The fixed order of the NFL is to give contracts to the big stars. If an organization gets hit by poor coaching, injuries, close losses, and underperformance of those stars, an unholy mess follows and the salary cap becomes a ball-and-chain. The Falcons are in the pit of that mess this week and owner Arthur Blank, at last, recognized it is time to fire head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff. Atlanta is 0-5 and the ignominy of the dismissal wasn’t carried out on Zoom, but in a late-night statement Sunday.
All those contracts, the parade of big money, deal after deal, promise after promise, and the Falcons are winless. Quinn and Dimitroff were co-joined in the drafts, trades, and roster construction that have soured.
The deals are haunting. Linebacker Deion Jones received a $57 million dollar extension in 2019 and has not played well in 2020 and has set a poor example with humdrum play.
Jones was entrusted to be the soul of the defense, but he was lackadaisical in coverage on a touchdown at Green Bay and just plain asleep on a touchdown Sunday in the loss to Carolina. The Falcons’ $14.3 million a year linebacker was in the middle of the field inside the end zone when the Panthers lined up for second down at the Atlanta 3-yard line. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater faked to Davis and then Davis went into the right flat and caught an easy touchdown pass. Jones was flat-footed at the snap and started running to cover Davis while the ball was in the air.
Defensive end Dante Fowler, Jr., a pass rusher extraordinaire, seems to have lost those quarterback-hawking skills after getting a 3-year, $48 million deal this past offseason. When he tried to rush from the left side, away from the tight end, Fowler was handled one-on-one by Carolina right tackle Taylor Moton. Having All-Pro tackle Grady Jarrett push the pocket is not enough help.
There were hints in 2019 that injuries might be catching up to veteran wide receiver Julio Jones, but the Falcons still allowed themselves to be pressured into signing him to a contract extension (3 years, $66 million) when he still had two years left on his deal. Jones did not play for the second straight game because of injuries Sunday in a 23-16 loss to Carolina. Jones has played through injuries throughout his career, so to suddenly get sidelined has to be concerning.
Defensive end Takk McKinley, a first-round choice in 2017, has shown flashes of being an elite rusher, but injuries have stalled his development.
The young cornerbacks Kendall Sheffield (4th round, 2019) and A.J. Terrell (1st round, 2020) have been thrust into prime roles and are not ready. Tight end Hayden Hurst, acquired from Baltimore to replace All-Pro Austin Hooper, cannot get open. The Falcons have some players, like tight end, H-Back Luke Stocker, that you wonder why they are on the roster to begin with because they do not seem to contribute.
On Sunday, the area around Mercedes-Benz Stadium was desolate and grim, and not all because of Covid-19. The team that went to the 2016 season Super Bowl and made a strong showing in the 2017 season playoffs, has disintegrated. The crowd was announced at 6,656 because of pandemic restrictions, but you can bet the attendance will be bad into next season when things return to normal.
Now, do the Falcons, on top of everything else, have a quarterback problem? Matt Ryan has not looked elite this season and occasionally descends into harmful. In 2018, Ryan agreed to a five-year contract extension that will play him $30 million a year, $100,000 of it guaranteed.
Sunday, with the Falcons trailing 20-13 and at the Carolina 5-yard line, Ryan threw an interception in the end zone. It wasn’t just a pick; Ryan threw a desperation ball right into the chest of safety Juston Burris.
“We didn’t really have anything there and not the time to just kind of lob one up,” Ryan said. “So that sucks. That’s part of it. It’s not fun but that’s part of playing sports. When you have the ball in your hand you’ve got to make decisions. I made the wrong one there, wrong play and it cost us. That was a tough one.”
Ryan is 16th in Quarterback Rating this season. Sunday he threw behind receivers, or threw over their heads.
On one play, the tight end Hurst got behind the defense in the end zone and Ryan threw it high, off the tight end’s hands. Earlier in the game, Hurst ran a route, sat down inside the zone, and Ryan tried to throw it just above the helmet of a defensive player standing between Ryan and Hurst. The pass was a puzzling attempt and tipped and incomplete.
The Falcons have a lot of money tied up in big deals for stars, like Ryan, Julio Jones, Deion Jones, and left tackle Jake Matthews, so not much in the way of salary cap space to fix a myriad of problems, especially on defense.
Even coaching staff moves have not panned out. Joe Whitt, Jr., a highly-regarded secondary coach, has not gotten his unit to play at a consistent level.
Cornerback Isaiah Oliver, who seemed to break through as a reliable cover guy in 2019, has gone backwards. He was embarrassed Sunday when Carolina wideout DJ Moore took four steps inside, turned and retraced his steps back outside, and took a pass from Bridgewater. Moore burned Oliver for a 57-yard score.
Quinn had the loyalty of his team with a culture of good will and inspiration. It got him a second chance in 2019 after a 1-7 start and 6-2 finish. The momentum from 2019 has not translated into wins and he is not going to get another chance to turn it around. In six seasons, Quinn’s record was 43-42.