Is it Super Bowl or Bust for the Atlanta Falcons?

We did it. We made it to the playoffs. Despite the most difficult schedule in the league, despite multi-week injuries to key offensive and defensive contributors, despite the defence itself; the Atlanta Falcons have not only made the post-season, but have also earned a first round bye, and the chance to play out a play off game in front of the Georgia Dome. Hell, if the right hand is drawn, we might even see my very own prediction come true, for the first time ever! Everything’s coming up Quinny!

Am I temping fate too much by posting this? (Knocks every piece of wood in a 4000 mile radius (please follow me on twitter))

Of course, with it being a bye week, we’ve very little to discuss. I’ve only myself to blame for leaving it too late to review the stupendous 38-32 victory over the New Orleans Saints, so I’ll have to discuss something a little more sombre. I mean, you’ve already read the title, you know what this is about. What a pointless introduction.

On a Positive Note…

On the face of things, everything appears to be rosy in Atlanta. While still a complete mess as a whole, there are pieces on defence to be optimistic about. Keanu Neal, their 2016 first round pick, has proven to be every bit as mean as was written about him. With a season of experience to draw from, the expectation is that he’ll continue to develop into one of the league’s top safeties. Same with Deion Jones; the lightning quick middle linebacker taken in the second round of the same draft.

In fact, it’s not unfair to expect improvement through experience to upwards of four or five pieces on defence. You might say this defence is coming together. Although there is still a way to go before that’s the case, there is tangible evidence that, with another offseason, it could legitimately be one of the more *competent* units in football. I hope I’m not setting the bar too high.

Keanu Neal has been fantastic all year, and is expected to be a key piece of this defence for years to come. Photo Credit: atlantafalcons.com

My  main concerns lie on the offensive side of the ball, and that’s a strange sentiment to type given said offense managed to put up an average of about 700 points a game this season. Changes to the offense, albeit hypothetical, I fear will disrupt the team’s progress, perhaps even leading to a few more years in the wilderness. Just some light reading to help you enjoy the bye…

The strides made on offense this season are too large to ignore. After a season of growing pains in 2015, which ended saw them finish 7th in yards per game, but 21st in points per game, the Falcons have soared into a position of dominance only a year later. 2nd they are, now, in yards per game, and 1st in points, a full 6 points more than those in second place. The Falcons have turned empty yards into points, and have been lifted into the playoffs as a result.

Kyle Shanahan: Man in Demand

This is, largely, due to the system Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan runs. One time “Most Hated Man in Atlanta”, Shanahan came back from his holidays and, essentially, became Jesus Christ himself. Credit to Matt Ryan, also, for spending the offseason mastering a playbook he was clearly uncomfortable playing in, but Kyle steals the spotlight every time for this upturn in fortunes. Unfortunately, everyone else thinks this way.

Kyle Shanahan is likely the first choice for more than one Head Coaching vacancy Photo Credit: John Bazemore/AP Photo

Kyle Shanahan is the hottest name on the table regarding Head Coaching opportunities. He has four interviews lined up for the end of the week, with Jacksonville, Denver, Los Angeles, and (Charger location to be confirmed) all vying for his presence in their fair cities. With only 32 of these jobs available anywhere in the world, the expectation is Shanahan will move on from Atlanta once the season concludes.

I can’t fault him for doing it, if he does. My feeling is he’s hoping for Denver, the team his father famously won back to back Super Bowl titles at, will request he fixes their disjointed offence. The Broncos job is clearly the most desirable of those available, although Jacksonville might have an allure to someone looking to work with some very talented younger players.

Ky Shanahan’s dad, Mike, won two Super Bowl titles in Denver, including this one vs the Atlanta Falcons in 1999 Photo Attached to: http://www.denverpost.com/2014/01/28/super-bowl-xxxiii-broncos-john-elway-claims-second-title-vs-falcons/


Unfortunately that leaves Atlanta back at square one. This record breaking offense may find themselves with a Shanahan-lite at the helm, or a completely different scheme to grasp altogether. I’ll address this should it happen, but the last thing this flying offense needs when it’s only scratching the surface of its potential is to lose continuity in the form of a brand new offensive coordinator.

Losing Weapons?

Speaking of offense, we need to discuss the weapons at Matt Ryan’s disposal. Atlanta have had the perfect situation, with the right personnel and the right personalities coming together at the right time. It’s a question of whether Atlanta can keep hold of some of that talent. Julio is locked up for the foreseeable future and, barring a major injury (touch wood), will remain the focal point of this team. Mohamed Sanu, also, can be reasonably expected to remain on board for the next two years at least.

But what of Taylor Gabriel? The free agent from Cleveland joined the Falcons in the summer to little fanfare, but has cemented himself as both a fan, and coach, favourite. He’s even hauled in the same amount of touchdowns as Julio Jones. On a one year deal, could his head be turned for a few more pennies elsewhere (perhaps wherever his current coordinator lands)?

Taylor Gabriel has injected speed and slipperiess (real word) into a Falcons offense often lacking it last season Photo Credit: Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

 

Unfortunately I have to mention defence. A key part of this defence at the start of the season, Desmond Trufant finds himself out following a season ending shoulder surgery. Falcons fans held their collective breath, and feared for their season. Since then, CB2 Robert Alford has cleaned up his game, and is playing at a level most would consider “above average”. Jalen Collins, rumoured to mean NOTHING to this staff, is showing signs of real talent. Both C.J. Goodwin and Brian Poole, released unknown and undrafted rookie respectively, continue to contribute in swathes also. It’s all good in the secondary. For now.

The Defence could take a hit

It’s hard to imagine this reality, but Alford was paid earlier this season. That doesn’t leave a lot by the way of cap space, and Trufant, an infinitely more talented cornerback to anyone on this roster, is due an extension. And he’ll expect to be paid like the best, which the Falcons may not be able to afford. There’s a very real chance that TRU won’t be involved much longer. He may be allowed to walk.

Dwight Freeney, the 380 year old marvel opposite Vic Beasley, will have another year against him. And father time waits for no man, unless that man is Morgan Freeman, who will never be stopped. Freeney is said to be undecided over his retirement following this season, which gives us some hope. However, for a pass rush that isn’t great as it is, to be down a key contributor just adds another issue to the pile.

The same applies for Babineaux, now that I think about it. While he’s not be as effective this season has his career has shown he can be, he’s still a body that the Falcons relied on. And a body that the Falcons will have to replace.

Dwight Freeney has been impressive in his 15th professional season Photo Credit: David Richard/AP Photo

In Conclusion…

These are all ifs and buts. Granted, the feeling surrounding that 2012 side was similar, however it’s not a situation that’s entirely comparable. Coming out of 2012, the side were still paying for the Julio Jones trade, both in draft picks and in talent. Poor drafting in years previous meant the 2013 and 2014 iterations of were vastly under-prepared for the seasons ahead. Yet they still went out like their season goal of reaching an elusive Super Bowl game. Arguably, they’ve only now recovered.

I hope that much of this piece turns out to be nothing but a worst case scenario. I do, however, have a growing feeling that this is the time for THIS Falcons unit to win a Super Bowl. At the very least, you could argue that the big dance is a minimum. I mean, can you legitimately argue that any NFC side in the post-season is *that much* better than these Falcons?

Much is being made of the future being held for the young players in the side. Yet it may be a future unfulfilled without the correct moves made once this season is over. I certainly hope the front office have plans in place.

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