I don’t know what was going through Matt Ryan’s head as Cameron Jordan closed in for his fourth sack of the night – ninth by the team as a whole – but I’m fully aware of what I was thinking.
It’s time to move on.
The play came on fourth down for the Falcons (3-9) as they trailed by 8 with less than a minute to go, dashing any brittle hope still held in the minds of Atlanta’s most faithful that their team could be the one to run the table and sneak into the second wildcard spot. In an instant, the final shred of hope that this generation of Falcons players would get another shot at the franchise’s elusive first Super Bowl victory next February vanished, and now the team has some decisions to make.
Should Matt Ryan remain the starting quarterback for the rest of this season? Should Dan Quinn hold onto his position as head coach? What about the team’s other oft-injured or recently underperforming fixtures like Devonta Freeman and Julio Jones? When does the Super Bowl window close and the rebuild begin?
It’s not a call that anyone is excited to make, but it’s a necessary one: The Falcons need to clean house, acquire draft capital, start over.
After three straight seasons of .500 or better, Atlanta clinched its second straight losing year with Thursday’s 26-18 Thanksgiving loss to New Orleans, and the team has been on a downward trajectory ever since going up 28-3 on the Patriots in Super Bowl LI.
After an early season defensive collapse, the Falcons finally got things together following the bye week, only for Ryan to regress in the past two weeks. Essentially, it’s been a disaster, and this week’s squandering of three consecutive recovered onside kicks – thanks in large part to Ryan’s three turnovers – was just the latest (and most frustrating) of a season full of failures.
So what can be done now?
First and foremost, the team needs to shut down Ryan for the season. The structure of his recently-signed deal means he’s unlikely to be cut by the team in coming years, but there’s no sense in keeping him on the field this year. Further wins serve only to decrease the value of Atlanta’s next draft pick, and shoddy offensive line play puts Ryan’s longtime health in jeopardy. Sitting down Julio Jones – whose new deal signed at the beginning of this season is fully guaranteed and keeps him tied to the team for at least the next two seasons – would also be a good move.
Top to bottom changes in the coaching staff are even more essential, and it truly may be time to move on from Dan Quinn. Most Falcons fans were resigned to the fact before the start of the year that Quinn was going to be let go if the team did not make the playoffs this season. Now that Atlanta is mathematically eliminated, that hope is gone, so why wait on making a coaching change? Quinn bet on himself this season by reclaiming control of the defense, but he failed to make the requisite changes to make the Falcons a competitive team.
Available coaches on the market may be question marks at this point, but Quinn has slowly proven that he cannot convert the talent currently on his team’s roster into wins. It’s time to give someone else a shot.
The Falcons are not threatening to win anything this year, and they can’t afford to waste another season of the best quarterback to wide receiver connection in franchise history in 2020 on a coaching staff that doesn’t have what it takes to put them in the best position for success.
Most importantly of all though, ownership needs to look at the coming draft as a turning point for football in Atlanta. It’s been a good run from this generation of Falcons, but if they don’t act with urgency, what could have been an easy turnaround could turn into years of mediocrity and half-hearted rebuilding. The team needs to start picking up draft picks at the expense of competing now, bolstering its future by sacrificing wins this season.
And while he doesn’t necessarily have to be a first-round pick or start this coming season, the team’s quarterback of the future should be selected this May. Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm – who would likely be available to choose with Atlanta’s second-round selection – could be a good option.
The tide is changing for the Falcons, a situation that is growing impossible to ignore. If they want the inevitable rebuild to go as smoothly as possible, they need to stop fighting it.
Nathan Berg is sports writer for The Times. He can be reached at email@example.com or @NathanxBerg on Twitter.