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‘Coach Julio’ and the Falcons’ running back rotation: From the notebook - The Athletic

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by Tori McElhaney for The Athletic 


My guess is that you want to read about the Falcons’ loss to Tampa Bay on Sunday as much as I want to write about it.

(Spoiler alert: I don’t, in fact, want to rehash it).

The problem with the loss is that there just isn’t anything more to say. It was exactly what the Falcons have done time and again this year: blow a big lead and suffer another loss. There’s no point in you reading my in-game thoughts when the only prevailing thought I had was, “Here we go again.”

So, I decided this notebook won’t be about the game much at all. The Falcons have sealed their fate. The final two games of this season don’t matter. All that matters now are the decisions that will be made from the top down in the coming weeks and months. We’ll get into so much of that moving forward, including what will happen to Julio Jones once a new general manager and a new coach and staff get to Atlanta.

We know how Jones’ season has gone: It really hasn’t as he has been dealing with a nagging hamstring injury throughout the season and has missed a handful of games. I asked Raheem Morris last week if the Falcons have given much thought to shutting down Jones for the remainder of the season. The interim coach said if there’s a way to get Jones back for the final two games, they would like to see that happen, but they are not sure how the next couple of weeks will shake out.

For now, Jones is “Coach Julio” on the sideline. Nearly every time we’ve spoken to Morris about Jones in the past month, Morris has said that he can’t wait to have Jones back on the field. And, of course, the coaches would rather have Jones play. It’s funny because almost every time Morris mentioned wanting Jones back out there, he has added a joke. Something to the effect of, “Just to get him out of my ear all the time.”

After watching Jones on the sideline Sunday, there was probably a little bit of truth behind Morris’ jokes. Jones always seemed to be one step behind Morris, putting his arm around him to talk to him, pointing at something out on the field, being the first person to find Calvin Ridley when he came off the field. At one point I wrote down, “Make sure to ask Raheem about Julio being his shadow.”

So, I did, and Morris’ answer was interesting.

“Coach Jones is very in-tuned to the game,” he said.

Morris listed all the things he knows Jones sees, even when he’s not on the field: Who’s in the game, who’s not. Who’s hurt, who’s winded. What opponents are trying to do to Ridley and Russell Gage. How the running game can set up something if the Falcons could get it going. Morris said Jones is active in the whole game, from Dirk Koetter’s offensive play calling to what an opponent’s offensive coordinator is trying to drum up against the Falcons’ defense. Morris called Jones a “dream player” in that regard, and Morris takes into account everything Jones tells him on the sideline.

“Most of the time, he’s talking to me about timing and space, and he’s talking about how to create space for either certain players or how to create space for us against a certain defense,” Morris said. “He can see things that way.”

Jones has seen a lot in his career: different coverages and different looks that have been thrown at him. This season, he has spent a lot of time with Ridley, who is “getting some of that Julio-type coverage,” according to Morris.

Jones is also there for Matt Ryan, too.

Ryan isn’t a big in-game talker, Morris said. He does most of his talking during the week, but when it comes to Sundays, Ryan just likes to perform. Jones, maybe to a certain degree, is his game-day mouthpiece.

“(Julio) is able to see those things and talk about creating space and opportunities for other people,” Morris said. “He’s able to see what other guys are doing.”

Jones’ future with the organization is unknown. No one is sure exactly how the next couple of months will play out as interviews for general manager continue and decisions are made regarding the coach. Whoever comes in next will have to make a decision on Jones, and they may want to do a little shopping around. Jones carries a cap hit of more than $20 million per season, which is a tough pill to swallow, so that will be part of any decision that is made.

If this is Jones’ final season in Atlanta, it’s an even tougher pill to swallow that the Falcons didn’t get to see much of him. “Coach Julio” is interesting and funny to joke about with Morris, but his hamstring problems and the coming changes mean we just don’t know how steady Jones’ future is with the Falcons.

One more note from Monday

Morris said Ito Smith is the Falcons’ lead back right now. When asked whether that had anything to do with Todd Gurley’s knee injury that kept him inactive a few weeks ago, Morris said no, not necessarily.

“Ito has played so well,” Morris said. “When he’s gotten opportunities, he’s made yards. He’s made some of the runs look a little bit better. He’s actually going out there and getting a little better production running the football.”

That means the Falcons paid Gurley $5.5 million this year … only for Smith to earn that lead status while making $750,000.


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