NRG Stadium has become a house of horrors for Dan Quinn and the Falcons. This weekend’s visit for their matchup against the Texans was the team’s first trip to Houston since its devastating collapse in Super LI. You may remember: Up 28-3 late in the third quarter, the Falcons were 18 minutes away from sitting atop the football world. Instead, the Patriots scored 31 unanswered points to take the title for themselves. And after Sunday’s embarrassing 53-32 loss to the Texans, the Falcons couldn’t be further away from the championship-caliber team they were during their last trip to Houston. The two and a half years since that heartbreaking Super Bowl loss have seen the franchise slowly descend the league’s ranks, and with the Falcons now sitting at 1-4, it seems like time might be running out on Quinn’s tenure in Atlanta.
No single factor has brought the Falcons to this point. There are plenty of reasons for Atlanta’s struggles since 2016 and its horrible start this season —from ill-timed injuries, to bloated contracts, to a lack of player development. But while the franchise has searched for answers by shuffling its coaching staff and making bold personnel choices, it’s steadily slipped in the wrong direction.
The loss of former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan (who was hired as the 49ers’ head coach after Super Bowl LI) is often blamed for the Falcons’ shortcomings over the past three seasons, but their issues go beyond one play-caller. Atlanta’s offense hasn’t been able to replicate the world-destroying heights it reached under Shanahan, when the unit led the NFL in points per game and DVOA, but as recently as last season, the Falcons still fielded a top-10 group. That performance wasn’t enough for coordinator Steve Sarkisian to keep his job, though, as he, defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel, and special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong were all fired following the team’s 7-9 finish. To set a new course this season, the Falcons brought in Dirk Koetter as their offensive coordinator, and Quinn announced that he would take over duties as the defensive play-caller. The wholesale overhaul was a vote of confidence in Quinn by the organization, and the blame for the Falcons’ stumbles coming out of the gate will fall squarely at his feet.
The hope was that with Quinn taking over the defense, Atlanta could finally realize the potential it showed during the team’s Super Bowl run. That season, many of the Falcons’ best defenders—like Deion Jones, Grady Jarrett, Vic Beasley, and Keanu Neal—were rookies or second-year players, and the assumption was that they’d eventually form the core of a formidable defense. That just hasn’t happened. Injuries tore the unit apart last year, as the Falcons lost key contributors like Jones, Neal, and safety Ricardo Allen for the majority of the season. But even as it’s gotten healthier this season, Quinn’s group has failed to make much progress. The Texans’ 53-point explosion on Sunday—in which Deshaun Watson threw for 426 yards and five touchdowns to consistently wide-open receivers—feels like rock bottom.
Losing Neal to a torn Achilles in Week 3 was a crushing blow to the secondary, but the real problem for Atlanta’s defense is that many of its formerly young, promising players haven’t taken steps forward. Jones and Jarrett are both stars, but Beasley—who’s carrying a $12.8 million cap hit while playing on his fifth-year option—has never been able to replicate the All-Pro season he had in 2016. Fellow pass rusher and 2017 first-round pick Takkarist McKinley has only 12 disrupted dropbacks on the season, according to Pro Football Focus, about half the total of the league’s best edge rushers. In many ways, this unit is no better than it was during its Super Bowl run, when it ranked 26th in defensive DVOA, and while Jones and Jarrett were bargains back then, now they’re playing on top-of-market deals.
It’s those kinds of deals that have made 2019 such a crucial season for Quinn and the franchise. As Over the Cap’s Jason Fitzgerald pointed out on Sunday, Atlanta’s average annual contract value is $223.8 million—the highest total in the NFL. General manager Thomas Dimitroff built this team to contend right now, which makes the 1-4 start all the more disheartening. The Falcons are currently set to spend $133.4 million on their offense in 2020—the most in the NFL by nearly $25 million. The combined $53.9 million cap hit of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones accounts for a huge chunk of that spending, but left tackle Jake Matthews will also make $16 million and currently has the third-highest AAV at the position. Alex Mack is one of the 10 most expensive centers in the NFL, and Devonta Freeman has the fifth-highest AAV among running backs. The Falcons also used nearly all of their available resources to bolster the offensive line this offseason. Dimitroff spent a majority of what little free-agency money he had on guards James Carpenter and Jamon Brown, then used his first-round pick on guard Chris Lindstrom and traded his second- and third-round picks to move up to no. 31 to take right tackle Kaleb McGary. Losing Lindstrom to a season-ending foot injury in Week 2 was an unfortunate break, but bringing in four new offensive linemen was supposed to insulate the team from injuries to the group. Instead, even with all of those investments, both the line and the entire offense have taken a significant step back under Koetter.
The Falcons ranked a middling 21st in offensive DVOA coming into Week 5, and with the amount that Atlanta has spent on this group, that’s just not going to cut it. Koetter, a retread in his second stint with the team after a forgettable run as the Buccaneers head coach, was always an uninspired choice as the team’s new offensive coordinator. By cutting bait with Sarkisian and starting anew with Koetter, Quinn put even more pressure on himself this season, and through five games, Atlanta looks worse off than it was before.
There probably isn’t much hope for Falcons in 2019. With the Saints still looking like one of the NFL’ s best teams even without Drew Brees, and Carolina riding Christian McCaffrey to a 3-0 record since Cam Newton went down with a foot injury, it’s hard to see how Atlanta could make an unlikely playoff run this season. And the aggressive bets that the franchise made this offseason give Dimitroff little flexibility to quickly turn things around. The Falcons are capped out next season, and after using all their high-end draft capital this year along the offensive line, there is no inexpensive homegrown talent remaining on the defense. No matter who’s in charge, that unit feels like it’s more than a year away from a significant step forward. Ryan’s $33.6 million cap hit in 2020 may look an anvil tied around the organization’s waist, but as quarterback contracts around the league explode, that’s a palatable number for a franchise QB with a proven track record. With the right offensive coordinator hire, a unit led by Ryan and Jones could easily be among the league’s best.
But as of right now, it seems like that won’t be Quinn’s hire to make. After Sunday’s loss, Falcons owner Arthur Blank told reporters that he didn’t see any immediate changes on the horizon. “There are a lot of games left in this season,” Blank told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The staff has performed at a much higher level in the past—and these players have, too.” In Atlanta’s case, though, “the staff” refers mostly to its head coach. Many of the assistants from years past are still with the franchise, but by replacing the team’s offensive coordinator after a relatively successful season for that group and taking the reins of the defense, Quinn has trained the white-hot spotlight directly on himself—and his seat is heating up. It’s difficult to fathom, considering how close Atlanta was to the mountaintop only a few years ago, but it’s been nothing but disappointment since 28-3. The Falcons are a smart, patient organization that won’t make a rash decision when it comes to Quinn. But it feels like change is imminent for a team that’s built to win right now.