ESPN believes Falcons won’t miss Julio Jones, predicts improvement in 2021

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Bill Barnell of ESPN is making some waves among NFL media. Using statistics from 2020 and historical evidence, he challenged the more mainstream narratives surrounding some teams heading into the 2021 season. Famously, the NFL stands for Not For Long. The one thing you can count on, which Barnell notes, is that things in the league will never stay the same.

Beginning with arguing that the Packers’ offense is in line for some regression, he transitions to Atlanta, “The Falcons won’t miss Julio Jones as much as you think,” his section header reads. Obviously, every NFL team would be better with the star wide receiver in their lineup, which Barnell notes.

“Since Jones entered the league in 2011, Ryan has posted a QBR of 72.5 with the former Alabama star on the field and a 63.2 mark without him. Let’s not pretend that the Falcons are going to be a better version of themselves in 2021 by subbing in Olamide Zaccheaus for a future Hall of Famer.”

He’s right that someone like seventh-round pick Frank Darby or Zaccheaus will step in and replicate what Julio was able to do. Still, his entire point was, even without Jones, the Falcons will improve because of the team’s win expectancy in multiple losses from 2021.

“They lost two games in which they held a win expectancy of 99%. No other team lost more than one, and only one other team (the 2016 Chargers) lost two of those games in a single season over the last seven seasons…” Barnell harshly reminds Falcons fans.

“In Week 2, the Falcons went up 20-0 on the Cowboys in the first quarter and held a nine-point lead when they punted with 3:09 to go in the fourth, only for Dallas to score a touchdown, mesmerize Atlanta’s coverage units with an onside kick and then complete a pass to CeeDee Lamb to set up a 46-yard field goal for the victory. The following week, Atlanta had a 99% win expectancy with a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter and the Bears facing a fourth-and-8 at midfield. Chicago converted and scored three straight touchdowns before a Ryan interception ended the game.”

The Falcons organization fell into some fog of complacency and lost the ability to win close games, but Barnell doesn’t stop at just two games. After all, even if the Falcons finished 6-10, the season would be viewed as an equal failure as a 4-12 season, just without the national embarrassment of losing two games in historical fashion. There are more instances of leads blown late in the game.

 “The 2020 Falcons lost four games in which they held a win expectancy of at least 90%. The only other team to do that was the Chargers. No other team lost more than two such games, and just two other teams (the 2013 Bucs and 2015 Giants) lost as many over the past decade,” Barnell explains.

In Week 7, the Falcons took a 22-16 lead over the Lions when Todd Gurley attempted to hold up at the 1-yard line and fell into the end zone. With 57 seconds on the clock and no timeouts, the Lions drove 75 yards in eight plays (three of which were spikes) before scoring the game-winning touchdown with all zeroes on the clock. In Week 15, facing the eventual Super Bowl champion Bucs, Atlanta held a 24-7 lead midway through the third quarter. Tampa Bay scored 17 unanswered points to tie the game, and while a Younghoe Koo field goal gave Atlanta a fourth-quarter lead, Antonio Brown‘s 46-yard touchdown handed the game to the Bucs.”

Nobody would argue that losing Jones benefits the Falcons, but most of the critical pieces from the 2020 roster are still in town, meaning regression to the average will come. I’d be willing to be the Falcons wouldn’t lose those games again even with the same coaching staff and 53-man roster. Insert Arthur Smith, and I believe new management will result in more close games won, and so does Bill Barnell.


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