The Falcons were tied for the best record in the NFL at 13-3 this season, but they were given very little respect throughout, and for good reason. They finished the season ranked just 10th in DVOA, had one of the easiest schedules in football, and were frequently pulling out close victories, going 7-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less. That may seem impressive, but that is unsustainable on a week to week basis and it’s less impressive when you consider most of those wins were against teams like Oakland, Arizona, Tampa Bay, Dallas, and Carolina.
The Falcons were just 2.5 point home favorites for the Seahawks in the divisional round and were the largest home underdog in Conference Championship history against the 49ers. At the end of the day, their doubters were right. After coming back to win against Seattle late, after blowing a 20-0 lead, the Falcons blew a 17-0 point lead against the 49ers and lost by 4, unable to pull out another close win once the level of competition improved.
Their doubters were wrong in one aspect, however. Many people felt that Matt Ryan couldn’t win a playoff game because he was 0-3 in his career in the playoffs coming into the season, which I found to be an absurd argument. Matt Ryan has been among the best regular season quarterbacks since entering the league in 2008, but because of three bad postseason games we were supposed to believe that he suddenly becomes a worse quarterback in the post-season. Two of those games were against future Super Bowl Champions and one was on the road as a rookie against a team that won the NFC and went to the Super Bowl. He was only favored in one and that was against the Packers in 2010, who weren’t going to be beaten.
Matt Ryan proved those people wrong by winning his first post-season game and advancing to his first Conference Championship this year and even though he lost to the 49ers, he still played well. In the post-season, he completed 54 of 77 (70.1%) for 646 yards (8.4 YPA), 6 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions against the NFL’s top-2 scoring defenses, scoring a combined 54 points in the process.
This came after his best regular season ever, as he completed 68.6% of his passes for an average of 7.7 YPA, 32 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions, while leading the Falcons to their second #1 seed in 3 seasons and a career high 26.2 points per game. He was helped by new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and the emergence of arguably the best receiving corps in the NFL.
They’ll probably lose Tony Gonzalez to retirement this off-season, but the future is bright in Atlanta. Matt Ryan is probably around the top-6 to 8 quarterbacks in the NFL and you can definitely win a Super Bowl with him. Heading into a contract year, the Falcons are expected to open up the checkbooks and pay him this off-season. Expect him to get around 100 million over 6 years.
It’s very impressive that the Falcons were able to be as good offensively as they were this season without much of a running game. The 3.7 YPC they averaged ranked 29th in the NFL. Michael Turner looks pretty done. The soon to be 31-year-old is not even close to being worth the 5.5 million he’s owed next season. He averaged 3.6 YPC this season and also averaged about one carry longer than 17 yards per month over the final few months of the season.
He’s never been a pass catcher and he fits Dirk Koetter’s offense like a square peg in a round hole. He’s a mediocre plodder who gets a bunch of 2 and 3 yard carries and he’s not even good in short yardage situations either anymore. He doesn’t have any NFL level skills and he won’t be any better next season. He won’t be back and he might not get another job anywhere. The Falcons like Jacquizz Rodgers, but multiple reports have said they don’t view him as a feature back. They need a power back to split carries with him. There will be plenty of running back options on day 2 of the NFL Draft.
Tony Gonzalez said during the season that he was 95% sure he’d retire and then in the post-season, he changed that number to 97%. After their loss to the 49ers, he said he was “probably” going to retire. I won’t rule out him returning for one more run at the Lombardi. He’s certainly still playing at a high level, but either way, they need a successor, as he turns 37 in February. If the Falcons are interested in keeping their receiving corps at a very high level, which I assume they are, Tyler Eifert and Zach Ertz will be options with the 30th overall pick of the 2013 NFL Draft.
The Falcons made the right move by cutting dead weight and sunk cost Ray Edwards, rather than stubbornly sticking with him. However, they do need someone to be what they were expecting him to be, so expect them to make finding that a priority of their off-season. John Abraham, 35 in May, isn’t getting any younger and none of their recent late round selections have really panned out. It’s time for a blue chip prospect. They use a lot of 3-3 and 2-4 sub packages and they may even switch to a 3-4 base, which is Mike Nolan’s specialty, so whatever pass rusher they bring in needs to be comfortable rushing with his hand in the dirt and standing up.
Peter Konz really struggled as a rookie at right guard, but he’s still a long term starter at center. Todd McClure is a 36 year old free agent this off-season and may be done with the team, if not in the NFL entirely, as he’s reportedly considering retirement. They do, however, need a new right guard. Garrett Reynolds has seen action there over the past 2 years, but he’s a replacement level talent and a free agent this off-season anyway.
The idea was to have Akeem Dent split snaps with Lofa Tatupu and allow Stephen Nicholas to remain a two-down linebacker, but Tatupu got hurt, so that didn’t work. Dent played as the two-down linebacker and didn’t really play that well. Nicholas, meanwhile, was horrible in coverage and obviously shouldn’t be anything more than a 3rd linebacker who plays in base situations. They need another every down linebacker to replace Dent in the middle and play next to Sean Weatherspoon, who is talented, but had a down year. There’s a reason they ranked 29th against the run. If they switch to a 3-4 however, they’ll just need someone to split snaps with Nicholas inside.
Defensive tackle is also part of the reason why they struggled against the run. Corey Peters was awful this year, ranking 84th out of 85 eligible defensive tackles on ProFootballFocus, while Vance Walker is a free agent. Mike Nolan likes having good depth at defensive tackle for all of his various fronts, with 4 guys playing at least 518 snaps for them at the position this year. They need to add another in the mix, preferably a big, run stuffing nose tackle type if they’re going to move to more of a 3-4 base.
William Moore is a talented safety, but he’s a free agent. If he’s not re-signed, he’ll need to be replaced. Thomas DeCoud, meanwhile, misses way too many tackles. His 21 missed tackles were 2nd worst in the NFL. Bringing him back as a starter wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world because he has some ball skills, but interceptions can be inconsistent on a year to year basis (he had 8 in his 4 year career before he had 6 this year). He did only have 2 pass deflections.
Robert McClain stepped up big time as the nickel cornerback in Brent Grimes’ absence, but Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson are both on the wrong side of 30, heading into their age 32 and 31 seasons respectively and the former really showed some signs of decline this season. Cornerbacks take a while to develop so they could bring in a young cornerback in the mid rounds to develop for the future, as lots of teams do. Samuel hits free agency in 2015, while Robinson will be owed a ridiculous 11.5 million that season.
Sam Baker had a very good year in his contract year, but he has a history of inconsistency and injury problems, so the Falcons have to avoid overpaying him. If he’s not brought back, they could need to replace him. Will Svitek is alright, but he did struggle in his absence in 2011, while 2012 3rd round pick Lamar Holmes remains an unknown after playing just 7 snaps as an extra blocker as a rookie.
The Falcons ranked 25th in the NFL, averaging 7.9 yards per punt return.