Falcons rise up under new leadership despite past two losing seasons

The Southerner

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It is no secret that the Atlanta Falcons have been a woeful franchise in the past two years following their NFC Championship run in 2013. After being embarrassed at home by the 6-8-1 Carolina Panthers in what was essentially a playoff game to finish the 2014 season decisions had to be made on what the next step to rebuilding a once successful team would be.

Rather than putting faith in Mike Smith (the team’s head coach for seven seasons), owner Arthur Blank took the team in a new direction. Although Smith put up an atrocious record of 10-22 in his last two seasons as head coach, he is the winningest coach in Falcons history and guided the team to the playoffs four of seven seasons.

It is very easy to blame Smith for the team’s collapse, but it is extremely unfair to do so. In his final season, the team was plagued by injuries, specifically the offensive line, losing four of five starters during the season. Along with injuries, nothing seemed to go the team’s way. Dropped passes were a recurring theme, with tight end Levine Toilolo under heavy scrutiny. There is only so much a coach can do to put players in position to make plays, so ultimately, it comes down to the players. Not that Smith had no part in the team’s poor performance, but singling out Smith is harsh and unreasonable.

Following Smith’s firing, the Falcons looked to Seattle, a team which came within a yard of consecutive Super Bowl wins, to fill Smith’s former position. Blank found a suitable replacement in former Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. In addition to replacing Smith with Quinn, Blank hired a new offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan from the Cleveland Browns, and a new defensive coordinator, Richard Smith, who coached Denver’s linebackers. Along with the coaching changes, the Falcons are currently building a new $1 billion stadium.

In terms of personnel change, general manager Thomas Dimitroff signed free agent linebacker Justin Durant from Dallas. Durant has forced a fumble and leads the team in tackles three games into the season. Along with the acquisition of Durant, Dimitroff made effort to strengthen the team’s defense by drafting former Clemson teammates defensive end Vic Beasley and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. This season, Beasley has shown out, leading the team and all rookies in sacks.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Falcons sought to address the departure of veteran running back Steven Jackson, who is currently an unsigned free agent. They did this by drafting running back Tevin Coleman out of Indiana to compliment Devonta Freeman in the backfield. The team also looked to confront its struggles at the tight end position from last season. The solution came in the form of Jacob Tamme, backup tight end from Denver, whose success with the Broncos was eclipsed by superstar Julius Thomas.

So far this season, the Falcons are undefeated at 4-0 in a first-place tie with Carolina and are in great position to win the NFC South. Behind Quinn’s leadership, the Dirty Birds are ranked fourth in the NFL in total offense and fourth in passing yards per game. Most notably, the Falcons have won three out of four games this season with fourth quarter comebacks, whereas last season, the final period of almost every game was characterized by groaning Falcons fans.

Quinn has given the team exactly what it needs: a new identity. The new Falcons are executing in crunch time, only allowing an average of 2.3 points in the fourth quarter in their first three games. The Texans scored 21 points in the fourth quarter because the Falcons substituted out their starting players with a 42 point lead. Quarterback Matt Ryan has time to pick the defense apart with his weapons on the outside, specifically Julio Jones, who is on pace for a record-setting season and currently is tied for the lead in the NFL for receiving yards.

This offensive play is in large part thanks to Shanahan’s creative offensive style, putting players like Jones in good position to make plays. His zone running scheme has also been successful in opening the passing game up and keeping defenses guessing.

Although Smith’s firing may not have been the most popular move, the team has had great success under its new leadership and hopes to be a playoff contender after two seasons of sub par performances. Quinn has put the team in position to return to its glory of three seasons ago minus the disappointing loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game.

Given the team’s new success, fans have reason to believe in the once woeful Falcons. Only time will tell if this success can be continued, but it is hard to imagine the team in the same position without Quinn.

Despite the bizarre dismissal of Smith, it is beginning to seem like one of the greatest decisions Arthur Blank could have made in regards to the team’s future.


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