This is part two of a three-part series on what an ‘ideal’ offseason could look like to get the Falcons back to the playoffs in 2021. Check out part one if you have not already.
In the first part of the series, I presented a different way of interpreting Matt Ryan’s disappointing past couple of years. I used Aaron Rodgers’ “down years” as reference points instead of isolating Ryan’s statistics and taking them for face value. What it showed was Ryan’s past two years were eerily similar, statistically, to Rodgers’ “down years” — 2017 and 2018 under Mike McCarthy. Following ahead with the timeline in Green Bay, Rodgers has returned to an MVP-caliber quarterback this season due mostly to a change in offensive philosophies.
Loosely using Green Bay’s recent methodology, I will outline an offseason road map for the Falcons to return to playoff contention and refrain from being too overzealous to keep it as close to reality as possible. I also have placed the same constraints on myself in this fictitious offseason to mitigate the possibility of any confirmation bias. We will start at the top with the general manager and work our way down to the head coach, then the roster for part three.
Following the end of the season, Arthur Blank and Rich McKay spoke with the media about what the future holds. In essence, both men want to compete immediately and sustain a winning culture. I wrote more about the actual media session, be sure to check it out. This is the basis I will use when contemplating my offseason transactions and hires. Instead of going all-in on the 2021 season or advocating for a complete rebuild, obliging by Uncle Arthur’s request to be competitive now and in the foreseeable future is much more useful.
Arthur Blank: We're interested in a sustainable winning team for a long period of time.
— William McFadden (@willmcfadden) January 4, 2021
Each decision was made with the preconceived notion that Atlanta keeps Matt Ryan and Julio Jones.
Beginning with the general manager, I wanted to select someone who believes mostly in drafting and developing but also realizes a roster is fluid, requiring additional free agent acquisitions to round out the 53-man roster. Terry Fontenot is my guy. Fontenot has been with the Saints for close to 20 years, climbing the ranks to his current position as vice president/assistant general manager of pro personnel acting as general manager Mickey Loomis’ right-hand man. The list below is of the notable players acquired during his time with the team.
- DE Cameron Jordan – via draft
- RB Mark Ingram – via draft
- CB Keenan Lewis – via free agency
- TE Benjamin Watson – via free agency
- OT Terron Armstead – via draft
- WR Brandin Cooks – via draft
- C Max Unger – via trade
- OT Andrus Peat – via draft
- WR Michael Thomas – via draft
- S Vonn Bell – via draft
- DT David Onyemata – via draft
- DT Sheldon Rankins – via draft
- G Larry Warford – via free agency
- WR Ted Ginn Jr. – via free agency
- LB A.J. Klein – via free agency
- CB Marshon Lattimore – via draft
- OT Ryan Ramczyk – via draft
- FS Marcus Williams – via draft
- RB Alvin Kamara – via draft
- DE Trey Hendrickson – via draft
- DE Marcus Davenport – via draft
- WR Tre’Quan Smith – via draft
- LB Alex Anzalone – via draft
- OL Nick Easton – via free agency
- RB Latavius Murray – via free agency
- TE Jared Cook – via free agency
- C Erik McCoy – via draft
- S Chauncey Gardner-Johnson – via draft
- QB Teddy Bridgewater – via trade
- CB Eli Apple – via trade
- S Malcolm Jenkins – via free agency
- WR Emmanuel Sanders – via free agency
- QB Jameis Winston – via free agency
Mickey Loomis obviously deserves a majority of the credit or blame for any acquisitions as it is his final decision, but Terry Fontenot’s advancement in the organization indicates the confidence Loomis has in him. What is most telling about Fontenot’s resumé is his ability to find talent in the trenches. Cameron Jordan, Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, David Onyemata, Sheldon Rankins, Ryan Ramczyk, Trey Hendrickson, Marcus Davenport, Erik McCoy, and Cesar Ruiz were all drafted under his tenure. This was especially important when determining my preferred general manager because there has not been an area where the Falcons have drafted worse than the defensive line. With the likes of those names, you have to feel confident in his ability to bolster the trenches.
Now moving on to the head coach. My initial vote was for Joe Brady, but the safer alternative is Arthur Smith. I chose Smith over Brady for one lone reason, the offensive philosophy. Our own Kristopher Shrader wrote a piece on Smith that covers his journey and scheme, so be sure to check it out if you have not. Instead of echoing what Kristopher has already said about the different positions Smith has served under, I will expand more on his offense and why it has a better chance of immediate and sustained success in Atlanta compared to Joe Brady’s and Eric Bieniemy’s.
Brady and Bieniemy’s offenses are highly creative, but both lack the simplicity that Smith’s has. Smith’s offense is similar to the Kyle Shanahan/Sean McVay modern outside zone systems, which happens to be the most quarterback-friendly offense in the NFL. Easier reads for the quarterback is the goal, and the play-action off of the outside zone looks identical to an actual run for defenses, rather than standard dropback passes.
Quarterbacks with far less talent and knowledge of the game than Matt Ryan have found success in the NFL within these systems. Baker Mayfield/Kevin Stefanski, Mitchell Trubisky/Matt Nagy, Jimmy Garoppolo/Kyle Shanahan, and even Jared Goff/Sean McVay are all situations where the play-caller makes the quarterback look better than they actually are. Not the other way around where the quarterback makes the system look better than it actually is, i.e., Matt Ryan and Dirk Koetter or the final two years of Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy (from part 1).
Brady and Bieniemy might be able to win more games in 2021 than Smith, but Smith’s offense’s longevity and consistency far outweigh that of Brady and Bieniemy. Brady had Joe Burrow, Bieniemy had Patrick Mahomes. Matt Ryan is fully capable of running either offense, but referencing Uncle Arthur — Atlanta wants a sustainable culture. How realistic is it to assume that the next quarterback the Falcons draft will be able to diagnose and execute these more difficult offenses? Much less realistic than an offense like the one in Tennessee, Green Bay, or San Francisco.
Matt Ryan, who won an MVP with Kyle Shanahan, would excel in this system. Instead of relying on matchups, this offense is much more about progressions and scheme. The philosophy of multiple crossers and different variations of mesh routes creates confusion and breakdowns on the defensive side of the ball. These concepts are not unique by any means, but the way LaFleur and Shanahan use them in conjunction with their motions and play actions makes them much more challenging to defend.
This type of system is easily transferrable from one quarterback to another, as shown by the 49ers, who have won games the past two seasons with three different quarterbacks. Immediate success with Ryan and continued prosperity with Ryan’s eventual successor is the goal.
What makes this even more appealing is the level of play Matt Ryan is capable of compared to Ryan Tannehill, Baker Mayfield, or Jimmy Garoppolo. Matt Ryan has the ability to change plays at the line after the initial diagnosis of the defense, whereas the others are much more limited in that area. What is also different in Atlanta is the ability to sit back and pass more reliably than the aforementioned teams.
Defenses have shut down these types of offenses before, i.e., Jimmy Garoppolo and Jared Goff in their respective Super Bowls. Green Bay neutralized Tennessee’s offense a couple of weeks ago by stopping the run and defending the play-action appropriately. What happened? Tannehill was awful in the first half and was regularly pressured as the Titans offensive line is not built for protecting straight drops. But those cases are much different than what the Falcons would deal with. Matt Ryan is smarter and a more skilled thrower of the football, making him better suited to deal with a situation like this than any of the other aforementioned quarterbacks would be (other than Rodgers).
Arthur Smith also should be praised for his profound effect on the individuals within the offense. A.J. Brown’s second season landed him in the Pro Bowl, and Corey Davis’ bounce-back year also came under Smith’s guidance. Derrick Henry rushed for 2,027 yards this season, the fifth-most in NFL history. But he barely had broken the 1,000-yard mark in 2018. As the full-time tight ends coach in 2016, he helped Delanie Walker make three straight Pro Bowls.
As a former college offensive lineman himself, Smith also has the ability to accentuate what an offensive line does well. Last year, the Titans offensive line ranked in the top 11 in both run and pass blocking while finishing eighth in PFF’s regular-season rankings. This year is no different, as the unit has graded out similarly, with only two linemen graded in the top 15 at their position — Ben Jones and Rodger Saffold.
But what is most impressive is the transformation of Ryan Tannehill. From being labeled by many as a bust in Miami to winning the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award, Tannehill has shown exactly how this type of system caters to quarterbacks. In Smith’s offense, Tannehill is one of the league’s most efficient quarterbacks and passed for the third-most yards in franchise history this season.
Be sure to check out part one, and be on the lookout for part three, where I will perform surgery on the Falcons roster.
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