve already spent a ton of time together talking about it and looking at how things will be pieced together, being creative with our cap, of course. Vic’s a guy we’re continuing to focus on. We want him to be here. We want him to continue to thrive and continue to learn under Dan’s tutelage as a defensive coordinator/head coach and how important that’s going to be. Dan has a really good working relationship with Vic, and that’s important for us. Back to the players you’re looking at, once free agency begins, how much of that will impact what happens in the draft? It impacts it a lot. It impacts the idea of where you can spend your money and where you can get good values in free agency and where you know guys have already proven themselves. That’s a big thing coming into a season. And then go into the draft and focus on some of the guys you know are going to be developing. Free agency, to me, is a really important part. It may not be a situation where you’re picking up three, five or seven free agents. But one or two can be a big difference in how you approach the draft. One thing that’s been sticking with me is cornerback. I know with you guys, offensive line and defensive line have been a big emphasis internally and externally. But where do you stand on cornerback with what you want for the future? We feel we have a good group of corners. We had some play that was good this year, and we also had some inconsistent play. We have a great deal of faith in the number of players we have in that group. We’re going to continue to grow and continue to refine. That said, I don’t think you can ever have enough corners who are not only ready to step up right away but create a legitimate amount of depth. You know how it is over the years. Before you know it, you’re tapping into the fourth corner on your roster. I think you have to be very detailed and focused on that. It will be another important position to continue to look at. Sometimes you can pick a later-round player who can be very beneficial to an organization. I do believe that. There’s one guy who stands out to me, but I doubt you’ll want to comment specifically on him — (I revealed to Dimitroff after the fact it was Delaware’s Nasir Adderley) — but how much does versatility play into that? Obviously, a guy like Damontae Kazee played corner in college and then moved to safety and can play nickel. How much of that goes into the process when you’re looking at a DB? Versatility is big. Versatility is big at a lot of secondary positions. But to play inside and outside is important. It’s a big thing when we’re talking about it. Every scout is pressed to make their categorical comment on whether a guy can be an outside/inside guy or an inside/outside guy. We make sure we’re very detailed on prioritizing what their abilities are and trying to determine whether the guy ideally is inside or outside. To have versatility that way, not only to play the corner position but play safety if need be; yes, that is an important part.
  11. MOBILE, Ala. — NFL scouts were busy Monday, roaming around with the goal of speaking with numerous draft prospects on the second floor of the Renaissance Mobile Riverview Plaza. The floor was crowded, with Senior Bowl participants arriving and immediately speaking with members of various teams’ scouting departments. The Falcons were like every other team, with a group of scouts scouring the area asking prospects to chat. With Senior Bowl week underway, draft season has begun. While most of the players participating in the Senior Bowl won’t go in the first two rounds, there are still plenty of talented players participating who could go in the middle rounds. Everyone knows the Falcons will be looking to fill holes on both sides of the line of scrimmage. There are actually a lot of offensive linemen who seem to fit the prototype that Atlanta is looking for — less than 315 pounds with the ability to move well. It’s a deep group on the defensive line, too. But for the purpose of this story, let’s take a look at players at other positions the Falcons might want to take a closer look at this week. Temple cornerback Rock Ya-Sin: Ya-Sin has the potential to rise up draft boards with a good week in Mobile. He’s a bigger cornerback at 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, which is something Falcons head coach Dan Quinn has coveted in the past. Ya-Sin was known for possessing good press technique at the line of scrimmage during his lone season at Temple, which came after transferring from Presbyterian. Ya-Sin didn’t play much zone coverage in college. With the Falcons utilizing a lot of Cover 3 on defense, that would be a new skill for Ya-Sin to learn at the pro level. At the same time, that would be a learning curve for Ya-Sin with any team that selects him. The Athletic’s Dane Brugler has Ya-Sin pegged as his top senior cornerback in this year’s draft. Massachusetts receiver Andy Isabella: Those who follow both the Falcons and Georgia might recognize Isabella’s name. Isabella torched the Bulldogs for 15 catches, 219 yards and two touchdowns, albeit in Georgia’s 66-27 blowout win. But Isabella earned a lot of attention, and deservedly so, for his performance against the SEC runner-up. He finished the year with an FBS-leading 1,698 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. While Isabella’s physical attributes may not wow scouts at the weigh-in Tuesday, his speed and agility will be on display throughout the week. If the Falcons lose Justin Hardy in free agency, Isabella should be worth a closer look, even with this particular position group showcasing great depth. Boston College tight end Tommy Sweeney: While Austin Hooper had a Pro Bowl season, the Falcons could have a tight end spot to fill with Logan Paulsen slated to hit free agency. With that in mind, Sweeney could be a potential name for the Falcons to keep an eye on this week. Sweeney fits the size profile at 6-5 and 255 pounds. He is balanced as an in-line blocker and receiver. Like all prospects, there is plenty for Sweeney to improve upon. At the same time, he has a lot of promise as a developmental tight end. Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew II: Quarterback isn’t exactly a position on the forefront of Atlanta’s wishlist, considering Matt Ryan has plenty of years of high-level football left. At the same time, the Falcons could be in the market for a backup quarterback if they decide not to re-sign Matt Schaub. This year’s Senior Bowl quarterback lineup is pretty strong, with Drew Lock, Daniel Jones and Will Grier headlining the group. A mid-round prospect of note is Minshew, who threw for 4,776 yards, 38 touchdowns and nine interceptions in Mike Leach’s air raid attack this past season. While there is a lot Minshew would need to learn at the NFL level, his arm strength and mobility could be intriguing for plenty of teams during the draft weekend. Kentucky cornerback Lonnie Johnson Jr.: Johnson has a great chance to boost his draft stock this week. While he only recorded one interception in two seasons at Kentucky, Johnson has the physical attributes that will have at least a few teams interested. With a good outing, perhaps Atlanta could become one of them. Johnson is 6-3 and 206 pounds, which would offer the Falcons the kind of size they don’t have at cornerback. There certainly will be some risk involved, considering Johnson didn’t post gaudy stats after transferring to Kentucky from Garden City Community College. Without a big-time week, Johnson could wind up being a mid-round developmental player. But as everyone knows, great cornerbacks can come from any round of the NFL draft.
  12. 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.
  13. It’s not like Dirk Koetter is walking into an unfamiliar position. Having been with the Falcons just five years ago, he previously worked with some players still with the organization. The obvious example is quarterback Matt Ryan, who saw his career blossom under Koetter’s guidance. Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder also were on the roster then. The hope, when it comes to welcoming Koetter back to the team, is that Atlanta’s offense can hit the ground running without any type of learning curve. With each of the past two offensive coordinators, this learning curve existed. It took some time for the offense to jell with Kyle Shanahan in 2015. Steve Sarkisian underwent an adjustment period with his personnel in 2017. Having coached some of these players before, Koetter, who was Atlanta’s offensive coordinator from 2012-14, shouldn’t have those growing points. That’s the goal at least. “I can speak from my own personal experience of a player you may have coached at one spot and then you revisited with them again,” Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said. “You can definitely get up to speed more quickly.” Quinn spoke with local reporters on a conference call Thursday to discuss his new hirings. He also hit on a few other topics in what was roughly a 25-minute media session. Finding the right kind of balance Considering how the past couple of seasons went, it seemed slightly odd for Quinn to tab Koetter as his next offensive coordinator. Koetter’s Tampa Bay teams threw the ball a bunch while running it less than 40 percent of the time throughout the past two years. But digging a little deeper into Koetter’s history shows he has run the ball effectively, especially when he was Jacksonville’s offensive coordinator. In 2007, Fred Taylor totaled 1,202 rushing yards and five touchdowns with Maurice Jones-Drew running for 768 yards and nine scores. In 2009, Jones-Drew ran for 1,391 yards and 15 touchdowns and followed up that season with 1,324 yards and five scores in 2010. In 2011, Jones-Drew posted a career-best 1,606 yards, while punching in eight touchdowns. He did so on 343 carries. Coaches don’t typically like making comparisons, but it is worth noting that Jones-Drew and Freeman are built similarly. Both are shorter backs ranging from 205 to 210 pounds. “I understand the comparison, but really it will be the way we can feature (Freeman) in different ways,” Quinn said. “Although the players’ production can be similar, how they’re featured can be done differently. The running game, for us, with (Freeman) and how we attack, is really important. We’re going to make sure we can feature those guys in the best ways.” Quinn did note that Jones-Drew, like Freeman, was exceptional at running inside zone plays. With Koetter getting to work with a veteran Freeman, as opposed to the rookie he was in 2014, it will be interesting to see how Freeman is incorporated into the scheme. Ultimately, Quinn wants to see better balance primarily on first and second downs. A quick look at the numbers suggests first down primarily served as a passing down for Atlanta in 2018. The Falcons ran 467 plays on first down, with 62.5 percent of those being passes. On second down, Atlanta passed the ball 59.1 percent of the time. Quinn said he would like for his offense to be a little more unpredictable. “That’s where we’ve had extensive conversations about how we intend to attack,” Quinn said. “In those moments, in what we call regular downs, that’s where it starts. How do you utilize those in openers? And how do you utilize those in different moments of the game? That’s all by game plan, but that’s where you try to have more of your balance.” The offensive ‘blend’ With Koetter and new tight ends coach Mike Mularkey joining the coaching staff, Quinn said the 2019 offense will be a “blend” of what has worked for everyone in the past. The inside and outside zone runs still will be a key part of the offense. Mularkey and offensive line coach Chris Morgan will work in tandem to help improve the run game. While Morgan can continue teaching the zone blocking Atlanta has used the past four years, Mularkey has vast experience running power plays. Koetter obviously has a vertical passing game background. At its core, Quinn said the philosophy will resemble previous Atlanta offenses. At the same time, there will be some wrinkles added in. “A number of the concepts that Dirk runs and that we run are already in sync with that,” Quinn said. “We will keep the passing game here that we have, and Dirk will add tweaks to that. As far as the run game goes, I’d say Mike is really equipped in a lot of ways, with inside and outside zone being one of those. “We’ll establish our identity loud and clear with Chris and with Mike in the run game, as well. The play-(action) pass in the run game will be a big part of what we do continually.” The in-game and clock management assistant Quinn revealed Thursday that Kyle Flood, previously the assistant offensive line coach, will become a senior assistant responsible for program development, in-game decisions and clock management. This will also involve ensuring replays are reviewed timely so Quinn can throw the challenge flag. This has become a new trend in the NFL, with the Los Angeles Rams employing Jedd Fisch to perform a similar role. Other assistant moves Quinn announced that Bernie Parmalee, who coached running backs, will now be an assistant special teams coach. Dave Brock, who was assisting in coaching wide receivers, will now coach the running backs. Raheem Morris, who holds titles of assistant head coach, passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach, will remain in his position. Before taking this role in Atlanta, Morris spent most of his career coaching on the defensive side of the ball. In addition, sources told The Athletic that the Falcons parted ways with defensive assistant/defensive backs coach Charlie Jackson and football research and development staffer Todd Nielson. Jackson assisted defensive backs coach Doug Mallory, and Nielson’s work revolved in analytics.
  14. 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.
  15. Where things stand, what we know about Falcons' offensive... Jason Butt 8-10 minutes Seven days into the new year, there is still no reason for the Falcons to rush this offensive coordinator search. If the franchise wants to hire a high-quality candidate who believes in head coach Dan Quinn’s vision for the offense, the best course of action is to wait and see who becomes available during the coming weeks. And that has been the plan thus far. While the Falcons have spoken with a number of candidates already, it is evident there is no clear front-runner or favorite for the position at this time. On Thursday, Quinn said there wouldn’t be a timetable on the search, alluding to the fact that it could take some time to finally nail down the right candidate. He even noted he would like to speak to other candidates still coaching in the postseason. There are eight head coaching openings right now. Before the Falcons zero in on a short list for this position, those jobs need to be filled first. Generally, when one team hires a head coach, others soon follow suit. When that happens, a clearer picture of who will be available for Atlanta will emerge. In addition, the Falcons, much like they do with their player personnel, will seek the right fit for this coaching hire. Quinn wants to keep the same philosophy as previous seasons while offering a better balance between the run and the pass. For those following the search, it may seem frustrating that the process isn’t moving at a faster pace. But having let go of his three previous coordinators and deciding to take on defensive play-calling duties, Quinn is aware of just how important this hire will be — for the franchise as a whole and for his own future. Checking in on Kubiak While Denver blocked Atlanta from interviewing Gary Kubiak, which was first reported by ESPN’s Adam Schefter, there is still a chance Atlanta could get a crack at him in the end. This hinges on whoever the Broncos decide to hire as their next head coach. Kubiak wants to coach again but only as an offensive coordinator. Therefore, if the Broncos hire an offensive-minded head coach who wants to call plays or run a different scheme than Kubiak’s, general manager John Elway could reverse course and allow Kubiak out of his contract. Elway is basically playing it safe right now. He doesn’t want to lose Kubiak if he doesn’t have to. Clearly, the Falcons want the opportunity to speak with Kubiak if the opportunity presents itself. And there are many obvious reasons why the Falcons would love for Kubiak to run the offense. Throughout his career, Kubiak has been among the best at the zone-running scheme. His style would match Atlanta’s personnel. His commitment to the run game is something that is certainly enticing to a head coach like Quinn. The 2018 season marked the first time in four years that Atlanta didn’t run the ball at least 420 times. In 2017, the first for former Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, the Falcons ran the ball on 43.7 percent of their plays. This past season, the Falcons ran the ball only 34.8 percent of the time. With Kubiak, there isn’t a worry of whether he will remain committed to the run game. Kubiak also has had a knack for getting the most out of his offensive linemen, which was an underperforming group for Atlanta in 2018. Under Quinn, the Falcons’ offense has been at its best when the run game is going and the play-action pass can work off of it. Those happen to be Kubiak’s areas of strength. For Kubiak to work in Atlanta, Denver would first have to hire a head coach who prefers a different offensive scheme. If Elway hires someone like-minded to Kubiak, he more than likely will be Denver’s offensive coordinator. But if Denver goes a different route, it is believed that Elway could let Kubiak out of his contract to pursue coaching opportunities elsewhere. While the Falcons were blocked recently from speaking with Kubiak, they aren’t ruling him out as a possibility just yet. Another high-profile name to keep an eye on While the Falcons are willing to wait on Kubiak, there is another potential candidate to start monitoring. The Falcons would be interested in speaking with Adam Gase for their offensive coordinator position if he is unable to land a head coaching job. As of now, Green Bay and the New York Jets have expressed interest in the former Miami head coach who was fired shortly after the 2018 regular season ended. With that in mind, how often does someone fired following his first head coaching stint find a job elsewhere in the same role? Gase went 13-19 the past two years after going 10-6 in year one. But with eight head coach openings, perhaps another team thinks he will be a better fit than what he was in Miami. The Miami Herald did report that Gase had several verbal disputes with Dolphins owner Stephen Ross. One has to wonder how much this affects his head coaching candidacy with other teams. If Gase strikes out on a head coaching opportunity, look for the Falcons to enter the picture, especially if Kubiak stays put. When Gase was in Denver, he coached a potent offense that saw Peyton Manning throw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns in 2013. It’s worth noting that the 2018 Dolphins ran the ball 44.9 percent of the time. Considering the skill position talent surrounding Matt Ryan, landing a brilliant offensive mind like Gase would be of intrigue to the organization. Regarding Koetter and Bevell One thing to keep in mind with this search is the scheme fit. Quinn wants a coordinator who will offer balance while maintaining a commitment to the run. This wouldn’t seem to favor Dirk Koetter, the former Tampa Bay head coach who was Atlanta’s offensive coordinator from 2012-14. Koetter’s run-to-pass ratio in Tampa Bay this past season was actually similar to Sarkisian’s, with the Bucs running the ball only 38.4 percent of the time. In 2017, Koetter’s offense ran the ball 39.1 percent of the time. The closest to 50 percent the Bucs got under Koetter was in 2016 when his offense ran the ball 43.9 percent of the time. When Koetter was in Atlanta, his offenses ran the ball 38.1 percent of the time in 2012, 32.8 percent of the time in 2013 and 37.1 percent of the time in 2014. Within the Falcons’ organization, Koetter is not considered the favorite or front-runner for the job. In addition, conventional wisdom would suggest that if Koetter was, or is, the leader for Atlanta’s position, he would have been hired after his recent interview. When it comes to Darrell Bevell, one of the first names linked to the job, he has great familiarity with what Quinn wants to run. While Bevell eventually was fired by Seattle in 2017, he had some success — the final offensive play of Super Bowl XLIX notwithstanding — in the two years he and Quinn worked together on Pete Carroll’s staff. In 2014, Bevell’s offense ran the ball 53.6 percent of the time. In 2013, Seattle ran the ball 54.8 percent of the time. While teams are passing more than ever in the NFL, Bevell would seem to be the safer option when it comes to offensive balance as a play-caller. On Mularkey Early on, the Falcons spoke with Mike Mularkey, which was initially reported as an interview for the offensive coordinator job. According to a source, however, the Falcons were not considering Mularkey for this job. Instead, the Falcons were interested in speaking to Mularkey about a non-coordinator assistant coaching job. It is worth noting that Mularkey has prior experience as an NFL tight ends coach, which is a position Atlanta has open after firing Wade Harman. That isn’t to say Mularkey interviewed for a specific role. But he isn’t being considered to be Atlanta’s offensive coordinator.
  16. Falcons plan to interview assistants who are still coaching in the NFL postseason Jason Butt One of the most interesting items from the Falcons’ end-of-year news conference Thursday was the revelation that Dan Quinn wants to interview assistants still coaching in the postseason. Twelve teams are still playing, with those coaches, per NFL rules, not yet able to talk to teams about other job opportunities. For Atlanta, several names have been linked to the offensive coordinator job: Gary Kubiak, Darrell Bevell, Dirk Koetter and Mike Mularkey. Kubiak, Bevell and Mularkey didn’t coach in 2018. Koetter recently was fired as Tampa Bay’s head coach. Two of these candidates already have been interviewed by Atlanta — reportedly Mularkey and presumably Bevell. With Quinn wanting to speak with assistants still coaching, there is a chance for this search to last a little while longer. “I didn’t put a deadline amongst ourselves due to teams that are still playing,” Quinn said. “Obviously, that’s a factor in it.” Now, this could have more to do with the special teams coordinator spot than the offensive coordinator position. That’s because, from the looks of it, only three names from the 12 teams would make sense as potential offensive coordinator hires. At the same time, the teams themselves would have to grant the interviews and not block the Falcons from potentially hiring them away. While three assistants appear to make sense, two of them seem unlikely for very different reasons. Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy: It certainly would be a challenge for the Falcons to pluck away someone with the same title, even if the Chiefs granted an interview. Plus, Bieniemy, wrapping up his first season as the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator, is seen as a candidate for head coaching jobs. The Falcons could sell the move as an upgrade with more money, potentially with an additional title like assistant head coach and with play-calling responsibilities. In Kansas City, Andy Reid calls the plays. Bieniemy getting the opportunity to call plays would be a big boost to his résumé if he winds up without a head coaching job. Bieniemy is lauded greatly in coaching circles, which is why the Buccaneers, New York Jets and Cincinnati have been interested in his candidacy to take over their teams. Although Atlanta hypothetically could sell play-calling duties, it could still be tough to convince Bieniemy to leave a sure thing in Kansas City. New Orleans quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi: Lombardi obviously has been in a great situation, having been able to coach Drew Brees directly for eight total years. Lombardi first joined the Saints’ organization in 2007 and spent two years as an offensive assistant. In 2009, he became the quarterbacks coach. He has held that role except for two seasons when he went to Detroit to be the offensive coordinator in 2014 and 2015. But he didn’t last the full two years with the Lions. Lombardi’s offense ranked 19th in 2014 and was abysmal through seven games in 2015. This came despite having Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate throughout this stint. That resulted in his firing, with Lombardi taking his old position back in New Orleans in 2016. Sure, Lombardi can point to play-calling experience, and maybe he has learned enough to be ready for another go at it. Even so, it would still be seen as quite the risk for the Falcons to make such a move. There does appear to be one intriguing candidate flying under the radar at this time. Los Angeles Rams senior offensive assistant Jedd Fisch: Fisch has two previous years of NFL play-calling experience, which came with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2013 and 2014. While Lombardi had some talented pieces to work with in Detroit, Fisch had Blaine Gabbert at quarterback in year one and Blake Bortles as a rookie in year two. Finishing 31st in total offense in both seasons, Fisch was fired. Fisch then went back to the college ranks at Michigan as a quarterbacks and wide receivers coach to go with a passing game coordinator title. Under Fisch, Michigan got more out of quarterbacks Jake Rudock and Wilton Speight than many could have anticipated. Speight, in particular, had a solid sophomore season in 2016 under Fisch, throwing for 2,538 yards, 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions. When Fisch left to take the offensive coordinator job at UCLA in 2017, Speight saw a drop-off from a 61.6 completion percentage to 54.3, before a season-ending injury occurred. With the Bruins, Fisch guided Josh Rosen to 3,756 yards, 27 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He was out of a job, however, when Jim Mora was fired from the Bruins’ head coaching position, which ended with Fisch taking over as UCLA’s interim head coach in the program’s final two games of the 2017 season. This year, Fisch has been a senior offensive assistant with the Rams, learning the ins and outs of head coach Sean McVay’s system. Fisch’s game-day responsibilities are to assist McVay in clock management situations, an area McVay admitted he struggled with during the 2017 campaign. Fisch and Quinn are friends and have known each other for a while. Fisch actually was considered for the open quarterbacks coach position last January before Quinn opted for Greg Knapp. If other top options don’t materialize, perhaps Fisch could be a candidate for this role. If another option works out, Fisch could still be an option to bring on in a promotional opportunity — if the Rams and his contract allow it. You’re not fired … yet In addition to the coordinator firings, Quinn confirmed that tight ends coach Wade Harman has been let go from the Falcons staff as well. A decision has yet to be reached on anyone else, with the impending coordinator hirings having a great say in who stays and who goes. “There may be some adjusting moving on within the staff. But in terms of position changes, no other changes at this time,” Quinn said. The Harman news was somewhat surprising, considering tight end Austin Hooper steadily has progressed the past three years. It was also an interesting decision since no one else got the preemptive firing treatment. Good news on the injury front For all of the bad news the Falcons got with injuries in 2018, the new year is beginning with some positivity in this department. Quinn said he expects for every player who ended the year on injured reserve to be available when training camp begins during the late summer. This includes safeties Keanu Neal (ACL) and Ricardo Allen (Achilles). Running back Devonta Freeman (groin), running back Ito Smith (knee), offensive guard Brandon Fusco (broken ankle) and long-snapper Josh Harris (hip) also will be ready to go in training camp. “I don’t think there is anybody in any jeopardy in training camp,” Quinn said. “I think there would be some on a limited basis. But not from a training camp.” Derrick Shelby (groin) and Andy Levitre (triceps) ended the year on injured reserve but soon will be free agents.
  17. 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.”
  18. Matt Bosher’s tackle sets the tone for the Falcons: ‘I can’t make fun of him for being a punter no more’ Jason Butt CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Usually, it’s a bad sign when reporters crowd around a specialist. It often means an errant kick occurred at a critical time in a loss. One of the greatest jokes, especially for punters and long snappers, is that people only want to talk to them when they screw up. That wasn’t the case Sunday after the Falcons’ 24-10 win over Carolina at Bank of America Stadium. Matt Bosher, the team’s punter who also handles kickoffs, seemed somewhat surprised to see a cluster of photographers and writers suddenly appear in front of him even though he came through with what was easily the play of the day. Right around the 5:25 mark of the second quarter, Bosher left a kickoff short at the Carolina 3-yard line. Kenjon Barner found a seam and hit the hole with what, for a split-second, looked to be a solid return. That’s when Bosher stepped into the hole and lowered his shoulder into Barner’s upper body. By doing so, he sent Barner airborne and then landing flat on his back. The tackle sent shockwaves through the Falcons’ sideline. Just as Bosher was fielding his first question about the tackle, place-kicker Matt Bryant playfully toned down his teammate’s accomplishment. “Tell them the truth,” Bryant said. “You caught the guy slipping.” Bosher laughed and said he did. “Kenjon is a **** of a returner,” Bosher said. “He just caught it at the wrong time with the jump cut. My job is to stand back there and be a safety, be head-up on the ball and make a play when it gets to me.” Bosher was modest about the tackle. He politely answered a few questions but didn’t seem too interested in hyping it up — although he did flex over Barner following the tackle. And, of course, Bosher had to dish out some trash talk in the moment. “I mean, I went to Miami,” Bosher said. His teammates, however, were more than willing to share their recollections of Bosher’s tackle and even offered some insight on why Atlanta’s punter and kickoff specialist was able to execute a tackle that set the tone for the remainder of the day on defense. In the weight room, Bosher often works out with Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Austin Hooper. Jones and Ridley said Bosher is a lot stronger than the average person may think or expect. Jones said when it’s leg day, Bosher can squat 315 pounds easily. While Jones said he doesn’t stereotype any NFL player based on his position, he noted that Bosher isn’t your typical kicker. “Him just slamming somebody like that, it was pretty cool to see,” Jones said. Ridley said it is impressive to see Bosher lift as heavy as he does. “He’s strong — really, really strong,” Ridley said. “He squats, benches. I’m not surprised (about the tackle). Well, a little bit because he hit him really, really hard.” That seemed to be the takeaway from Bosher’s teammates. They are aware Bosher is in great physical shape. Even so, the force he displayed dropped their jaws. Cornerback Isaiah Oliver was chasing Barner as Bosher stepped into the hit. The sheer violence of the play had Oliver in disbelief. “I didn’t see him at first; he came out of nowhere,” Oliver said. “He just picked the dude up and dumped him. I was shocked at first. I didn’t know who it was. Then I realized it was Bosher. It was a great hit.” Could he have expected that from Bosher? “A hit like that? Not necessarily,” Oliver said. “He’s a physical guy. He’s not like most kickers in the NFL — or the idea of most kickers, at least. He’s a physical guy; he’s a great teammate, great player. You don’t really expect that from a kicker like that, to go in there and risk his body like that.” Defensive tackle Jack Crawford’s locker is next to Bosher’s at the team facility in Flowery Branch, so he is always offering up some good-natured teasing about being a punter. Those jokes, however, are going to stop for a while. Crawford offered up an explanation for Bosher’s hit. A running joke in the Falcons’ locker room, Crawford said, is that there is “Happy Bosh” and “Angry Bosh.” When Bosher is jovial and chatting his teammates up, he’s happy. When he’s quiet, they assume he’s angry. “I think that was ‘Angry Bosh’ on the field because that guy just, man, he got stopped on a dime,” Crawford said. “That was a good play.” After the game, Crawford told Bosher that he didn’t know he had it in him to make such a play. While it was a special-teams tackle, Crawford expects to see it, from every angle, on the cut-up Monday in the defensive meeting room. “He leveled that guy,” Crawford said. “I can’t make fun of him for being a punter no more. He always says he’s a punter, and he’s not really about that noise. I can’t make those jokes anymore. He’s my locker mate; I’m used to making those jokes. I’m going to lay off a little bit.” These past two wins over Arizona and Carolina have given Atlanta a major morale boost. Music was blaring in the postgame locker room. Players hung around a little longer afterward on a road trip than they usually do. They were thrilled to talk about Bosher’s play. They were ecstatic that Jones, Ridley and Mohamed Sanu all caught touchdown passes in a single game for the first time this season. They loved the fact they forced the Panthers into four turnovers, with three taking place in the red zone. Grady Jarrett was pumped for Crawford’s first career interception. “Jack is always running to the ball,” Jarrett said. “When you’re running hard, good things will happen.” The Falcons shut the Panthers down after they opened with a 14-play touchdown drive. While the Falcons recorded only two sacks, they added eight quarterback hits, with Takk McKinley notching four. Carolina quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who gutted out what looked to be a painful elbow injury, was frequently running for his life. Atlanta also totaled more than 100 rushing yards for the third consecutive week, with Brian Hill making the most out of his first game of extended action. Hill rumbled for 115 yards on only eight carries, including a late-fourth-quarter handoff for a 60-yard gain. While the Falcons were eliminated from the playoffs last week, it does appear they are doing what they can to make the most out of the situation. At 6-9, Atlanta has a shot to end the year on a three-game winning streak at Tampa Bay on Sunday. “Any time you come into another team’s stadium and beat them on their turf, there’s nothing better than that feeling,” Crawford said. “Coming in and getting the W and flying home is great. It definitely heightens the sense of the brotherhood we have and brings everybody closer. We’re going to get lessons out of it, too.”
  19. Falcons Mailbag: What can be done to shore up the offensive line next season? Jason Butt If Julio Jones is able to play, he’ll play. But due to injuries to his hip and ribs, Jones officially was given the questionable designation for the Falcons’ game Sunday against Carolina. Jones was able to get in a limited practice Friday, with head coach Dan Quinn calling Jones a game-time decision. Quinn did seem somewhat confident that Jones could give it a go Sunday. “Usually when he can get some work in on Friday it’s a good thing,” Quinn said. Quinn added that Jones will get some additional work during the walkthrough Saturday before the team heads to Charlotte for the game. Jones was seen running some routes and catching passes from the quarterbacks during the media viewing periods of practice. While the Falcons have had a disappointing season at 5-9, Jones is leading the NFL in receiving with 1,511 yards. He has recorded 1,400 yards in each of his past five seasons and 1,500 yards in three of those. On Thursday, Jones was asked about his availability for the game. “I’m day to day,” Jones said. “I’m getting better. Working every day and doing everything I can to go Sunday. Who knows what’s going to happen? I can’t give you anything right now. I’m just working to get better, and we’ll see what happens Sunday.” On to this week’s mailbag: How can we continue to improve the defensive personnel and their techniques? We have mediocre talent at some positions and too many repeated mistakes (e.g., too far off opponents, DBs aren’t looking back to play the ball, OL reaching for defender, DL aren’t using techniques I’ve seen DQ coach them up on) — Anthony R. While coaching up young players is important, there are specific skill sets young professionals are expected to have once they enter the league. When it comes to the defensive side of the ball, sometimes a coach may think a player has the potential to be coached up based on his raw talent ability. And then that player might end up not have that kind of potential after all. Sometimes, when watching this year’s Falcons team, I wonder if that’s the case for some of these players, that maybe they aren’t as good, relatively speaking in regards to the rest of the league, as we made them out to be in the preseason. Or perhaps, some of them have been in the league for a while and are now seeing an inevitable decline. Unreported injuries are often a factor, too — the “nicks and bruises” that aren’t put on the weekly injury reports. But I definitely see the point you’re making. There have been way too many preventable penalties on both sides of the ball. There have been some technique issues that the coaching staff has harped on. Marquand Manuel noted how Brian Poole wasn’t playing up to his standard until about halfway through the year, which came after Manuel sat down and challenged Poole on the topic. Rookie Isaiah Oliver is a cornerback who has been learning a new technique at the line of scrimmage. He has been getting more playing time lately to hopefully springboard him into next year. With the current personnel, all the coaching staff can do is continue working with the players’ various skill sets. Next season should bring the return of two starting safeties, which should be a big boost. But with the issues you highlighted, which have contributed to this 5-9 season, a staff shakeup is all but expected to happen. Now, who goes and who stays? That has yet to be determined. But I’d have to think assistants responsible for the position groups that have seen the least development are probably the most concerned about their futures with the franchise. We need to stop winning games. A top-five pick is worth more than even a top-10. My question, Jason, is this: Say Atlanta finishes with the fifth-overall pick and decides to trade back (12-15 range), what package of picks could they get back? — Alex J. I hate to break it to you, Alex, but the Falcons aren’t going to try to lose. This isn’t the NBA, where franchises make that conscious decision to tank. In basketball, there is also a much bigger difference in getting a top-five pick and then picking from six through 10. In the NFL, there usually isn’t that wide of a discrepancy in the top 15 — excluding quarterbacks, who are usually the cornerstone of teams. In 2012, Trent Richardson was the third overall pick. At the time, that pick by Cleveland seemed to make sense. That same draft, Philadelphia took Fletcher Cox with the 13th pick. That selection has worked out. In 2014, the Rams took Greg Robinson second and Aaron Donald 13th overall. Robinson was misevaluated. Donald has gone on to prove he should have probably gone second overall in that draft. The point is, the Falcons losing won’t guarantee that they wind up with a franchise-changing player. The NFL draft process isn’t like other sports, where it is easier to identify the players who will go on to have great careers. It makes sense for the Hawks to tank for Zion Williamson, who appears to be a franchise-altering prospect. Would losing the final two games for Quinnen Williams, Ed Oliver or (insert any of the Clemson defensive linemen here) propel the Falcons into years and years of on-field success? There is no way to know. And Atlanta still could get one of those highly regarded defensive linemen in the 10-15 range, considering how deep that position group goes this year. The NFL draft is the biggest crapshoot of them all. So much of it involves luck and whether a player arrives at the right place and right time. Plus, if the Falcons win these final two games and still feel the need to move up to get their player, they will do so. But let’s move on from my soapbox and get to your question. Using last year as a guide in this scenario, the Falcons maybe could expect to get two picks in the second- and third-round range, while also giving up a late-rounder if they were to trade from a mid-top-10 pick to the 12-15 range. Tampa Bay and Buffalo made a similar trade in the 2018 draft, with Tampa Bay giving Buffalo its seventh overall selection for the 12th. In addition, the Bills gave the Bucs two second-round picks. The Bucs also gave up a seventh-round selection. What can (Thomas) Dimitroff do to shore up the offensive line? I imagine our first-round pick will be a defensive player, but in the second round, we could draft a decent lineman. Considering the money we gave Matt (Ryan), we need to give him the protection needed for him to succeed. That’s how it works in New England. I know Dimitroff struggles with drafting OL, but I can’t imagine there’s a lot of money to spend on free agents when we need to extend (Grady) Jarrett and others. — Mark C. I wholeheartedly agree about Ryan needing better protection. That has been quite the issue, especially during that five-game losing streak. Ryan has been sacked 40 times this year (well 39, considering one of those sacks was the fluky botched pass against Green Bay). The most sacks Ryan has taken in a season was 44 in 2013. Five during the next two weeks would supplant that in a single season. As for free agency, I think the Falcons will do what they can to free up some money if there is a player they want on the offensive line. While Jones is expected to get a new deal, there are some candidates to be let go or to have their contracts restructured. Depending on how the draft board shakes out, Jonah Williams and Greg Little are first-round prospects the Falcons potentially could take. If they don’t take an offensive lineman in the first round, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the team address the position in the second-through-fourth rounds. The Falcons also may spend some time developing two younger offensive linemen on the team. Ty Sambrailo is 26 years old and has started the past two games at right tackle. While he gave up a sack against Arizona, he has aided an offensive line that was struggling immensely in weeks prior. Then there is Matt Gono, the 22-year-old undrafted rookie who has been on the 53-man roster all season long but inactive each game. Gono has repped in practice at tackle all year. Well, that is until the past two weeks. On Friday, I noticed Gono taking some reps at guard during the post-practice developmental period, in which practice squad and back-of-the-roster players get together for some drill work. Gono was taking part in one-on-ones at left guard, which, I thought, was an interesting development. “We want to get as many snaps on tape as we can so we have a full evaluation at a couple of spots,” Quinn said after I inquired about Gono. Quinn said that Gono’s physical traits, at 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds, are ideal for the pro game. Gono, who played collegiately at Division III Wesley College, simply has needed to learn the ins and outs of the professional game. It appears the Falcons are preparing Gono for the second offseason, to see if he can help this offensive line in the future. The Atlanta fan base is justifiably calling for the dismissal of Steve Sarkisian. However, the offense at times this year has played to its potential, especially in the passing game. The same cannot be said for the defense as for much of the year it has been generationally bad. Manuel is amazingly escaping the scrutiny Sarkisian receives from all quarters. Tactical errors and sloppy play have cost the team at least half a dozen wins during Manuel’s tenure (see the Saints, Bengals, Browns, Cowboys games from this year alone). Marquand is clearly overmatched in his position. Even factoring in the injuries in the back seven, he has not demonstrated the basic strategic awareness to stop replacement level NFL offenses like the New York Giants and consistently makes poor calls in end of game/half situations. Credited with developing the secondary, virtually all of our young talent regressed this year — see (Robert) Alford, (Takk) McKinley, (Desmond) Trufant, et al. Would you rather not have a seasoned replacement such as Marvin Lewis — remember his Ravens defenses ranked at the top of the league before he became Cincinnati HC. A veteran like ML would, IMO, be a significant upgrade especially if Keanu Neal returns to form in 2019? —David H. I think the masses at large are giving Manuel more of a pass because of the injuries his unit suffered, which you did allude to. While it is important for any team to overcome such losses, the fact that Manuel lost Deion Jones, Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen in the first three weeks probably gave him the leeway to work through retooling and reshaping the unit. Losing the quarterback of the defense in Allen and a matchup nightmare in Neal forced the Falcons’ defense to adjust its style of play, which helped result in what everyone has seen. But yes, even with Jones back, the only game the defense looked exceptional was against Arizona, the worst team in the NFL. That being said, while the defense has shown improvement, it has been gradual at best. And I think that is why you have probably seen more criticism from the fan base directed his way the past few weeks. As for Lewis, I don’t think he, specifically, would be a fit. When he was in Baltimore, he had elite players. It was also almost two decades ago. His time as a quality coordinator probably has passed him by. Not to mention, I would think he wouldn’t want to be a coordinator after all those years as a head coach. That isn’t to say that, in the event that Atlanta makes a change, a veteran defensive coordinator couldn’t succeed in this new-age era of professional football. It’s just all about being the right fit for what the head coach wants. We’ll see what direction Quinn decides to go when the season ends. What are the Falcons college scouts up to right now? Do you see them in the building? Do they scout bowl games? — Andy S. The college scouts are busy all season long. They go to colleges across the country for practices and games. The Falcons’ scouts are no different. When I covered UGA football, I would see NFL scouts from just about every team come through. With UGA being close by, Dimitroff himself occasionally goes to practice. You occasionally will see scouts walking around the Falcons’ team facility, sure. At this time of the year, scouts will be dispatched to bowl games to further the analysis of various prospects. The offense this year has been either feast or famine. Obviously there are some differences in the defenses they’ve had to face (Baltimore and Arizona seem to be on opposite sides of the proverbial defensive production coin), but it’s clear that when this thing is clicking, it’s clicking hard. Matt Ryan’s numbers are continuing to keep pace with his MVP season and Julio Jones continues to set records. Where do you think the inconsistencies lie? Is it execution? Is it focus? Is there anything to the fact that we’re 0-2 (I think) against interim coaches this year? — John K. It’s this simple: The Falcons have not been able to consistently run the ball. If the running game had been there at an average level, perhaps they beat Philadelphia, New Orleans (at home) and Cincinnati. Against the Eagles, the Falcons couldn’t punch the ball in the end zone at the goal line. Against the Saints, they couldn’t chew up the clock with a lead. Against the Bengals, they couldn’t get 1 yard late in the game. And then they didn’t even have a shot against New Orleans (away) and Baltimore because they couldn’t get the running game going whatsoever. For as great as the passing game has been, the lack of establishing a balanced offense has hurt the Falcons quite a bit. When it comes to why the rushing attack has been inconsistent, execution and focus are easily at the forefront. The coaching staff benched Ben Garland (who is back to rotating in at right guard) and Ryan Schraeder for Zane Beadles and Sambrailo in recent weeks. Last Sunday against a bad Arizona team, a big emphasis was placed on focus. And it paid off, with the Falcons having their best rushing day of the season. This will certainly be an area to improve upon in the offseason. As for the final part of your question, I wouldn’t put much stock in the fact the Falcons are 0-2 against interim coaches (Cleveland’s Gregg Williams and Green Bay’s Joe Philbin). As it turns out — and I’m shocked, I tell you! — the Browns are a lot better without Hue Jackson. Given the number of self-inflicted wounds against the Packers, it’s tough to say whether the Falcons would have won if Mike McCarthy was still coaching that day. Have there been any updates on how Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen and Devonta Freeman are progressing in their rehabs? How serious is the injury to Ito Smith? Are they all projected to be ready for minicamp this spring? — Robert H. I’ll start with the running backs. Smith underwent a knee scope, which is a minor procedure. He is expected to be ready to go for the offseason. Freeman is probably in good shape for the offseason program, barring any setbacks. His rehab from groin surgery continues, although he won’t be able to make it back for the final two games of the season. If everything progresses, I’d have to think he’ll be good to go for mini-camp. Neal and Allen are in different positions, considering the severity of their injuries. A torn ACL, which Neal suffered, can take up to nine months. Thanks to modern medicine, players in all sports are returning much quicker from ACL tears. The minimum amount of time missed can actually be six months. So truly, anywhere in the six-to-nine-month threshold is what you can expect with that type of injury. Neal occasionally has posted updates to his social media accounts, and he does appear to be working hard at his rehab. It’s still too early to tell when exactly he will be back. Considering his injury occurred in early September, I suppose there is a chance he could participate in mini-camp. If he is able to, however, I’d have to think the Falcons play it safe. The same can be said about Allen. Achilles tears generally take at least six months to heal following surgery, although those can be longer, as well. You also want to make sure a player like Allen has the proper explosion and is without limitations. The Falcons will take the safe route, more than likely, with these two players so that they will be good to go for as much of the regular season as possible. Do you have any confidence in (the Falcons) dedicating high picks for O-line/larger (still fast) defensive backs? I don’t really think that they have learned the lessons from this disappointing season vis-a-vis the lack of depth and the disadvantage of playing teams that are deep in larger, faster players that use that advantage on defense to blitz Ryan to death, and on offense to regularly consume huge amounts of time off the clock. — Charles M. It really just depends on how the board pans out on draft week. The Falcons won’t take an offensive lineman high just because one is available and it happens to be a position of need. If the player fits and is evaluated around that slot, then sure, I think the Falcons would take an offensive lineman. They needed one in 2014 and took Jake Matthews sixth overall. In all honesty, the defensive back to watch, in my opinion, is LSU’s Greedy Williams. He’s 6-3 and 183 pounds, which is the ideal size for a corner in Quinn’s defense. So I would not be surprised whatsoever if the Falcons go in this direction when the draft rolls around. I’ve mentioned in previous mailbags that this is the most important draft for Quinn and the front office. After a season like this, they have to get almost everything right when it comes to short-term improvements. That’s what truly makes Atlanta’s first-round selection intriguing.
  20. 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.
  21. By Jason Butt Imagine being on a wintry early-morning walk near a New York park as the sun slowly rises. You suddenly hear the thud of a foot connecting with a ball, and the subsequent sound of the ball’s bounce upon hitting the ground. You look up and notice that a dark-haired gentleman happens to be kicking these footballs in the direction of a subway tunnel. And the grass at this city park is often covered in snow, so you notice a chunk of it has been shoveled to create a clear path for these kicks. If you live in New York, and if this sounds familiar, it is possible you witnessed Giorgio Tavecchio’s morning routine in the winter of 2017. Tavecchio was still chasing his professional football dream, one kick at a time. He was also in the early stages of setting up a real-world career in the Big Apple, in the event his time as a professional place-kicker came to an end. Living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Tavecchio was a part of a training program at the advertising-technology company MediaMath. After 12 weeks of training, the goal was to receive an offer to either work internally at MediaMath or with a partner company. He also was hoping to continue playing professional football. So, he would kick early in the morning, go home, get dressed and then venture to the 45th floor of 4 World Trade Center, MediaMath’s location, for his day job. When his training came to an end around mid-April, Tavecchio said he had a couple offers to work internally at MediaMath. But lo and behold, the Oakland Raiders, who employed him the previous three offseasons, called him with an offer to return. “All the cards were on the table,” Tavecchio said. “Do I want to go into the private sector and move on from football? Or go with football?” The safe choice, in this moment, was probably the private sector. For five years, he never made it to the regular season with an NFL team. He was basically a yearly camp body since joining the league in 2012. Thinking it through, however, Tavecchio didn’t think his journey was over. He chose football. Back to Oakland he went. A love for football, with the help of barbecue As you can imagine, football wasn’t the first sport this Italian-born athlete was obsessed with. Born in Milan, Italy, Tavecchio grew up with a keen interest in, you guessed it, soccer — or what other countries call football. He relocated to the United States when he was 4 but moved back to Italy at the age of 6. He spent three years in Rome before moving back to America at the age of 9. Tavecchio recalled attending an international school in Rome filled with foreign dignitaries and wealthy Italians. A couple of famous Italian soccer players had sons who attended the school, and Tavecchio would play soccer with them at recess. He was a regular spectator at his father’s pick-up soccer games on Sundays. Even after moving to America for good before his 10th birthday, Tavecchio continued to follow soccer. “Soccer was kind of my life. I’d watch all the Italian soccer games on Sundays,” he said. “In fact, people used to ask me, ‘What’s your favorite American football team growing up?’ I hate to say it, but I never really followed it too closely. Soccer was my passion. I thought I’d end up playing soccer in college. But the Lord had different plans.” Football wasn’t remotely on Tavecchio’s radar until his sophomore year at Campolindo High School in Moraga, Calif. By chance, Tavecchio was walking through the school’s hallways when some friends asked him if he would like to try out to be the team’s place-kicker. He quickly replied, “No.” In the moment, it wasn’t something that interested him. He went home and continued that conversation with his mother. Her advice? “You’re an American. Try it,” she told him. Tavecchio went back to school with a change of heart. He remembers going to his first practice on a Thursday. And it was probably a good thing that Tavecchio’s first-ever football practice was on a Thursday because that also happened to be the day of the team’s weekly tradition. “We had a good barbecue afterwards,” he said. This wasn’t the only time Tavecchio brought up the Campolindo team barbecue in two interviews. Clearly, it made quite the impression. From then on, Tavecchio started to become more interested in kicking the oblong ball than the round ball. In 2008, he walked on at California and hit 75 percent of his field goal attempts in his four years with the program. Although he went undrafted in 2012, the San Francisco 49ers signed him, partly because he was a left-footed place-kicker like starter David Akers. This allowed the team to keep the same field goal operation throughout training camp. The younger Tavecchio didn’t know what to expect at the time. He ultimately realized he was in San Francisco to serve as a camp body. Through his first NFL experience, he learned a lot from the veteran Akers, who he still maintains a good relationship with to this day. But as it would be, that first stint with the 49ers was the beginning of a lengthy professional football route that ultimately would prove to show the power of perseverance. A five-year camp body Being a camp place-kicker is like living in football purgatory. You’re obviously one of the best in the world at your position. But there are only 32 starting spots. It’s a position that teams generally hold one place for, considering the maximum allotment of only 53 players on an active roster. The occasional place-kicker winds up on a practice squad. But generally speaking, teams keep one healthy player at the position. Therefore, after Tavecchio was cut in 2012, he didn’t have another team to turn to. The NFL isn’t like other professional sports, where there are minor leagues or alternative leagues to participate in. Upon his release, Tavecchio went back to California’s campus and became a part-time tutor. He worked with other student-athletes to help proofread papers in social sciences, history and English. He worked in the morning and kicked in the afternoon. In March of 2013, Tavecchio signed with the Green Bay Packers. Near the end of the preseason, he was released. After his Green Bay stint, he worked with a former California place-kicker’s real estate company until the next football opportunity came. That was with the Detroit Lions, who cut him near the end of the 2014 preseason. Interestingly enough, Oakland claimed him off waivers and played him in its final preseason game, which saw Tavecchio hit both of his field goal attempts. The Raiders obviously wanted to get a closer look at Tavecchio, who subbed in for an injured Sebastian Janikowski. But after that final preseason game, the Raiders cut Tavecchio with Janikowski ready to start the regular season. Without a team, Tavecchio took a job with the sports marketing company IMG, which has an office on California’s campus. Meanwhile, he continued to work out for his next shot. As it turned out, the Raiders were fans from his lone preseason game with the team. He was brought back in 2015 and 2016, only to be released at the end of each preseason. Five years, no team for a regular season, which brings this story back to April of 2017. Finally, a breakthrough There was no way for Tavecchio to truly know that 2017 would present him his first golden opportunity. He decided to put off his entry into the real world by signing with the Raiders. He went through the same sort of NFL schedule as before — OTAs, mini-camp, training camp. But as the end of the preseason neared, Janikowski was nursing a back injury. So when the Raiders cut Tavecchio that August, they told him to stay ready because he would be brought back almost immediately. Clearing waivers, Tavecchio was signed to Oakland’s practice squad. And then a day before Oakland’s first regular-season game against Tennessee, Tavecchio got word that Janikowski was heading to injured reserve. Tavecchio found out he would start his first NFL game with 24 hours’ notice. “For me, it’s very much a faithful journey,” Tavecchio said. “I felt like God had a hand — or a foot — in all of this. It was meant to be in that time. When I got to that moment, it was an unbelievable feeling. It was a stark duality, I thought. From a personal standpoint, it’s an unbelievable moment; it’s so special. I finally made it to the regular season. From a professional standpoint, ‘Hey, you’re a part of the team. You have to produce.’” Tavecchio started each of Oakland’s 16 games and make 16-of-21 field goal tries with a long from 53 yards. It was a good enough season to where it seemed likely that he could parlay that, finally, into a career. But the Raiders, finishing 6-10, made a coaching change. Out was Jack Del Rio, and in was Jon Gruden. By the time training camp rolled around this year, Gruden wanted another right-footed place-kicker to compete with rookie Eddy Piñeiro, primarily to keep the field goal operation intact. Out was Tavecchio, and in was veteran Mike Nugent. “The NFL stands for Not For Long,” Tavecchio said. “There was a change of guard in Oakland. They wanted to go in a different direction. I’ll be forever grateful to the Raiders because I was with them for a couple of years. They always gave me a chance to keep at least my pinky toe in the business.” Road to Atlanta For the first time since his rookie year, Tavecchio wasn’t part of a full training camp. He kept in shape and continued working out while he was without a team. While Atlanta had two place-kickers on its preseason roster — veteran Matt Bryant and rookie David Marvin — head coach Dan Quinn brought Tavecchio in for a tryout in mid-August. A couple of weeks later, Tavecchio was signed for the final exhibition against Miami. “This was something that we had planned for a week or two, so we thought that this would be a chance to look at him,” Quinn said at the time. “He did an excellent job in the workout with us a few weeks ago, so we wanted to get a chance to see it in a game.” In the final exhibition against the Dolphins, Tavecchio was only given one extra-point try, which he made. And, of course, like he had become accustomed to, he was released not long after the game. From there, it was yet another waiting game. “I had a couple of workouts between the end of training camp and the beginning of my time here,” Tavecchio said. “A couple of weeks passed by, and I stayed sharp, enjoyed time with my family, reflect, take a bigger picture look on this football journey and pick the lessons God is trying to teach me.” With one monumental field goal at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, everything quickly changed for Tavecchio. Facing a fourth down at the Tampa Bay 39-yard line, the Falcons were leading the Buccaneers by two points with only 1:10 left to play. Bryant came out to kick a 57-yard field goal, which was a gutsy coaching call. If Bryant makes the kick, everyone praises the decision. A miss, and not only is the decision widely scrutinized, but the Buccaneers get the ball at the Falcons’ 44 with a good chance to win. “If I miss it, they’re a little over a first down away from a possible game-winning kick,” Bryant said. “There were a lot of things going on with that kick.” So, yes, the pressure was on. But as he has been throughout his superb career, Bryant was clutch, nailing the long attempt. “Money Matt” was money once again. It just so happened to come at a cost. Bryant knew it was a strong boot. But a split second after that sensation came another that brought a great deal of pain. He immediately grabbed his right hamstring, cognizant of the injury he suffered. “I thought I hit it pretty good, but I never saw it go through,” Bryant said. “I felt the pop. Once that happened, it was instantly disappointing because I knew what that meant to be hurt.” The Falcons were able to hold on 34-29 thanks to the Bryant kick. But that set in motion an NFL return for Tavecchio, who remained ready for the moment. And Tavecchio wasted no time impressing his bosses. Against the New York Giants the following week, Tavecchio was in a somewhat similar position as Bryant the week before. Leading by eight, the Falcons faced a fourth-and-short at the Giants’ 38. This time, a field goal would put Atlanta up by two scores, effectively clinching the game. It was coming from 56 yards out. It was one thing to trot Bryant out there. But Tavecchio? In his first game in an Atlanta uniform? Quinn didn’t blink. Neither did Tavecchio. The kick sailed through the uprights, and the Falcons earned another win. Tavecchio ultimately went 5-for-5 kicking in three games and made every extra point. Bryant’s hamstring healed, and he has since resumed his starting role. Normally, that means the end for a fill-in place-kicker. Not Tavecchio. Not yet at least. What’s next? After a few weeks with the Falcons, Tavecchio was approached by Quinn about his job performance. The head coach told the journeyman place-kicker that he was doing a good job and that he hoped to keep him in the team’s plan moving forward. Tavecchio was appreciative of the comment. But this is the NFL. Things that are said don’t always line up with reality. “If I’ve known anything about Coach Quinn so far, it’s that he’s a very genuine and authentic guy,” Tavecchio said. “When he says that on a personal level, I appreciate that validation and affirmation. But professionally, I know this business has so many working parts and so many things that are out of both his and mine control.” Four games following Bryant’s return to the lineup, Tavecchio remains with the team. It’s unusual for a team to keep two healthy place-kickers on a 53-man roster for this many consecutive weeks. For now, as special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong said, keeping Tavecchio is like an “insurance policy.” Bryant had a preseason injury followed by the hamstring tweak mid-year. He also has recently dealt with a back injury. Given Tavecchio’s performance during his three games, he easily could wind up elsewhere if placed on waivers. Atlanta didn’t want to take that risk. “We thought Giorgio performed well enough that if we didn’t do that, that he’d be in another city in another uniform,” Quinn said. “We said, ‘Let’s treat you for a while like a backup quarterback.’ And due to Matt’s health and not being as strong — from an injury standpoint — we just felt like from a protection standpoint that was the best route to go.” Armstrong touted Tavecchio’s approach, considering how he performed with one of the game’s best place-kickers ahead of him on the depth chart. “He’s come in behind a guy like Matt, and it didn’t scare him,” Armstrong said. “A lot of times, guys will come in behind someone else who has been successful, and they will struggle, simply looking at the stats. It didn’t bother him. Obviously, he’s a hard worker, consistent, really good technique, that kind of stuff. But his mindset, he’s always the same.” During the past few weeks, Quinn has fielded occasional questions about having two place-kickers on the roster. Of course, that naturally leads to speculation about what the franchise will do following the season. After all, it would be highly unlikely for Atlanta to begin 2019 with two place-kickers on the roster. But until that decision comes, Tavecchio will do his part to, as he says, remain in the present. That’s all he has done since his pursuit of professional football began. “It’s a journey of self-discovery,” Tavecchio said. “Sometimes it’s a highway. Sometimes it’s perilous mountain paths. I try to keep the headlights of gratitude bright. I try to look at everything in a perspective that treats everything as a gift. You never know when your last down is going to be. As much as I get caught up in trying to reach a certain destination, in the end, it’s a ride. The more grateful I can be, the better mood I’ll be in and the more positive of an experience it will be because I can grow from it.”
  22. By Jason Butt Lennox Lewis was at the top of his boxing career in 2001. Coming off a series of heavyweight title defenses, Lewis inked a championship match against little-known fighter Hasim Rahman, to take place in Brakpan, Gauteng, South Africa. Lewis received 20-1 odds and was expected to win decisively. But as the fight got underway, it became clear the underdog was much more focused than Lewis in the title bout. Lewis was prepared to fight that night, sure. But Rahman was the one paying attention to each detail needed to win. And in the fifth round, Rahman backed Lewis into the ropes. Lewis then dipped his gloves away, creating a window for any talented boxer to land a crushing blow. And that’s exactly what Rahman did. He seized the opening and threw a punishing right hook across Lewis’ face. Lewis fell to the mat and succumbed to a knockout. Falcons head coach Dan Quinn played that clip to his team this week, to reiterate the need for improved focus on Sundays. Quinn honed in on the knockout punch. While the Falcons keep saying their weekly preparation is going well, the results aren’t translating. Atlanta has lost five consecutive games, being in contention in only one of those games — a 22-19 loss to the Cowboys. Throughout this slump, the Falcons have done a little bit of everything to put themselves in position to lose, whether it’s been dropped interceptions, the inability to recover fumbles, missed deep shots down the field or the struggle to consistently run the ball. “Just like that night, where Lennox may have dropped his hands and lost focus, and Rahman filled that hole, for us, I wanted to make sure those are the ones out at practice you get ready for,” Quinn said. “So when these moments come, we’re ready to nail it. You have to have both. You have to have the fighter and warrior mindset. “Our group does but you have to have the focus and mindset when those plays come that you’re ready to go finish on those.” Defensive end Takk McKinley said the Lewis-Rahman analogy made “perfect sense” when it came to the Falcons’ lack of focus during certain games. Against the Packers, the Falcons had opportunities on both sides of the ball to prevent a run of 34 unanswered points. But the defense couldn’t get off the field and the offense seemed to commit inopportune penalties at awful times. From McKinley’s perspective, the attention to detail Lewis overlooked is a great example as to why this team is 4-9 instead of 9-4. “You had one guy who was out there, who trained and prepared for the fight, and another guy who thought he could come in and win the fight,” McKinley said. “It shows you have to put in the work in to be successful. At the time, Lennox didn’t respect his opponent and he got knocked out. It’s that simple.” While McKinley is a fan of the comparison, he is someone his coaches want to see more out of during this final three-game stretch. Defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel noted that McKinley’s effort has gone unquestioned. But there are elements Manuel said the coaching staff must continue to harp on with the former first-round draft pick. Against the Saints, McKinley body slammed an opponent on a special teams play, which cost his team 15 yards. After beginning the year with 5.5 sacks in seven games, he has zero sacks and four tackles in the past six. “You have to continuously keep him focused,” Manuel said. “That’s all of us on the staff. That’s all of us as players. His aggression, we need it in between the whistles. We don’t need it post-snap. We don’t need it on the sideline. Just continuously, in unison, helping out with him.” Manuel said the key is continuing to remind McKinley to focus on the next play. When a play is over, it’s on to the next. Young players often fall into the trap of worrying about a previous play, or letting a sequence of events get the best of them. In a league like the NFL, it is imperative to have a short-term memory in the heat of battle. That’s something Manuel said he hopes they can instill in McKinley as he continues to develop. “To get him to focus on his details and consistently understand in-drive that we need him to rush the quarterback with relentless intent, you just have to continue that part of it,” Manuel said. When asked about his teams issues when it comes to focus, or a lack thereof, McKinley said, “I wish not to discuss that.” But he did offer his feelings on Atlanta’s five-game losing streak, which has been as hard on him as anyone in the locker room. “It sucks. Losing is not fun,” he said. “Losing when you’re not producing like you want to is not fun. All you can do is come back to work, keep grinding and hopefully on Sundays perform like you want to perform.” After discussing McKinley at length, Manuel was asked a related question regarding the rest of the team: Did he still feel that, given the circumstance at hand, his unit was still buying in to the season? “Guys are playing hard. You guys see it, down in and down out, consistent effort,” Manuel said. “You’re not seeing guys quitting on plays, things like that. We’re just not making the plays to win the game. A year ago, statistically we played great, one of the better defenses we had in 20 years. Now, we’re not making those plays to win the game.” Quinn will certainly hope his players take to the Lewis-Rahman example, so that some sort of progress can be displayed before the end of a dreary season. It remains to be seen if this is something that each player will take to heart when it matters most on the final three Sundays of the 2018 campaign. “It’s a really good message, that the fight is one thing, but the focus and the intent and being into it and being prepared is just as important,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “I thought it was a really good message to the guys and one that we responded to well.”
  23. 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.
  24. 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.
  25. If Deion Jones wanted to prevent further damage to the foot he injured 11 weeks ago, he could sit out the remainder of the 2018 season and save himself for 2019. Jones is a centerpiece of what the Falcons do defensively, a game-changer who excels in coverage and against the run. At 4-7 record wise, the Falcons need to win out and receive a whole lot of help to make a late postseason run. With that in mind, it would be understandable for someone like Jones to take a backseat the remainder of the year. But that’s not the kind of mentality Jones has. If he is able to play, he will play. And that is exactly what he, his teammates and his coaches are hoping for when the Falcons host Baltimore on Sunday. Jones appears optimistic about being back on the field. Head coach Dan Quinn said Jones’ return is “trending” that way but didn’t want to make any promises. This season hasn’t gone according to plan for anyone in Atlanta’s locker room. But for Jones, there isn’t anything like suiting up and playing alongside his teammates. If he is healthy enough to play, Jones is going to play. “The whole thing is I feel like I just want to close out the season with my boys,” Jones said. “We did a lot of work during camp. I feel right. I feel good. That’s just the type of player I am. I want to have one good ride with this team. Every team changes every year. This one, this year, I just want to enjoy it with those guys while I can. “Those are my guys. If we have five games to ride it out together and I’m able to do it, I want to be a part of it.” Players rarely to choose to sit when they physically can play — whether it’s a good season for the team or not. And while there have been exceptions, football teams typically don’t shelve players to prevent further injury or save them for the following year. The players, especially those in leadership positions, usually want to be on the field. If they don’t, that likely won’t go over well in the locker room. Pride is a major factor, too. Even if the postseason is out of a team’s picture, there is a belief that players fight alongside each other for as many remaining wins as they possibly can get. With only 16 games in a season, many players feel their opportunities may be limited. Hence, if players are healthy enough to play, they play. “Every guy we have a chance to that can play, then yeah, we are going to allow them to battle and do their thing,” Quinn said. “They put their heart and soul into it. We’re going to make the best decisions for them and not put them out there when they can’t do their thing. But if they can, then that’s part of their ‘why,’ battling for one another.” When it comes to Jones, Quinn has noticed that attribute for quite some time. Jones underwent a strenuous rehab process followed by sessions with a trainer off to the side while his teammates practiced on an adjacent field. Jones then joined in at practice with the scout team before stepping in with the first-team huddle this week. “He’s dying to get back for himself to play,” Quinn said. “He loves to play; he loves to compete. He’s also dying because he so much wants to help the team. That’s a pretty cool trait and quality to have.” While away from game action, Jones has made his presence felt and heard in the locker room and in team meetings. Therefore, his road to recovery has been closely observed by his teammates. “Most guys would miss the whole season due to (this injury),” cornerback Robert Alford said. “Just to see him bounce back the way he’s bounced back, and seeing him run around the way he’s running around this week on the film, it shows how much he cares about the team.” As for the potential of re-injury, Jones said he has been in constant contact with the coaching staff about how his foot feels. Quinn previously has mentioned that he doesn’t want Jones playing unless he is pain free. Jones said he is now in a good place, both mentally and physically, with the foot injury. “I’ve been really good about communicating and making sure that I am back, feeling the way I did before the injury and making sure I’m not out there thinking about it,” Jones said. “It’s part of the game. You can’t play thinking like that. God forbid anything happens, but this is what I love to do, and it’s what I want to do if I’m able to do it.” While Jones has been listed as limited in practice the past two days, Quinn said he received a full allotment of reps Wednesday. It can be assumed he received the same treatment Thursday. Jones is anxious to get back on the field doing what he loves. As long as he doesn’t suffer a setback in the remaining days before the game, he will, in all likelihood, make his return against the Ravens. “I’ve worked really hard to get back healthy and feel like myself again,” Jones said. “It took some time, and it was a grind. Now I’m back, and I want to play some ball. I’ve been missing it.” Jones’ cleats for a cause On Sunday, NFL players will be allowed to wear customized cleats for the league’s “My Cleats My Cause” campaign. Jones will wear a pair of white Adidas cleats with gold designs painted on it to advocate for pediatric cancer. Last December, Jones visited Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and met a young girl afflicted with cancer. The two formed a bond and started following each other on social media. The idea to wear these cleats came when Jones saw a post the young girl wrote on one of her social media accounts asking why NFL players don’t bring more attention to children’s cancer. “When I saw (her post), I felt that was a chance for me to pay it back,” Jones said. “I definitely had to put on some gold.” Much like pink is to breast cancer, gold is the color used to represent pediatric cancer. Jones said he will wear these cleats during pregame warm-ups. Last year’s visit to Children’s Healthcare marked the first time Jones had met a child battling cancer. He described the moment as “empowering” for him. “She had a really good attitude, embraced it,” Jones said. “She was pretty much the motto of how to fight. I really respected her about it. She is so young and powerful.” Other Falcons players are joining in the “My Cleats My Cause” campaign, as well. Receiver Calvin Ridley is wearing a pair of cleats honoring the SOS Children’s Village in Florida, based on the time he spent there in foster care as a child. Quarterback Matt Ryan’s cleats, which he will wear for the entire Ravens game, will honor the Northside Hospital (Atlanta) neonatal intensive care unit and the March of Dimes. Ryan’s twin boys were born prematurely in January, which has made these two organizations dear to his heart. “I think for anyone that has had children prematurely or has had a pregnancy or is on bed rest in the hospital, the scariest part is when they talk to you about survival rates for children born at certain times,” Ryan said. “That was probably the hardest thing to go through for the both of us. It was amazing for her to spend as much time and to keep our boys in there as long as she did to get the boys to a spot where they could thrive when they were born. We’re both very lucky and very fortunate for that to be the case.” Bryant misses another practice For the second consecutive day, place-kicker Matt Bryant did not participate in practice due to a back injury. This could put his status in doubt for Sunday. Bryant missed three games earlier this season due to a right hamstring injury that occurred while making a 57-yard field goal against Tampa Bay. If Bryant is unable to play, Giorgio Tavecchio will compete in his place. The Falcons decided to keep Tavecchio, who kicked for Bryant when he was out, on the roster after he went 5-of-5 kicking, with a long of 56, in three games.