Following the Falcons loss to the Saints on Thanksgiving, the Dirty Birds are officially eliminated from the playoffs, while New Orleans has already clinched the NFC South. Imagine saying that ten weeks ago, when Drew Brees broke his thumb, and Atlanta was coming off a thrilling victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday Night Football. The door looked to be wide open for the Falcons to take advantage of an injury-riddled division, and instead, they crumbled.
Atlanta went on to lose six straight games, coincidently breaking their losing streak in New Orleans, who were on a six-game winning streak of their own. That win would only temporarily stop the suffering of what was already a lost season. Two weeks later, Atlanta would fall at home to the Bucs, effectively ending any last hopes they had of postseason play.
Given the Falcons expectations coming into the season, this has to be among the most disappointing seasons in franchise history. Several aspects of Atlanta’s team will make a football purist’s stomach turn, but my list of frustrations begins with the result of what happens when you mix a high-priced stadium with porous play.
3. The home crowd
Say what you want about the Georgia Dome, but that place was rocking with droves of Falcons faithful more often than not. With the new stadium came higher ticket prices and PSLs that few fans were willing to pay, especially for a franchise that has shown little to no consistency since their inception in 1966. Mercedez-Benz Stadium opened in 2017, and the Falcons haven’t had a real home-field advantage for three consecutive seasons.
Some of that has to do with poor play. It’s difficult to convince the most optimistic of fans to waste their Sundays off watching an uninspiring 1-7 team. However, that is only part of the problem. Even in 2017, when the Falcons had a respectable 10-6 record and made the playoffs, the stadium was never full. That problem has only worsened over the past two seasons, as the Benz has looked like a ghost town on most Sundays, and the few fans that do show up are usually rooting for the opposing team.
As a result, Atlanta is 1-5 at home this season with several blowouts. They were 4-4 in 2018 and 5-3 in 2017, giving the Falcons a 10-12 record all-time in their shiny new stadium. Make no mistake about it; I’m not blaming the fans. Arthur Blank sold out, and it has cost his team substantially. Now, the Falcons wouldn’t be 22-0 at the Georgia Dome, but I guarantee the energy in that place would feel a lot different every Sunday, no matter what the record of the home team is. Hopefully, this will be fixed because it is flat out embarrassing, but I don’t see that happening until the Falcons begin to look like Super Bowl contenders again, which could be years.
2. Dan Quinn’s defense
Everyone was excited to hear Dan Quinn was going to take full control of the defense this season after what happened a year ago. But for some reason, things never clicked for this unit under his command. It eventually got so bad that Quinn essentially fired himself by handing the playcalling over to Jeff Ulbrich and Raheem Morris. An even worse sign for him – the defense took significant steps forward once he was relieved of his duties.
This was a unit hampered by injuries in 2018. With everyone returning, there was a reason to believe the Falcons could be a top ten defense again. But instead, missed assignments and a lack of a pass rush plagued them. They are near the bottom in several defensive categories, and it’s challenging not to point the finger right at Quinn. Kudos to him for recognizing that he was part of the problem, but that shouldn’t be enough to help him save his job. There are still many talented pieces on defense heading into the 2020 season, but Atlanta has to get way better at pressuring the quarterback if they are going to turn things around next year.
1. The offensive line
While I had to give Quinn much of the blame for a struggling defense, I have to point the finger at Thomas Dimitroff for the biggest disappointment of the 2019 season, which has been the offensive line.
After an underwhelming 2018 on offense, Dimitroff spent nearly all of his offseason resources ensuring Matt Ryan would not be on his back all season. They signed guards Jamon Brown and James Carpenter – both of whom have not been worth the money they were given. Dimitroff also brought back Ty Sambrailo, who has been an overpaid potato all season. Then, they spent their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd round picks on two offensive linemen (traded back up into the first round).
Unfortunately, Chris Lindstrom suffered a foot injury in Week 1 and has yet to play since. You can’t fault Dimitroff for that, and I do believe Lindstrom will be instrumental to this group bouncing back in 2020. With their second pick in the first round, the Falcons selected Kaleb McGary. McGary has experienced some growing pains at right tackle, but overall, I’d say he’s at least reached expectations in year one, becoming an undisputed full-time starter.
But while you may not be able to put a grade on Dimitroff’s draft-day decisions yet, you can fault him for the guys he brought in this offseason. Those millions of dollars spent on Brown, Carpenter, and Sambrailo were wasted, leaving the Falcons with an offensive line that might be even worse than it was last year. Now there’s an excellent chance Atlanta cuts two or all three of them this offseason, eating even more money. For a team that many like to say will be in “salary cap hell,” that’s not what you want to hear.
Matt Ryan has been under duress all season, and nothing points to that like the nine sacks he took on Thanksgiving day against the Saints, including three on the final drive.