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Well, it’s time we finally admit the truth about this franchise. By Cory Woodroof @CoryWoodroof47 Dec 12, 2018, 8:00am EST Leodis McKelvin was right. The Atlanta Falcons are, have been, and for the immediate future, will be front-runners. Go back to 2016 with me, if you will. The Falcons had just lost to the Philadelphia Eagles, one of the team’s few 2016 regular season flops. The game showed what happened when the historic offense met a fierce defensive front. The team was held to 15 points on offense and lost control of the game’s tempo, which sunk the explosive mentality the team thrived on way back when. Post-game, McKelvin uttered the awful truth no one wanted to believe at a time where things were about to break even for Atlanta in the biggest way possible. “I was telling the defense, this is the type of team, they are a front-runner. They are a front-running team,” he told reporters (via ESPN). “If you go out there and make some stops, they eventually are going to be dying down.” The quote, at the time, was great bulletin board material for a team that surely used that moment to jettison to a better place (well, almost). But its the most telling observation about this franchise ever relayed by an opponent, and the defining problem of this team in the post-Michael Vick era. The Falcons are front-runners. They do wilt at immediate adversity. Slow them down, knock them out of the fight. It’s how it’s always been, and 2018 is that in grand amplification. Let’s go back to any big moment in recent team history. Looking Back The 2010 season ended in the divisional round with Aaron Rodgers coming out, guns blazing, to stop the Falcons after they got out to an early 14-7 start to see 35 unanswered points derail a promising campaign. The 2012 season ended with a collapsed lead in the NFC Championship to the 49ers that kept the team from going to its second Super Bowl. The week prior, they did the exact same thing to the Seahawks, but the mighty foot of Matt Bryant saved pain for a week later. In February 2017, well, we won’t go there. Look at the 2013 season, when, after a rash of injuries, the entire half decade of goodwill seemingly evaporated and led to the end of an era with the firing of Mike Smith in 2014. Look at the 2015 season, when the team let a few close games gather moss down the rolling hill to lose six straight. Look at the 2011 season, when the team fell flat at the Meadowlands by only scoring two points. Look at January’s Eagles debacle. Want more examples? Google: “Falcons blow lead regular season.” Sometimes, in large part thanks to Matt Ryan, they can fight their way back for the comeback. But we haven’t seen that much as of late. And it still doesn’t discount the fact that they had to be in that situation to begin with. The team’s problems haven’t changed once since 2008. They can’t handle teams with stout trenches, and the teams with strong run games and even stronger defensive lines always win out against the Birds when the things get close. The Falcons never seem to find success in addressing their own trenches, which have both been decent at the best since the turn of the millennium. The team can’t handle compounding injuries, they can’t handle blown leads, they can’t handle what happens when things go wrong. They have to have everything in place to succeed. It’s never quite broken even in their favor. They’ve gotten close, but not quite. Why is that? Why is it this team can’t get into the tough moments and box out a win? Why can’t this team withstand injuries? Why can’t this team hold a lead? Why does this team spend so much time worrying about rising up? What about staying up when the punches come in bunches? Don’t throw around curses, or “that’s just the way it is,” or more jargon about this or that with the team’s history. This is football, not World of Warcraft. You’re not bound to some ancient hex or manifest destiny. It’s just a game, and anyone can fix anything at any time to win whatever they want to win. The Falcons are front-runners, and it’s time for Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff to fix that. Looking Within Quinn has helped solve some of that problem of the team being accused of being a finesse outfit. He drafted guys like Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, Takkarist McKinley and Grady Jarrett to change the mentality. He wanted guys who were fast and physical; we all know that. For the most part, he’s gotten that exact result. But this team never seems to escape this belief that it’s, as Fox Sports’ Nick Wright said after the team lost in Philly in January, “a soft, finesse dome team.” Is it time we all start taking that moniker seriously? Is this just who the Falcons are, at least right now? Are they really just birds of comfort? These old legacy teams like the Patriots, Packers, Steelers, Bears, Giants, Broncos, Eagles, Dolphins ... the win-in-the-elements, smack-you-down, mean-machine outfits who can win with two teeth, a busted jaw, and a broken leg. We’ve seen the Falcons play tough in this Quinn era, so that total perception isn’t quite true. But we’ve seen them wilt down the stretch too many times in equal measure, often to these types of teams who keep swinging even when the Falcons seemingly have them pinned. The Falcons saw their greatest weakness send them home from Houston without a trophy. They faded down the stretch in the franchise’s most important moment in the exact way McKelvin said they would. The Patriots got some stops, got a few scores, and whammo, a 28-3 lead disappears like a thief in the night. The Patriots didn’t steal the Super Bowl; the Falcons gave it away. They couldn’t overcome their grandest problem, and it stole the greatest victory a football team can achieve. Looking ahead This team has been a front-runner for as long as I can remember, unable to handle the smallest dose of adversity. The team rebounding after 2017’s Super Bowl fracas to get to the divisional round was an incredible feat, but they had time to plan. Quinn has been wondrous about fixing problems in the offseason and letting the team grow. He’ll most likely do that this spring. But when new problems pop up in-season, the team just doesn’t seem to have the wherewithal to withstand them. It happens time after time. The Falcons have to have everything break their way in order to achieve ultimate success. If that doesn’t happen, neither do the Falcons. The rare example of this came in 2016, when the team lost Desmond Trufant to injury, and Jalen Collins stepped up. The team did get the benefit of having Quinn take the plays over in that stretch, which gave them the defensive boost they needed. Collins is gone now, and Quinn hasn’t called the plays since the Super Bowl. But what would’ve happened that year if the team had gotten more banged up? Well, you saw down the stretch. What will the Falcons have to do to fix this? Who knows. It’s not something you can just pinpoint to fix through the draft, or in free agency, or with a coaching change. The entire mentality of the organization has to change, the players you bring in have to have fight in them, the entire team has to have a strong left hook and a nasty counter-punch. No matter the eventual solution, McKelvin called it two years ago. He doesn’t have to stay right, though. If the Falcons want a Super Bowl, they’re going to have to figure out how to be tough and resilient ... no, not in general. When it counts. It’s time for the Falcons to break away from the front-running mentality. It’s time for them to shed the dome-friendly visage. It’s time for them to be 100% tough. It’s time for the Atlanta Falcons to get a backbone. Here’s desperately hoping they find one.
I've been saying all along we should stick to the 4-3 and focus on personnel for that, but just for fun here's a mock offseason for running a "hybrid" defense We make some cuts and extend Ryan to make cap space, and on defense we bring in some talented players coming off down seasons on 1 year deals. We wouldn't realistically be able to keep many beyond the 1st year but would be able to get good value on production Extension Matt Ryan (27) 2013 salary $10M Ryan is not set to hit FA til next offseason but we extend the franchise QB now and free up some cap space for this offseason Resigned William Moore (27) 4 year deal Moore is probably our best player on defense, a complete playmaker who impacts games. Durability has been his biggest problem, keeping his deal reasonable Robert McClain (24) RFA 1 year deal McClain is a former 7th round pick of the Panthers who came in off the street and produced as the nickelback. He's resigned to a 1 year deal and is the favorite to be the nickel next season Michael Palmer (25) RFA 1 year deal Resigned to compete for the TE spot if Tony retires, depth if he comes back Antone Smith (27) RFA 1 year deal Resigned to compete for depth Will Svitek (31) 1 year deal Resigned cheap for depth Not Resigned -Sam Baker -Mike Cox -Brent Grimes -Chris Hope -Todd McClure -Luke McCown -Chris Owens -Mike Peterson -Chris Owens -Lawrence Sidbury -Vance Walker Cuts -Tyson Clabo (31) 2013 salary $4.5M -Dunta Robinson (30) 2013 salary $8M -Michael Turner (31) 2013 salary $6.9M Free Agency LT Jake Long (27) 6'7 319 lbs, Miami Dolphins 4 year deal Baker is not a franchise left tackle. Jake Long is, and he's going to be available. Long is massive and a mauler, a prototypical LT. There are some positions that are more valuable than others in football, LT is one of them. I have no problem coughing up the dough when it comes to securing a franchise tackle, I just can't stomach spending it on someone like Baker. We sign Long and start to give Ryan something he's never had-a talented O line. DE/OLB Antwan Barnes (28) 6'1 251 lbs, San Diego Chargers 1 year deal Barnes is a guy few people probably know about. He came into the league with the Ravens and always had prototypical edge rusher talent but never put it all together until 2011 when he played all 16 games and had 11 sacks with 2 forced fumbles, clearly his best year. It was his only year he played all 16, last season he played 11 games as a backup and had only 3 sacks, 1 forced fumble and 2 fumble recoveries. He'll be available for as cheap as you can find someone with his talent at his age. Barnes gives us a much needed edge rusher at DE, but he can also stand up and play OLB if we go with 3-4 schemes in the hybrid defense. DT Terrance Knighton (26) 6'3 330 lbs, Jacksonville Jaguars 1 year deal Knighton is the DT I've had us signing in all my mocks. I wanted to do one with Glenn Dorsey but I'd only sign him to run a 4-3. Since we're running a hybrid, we go with Knighton, who gives us what we're missing at NT in both the 4-3 and 3-4. Knighton is the huge space eater we don't have. He can also push the pocket and get sacks and tackles for loss. He was demoted last season and Jacksonvilles D was really bad, so he'll be available for cheap on a 1 year prove it deal. If he proves he can be a difference maker as a run stopper and to a lesser extent pass rusher we'll probably resign him next offseason. OLB/DE Manny Lawson (28) 6'5 240 lbs, Cincinnati Bengals 1 year deal Lawson is an athletic player who seems like he's been stuck inbetween being a 3-4 OLB and a 4-3 OLB. He doesn't seem to be dominant in anyone aspect but appears talented enough to do a lot of things well and contribute. In 09 he had a career high 6.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 6 run stuffs. For us he can come in at OLB in the base 4-3 so we can move Spoon into MLB. He can also line up as a 3-4 OLB. In the nickel he can be the 2nd LB with Spoon as an athletic guy who can cover a lot of ground as well as blitz, or even contribute as a DE edge rusher. Lawson had only 39 tackles last season so should be available for fairly cheap and open to coming here for a bigger role. CB/PR Leodis McKelvin, Buffalo Bills 1 year deal Cutting Robinson frees up cap space but also creates a need. McKelvin is a former 1st rounder who was demoted to nickelback behind 10th overall pick Stephan Gilmore and 2nd rounder Aaron Williams. He's said he's looking to be a starter, an opportunity he will get with us for cheap coming off a relatively unproductive season at CB. McKelvin did lead the league in punt return average and had 2 TDs, as well as ranking 4th in the league in kickoff return average last season. He showed as a rookie he can handle full time kick off return duties but with us we'd let him stick to being a starter at CB and the full time punt returner, where he's a dangerous weapon, and let someone else handle the wear and tear of kick off returner. McKelvin has elite athletecism as you can see on his returns, but as been about as productive in terms of stats as Robinson the last few years (about 10 passes defensed, 2 INT a season). I think he could learn a lot being around Samuel. If he can refine his technique a bit that athletecism can really translate into production. If he jumps a route and picks it off, no one is going to catch him. Draft 1st round - OG. Here we take the best OL available, ideally a massive talented road grader we can plug in at guard to be a difference maker from day one 2nd round - DE/OLB. We pickup an athletic edge rusher to add to our restocked arsenal and develop 3rd round - RB/KR. We snag the fastest RB we can find to pair with Rodgers and develop as a receiving weapon. He could contribute as a dangerous KR immediately as well 4th round - TE. We take a big bodied TE to compete with Palmer and Coffman and develop. Ideally a big TE with solid blocking ability who can make tough catches over the middle and use his size in the redzone, someone who can be a quality blocker without having to catch a lot of passes if he has to play early. 4th round (Lofton comp pick) - CB/KR. We snag an athletic CB to compete with McClain for the nickel and be depth and to develop to the future. Ideally one with return ability who can contribute as a kick returner 5th round - WR/KR. We pickup a speedy WR for depth, possibly one who can be a return weapon as well 6th round - OLB. We draft an athletic LB for depth and special teams 7th round - SS/FS. We draft a safety to compete with Shillinger for the #4 safety spot 7th round (Sanders comp pick) WR/KR. We take a shot on some more WR depth 7th round (Weems comp pick) - RB/KR. We take a flier on another speed RB 7th round (Hayden comp pick) - CB/KR. We take a shot at some more CB depth Depth Chart QB Ryan, Davis RB Rodgers, ROOKIE (3rd round), Snelling, Smith/ROOKIE (7th) FB Ewing, (Snelling) TE Palmer, Coffman, ROOKIE (4th round) WR Jones, White, Douglas, ROOKIE (5th round), ROOKIE (7th round) LT Jake Long, (Holmes), Svitek LG Blalock C Konz, Hawley RG ROOKIE (1st round) RT Holmes, Johnson It's back to basics on offense. Ryan's had lots of weapons, but an average at best OL his whole career. Out is Baker, in is Long, Konz and Holmes step in as 2nd and 3rd round picks in their 2nd seasons, and a rookie 1st rounder is thrown into the mix. Now we've got a big talented young OL to develop. Rodgers showed he could be a productive inside runner and gets all these new blockers, including the FB Ewing coming back from injury. We add a talented speedster in the 3rd to develop as a speed and receiving back. We add a big bodied TE to develop, and some WR depth. RE Antwan Barnes, ROOKIE (2nd round) UT Babineaux, Peters, Jerry NT Terrance Knighton, Robertson LE Abraham, Biermann, Massaquoi/Matthews ROLB Manny Lawson, ROOKIE (6th round) MLB Spoon, Dent LOLB Nicholas, James RCB Leodis McKelvin, McClain, Franks/ROOKIE (7th) LCB Samuel, ROOKIE (4th round) FS Decoud, Shillinger/ROOKIE (7th) SS Moore, Mitchell 3-4 RE Babineaux NT Terrance Knighton, Robertson LE Peters, Jerry ROLB Antwan Barnes, ROOKIE (2nd round), (Nicholas) RILB Spoon LILB Nicholas, (Lawson), Dent LOLB Abraham, Manny Lawson, Biermann We added our big, athletic NT that can command a double team in the run and pass game in any scheme. We added an upfield FA DE in Barnes, another edge rusher in the 2nd round, and an OLB in Lawson who can play in space or be an edge rusher as well. We replaced Robinson with McKelvin. Finally we have enough talent and depth upfront. We can stop the run, Abe is no longer the only pass rusher, and we've added some athletecism in coverage in Lawson and McKelvin I think Babineaux, Peters and Jerry are short for 3-4 DEs but could do alright in a penetrating up field 1 gap scheme like Wade Phillips, especially with Knighton there to eat up double teams and hold the point in the middle. Depth is thin on the DL in our 3-4 but If Robertson can be a starter quality NT it would let us use Knighton as a strongside end. The 3-4 look does give us a variety of LBs to throw at offenses with these offseason moves, and would open a wide range of nickel pass rush options from the basic 4 man DL 2 LBs to exotic packages like 1 DT 5 LBs K Bryant P Bosher KR ROOKIE RB (3rd round), ROOKIE CB (4th round), ROOKIE WR (5th round), Leodis McKelvin PR Leodis McKelvin, ROOKIE CB (4th round) We had no return game at all last year. McKelvin was the best punt return man in the league last season, and is dangerous as a returner as there is in the league. We let him handle the punt return game full time. We pickup a variety of speedy RBs, CBs, and WRs to handle the kickoff return duties and spare McKelvin those hits as we need him at CB. We pickup a number of athletic players for depth which should boost special teams blocking and tackling.