Atlanta Falcons expect intense position battles during training camp in Flowery Branch
Football is back.
Those three words are what the entire National Football League fan base — including myself — have been anxiously waiting to say for months.
The Atlanta Falcons will officially take flight at Flowery Branch Thursday, so that means last season’s frustrations can be brushed aside to make room for a fresh start. A clean slate for all, especially for quarterback Matt Ryan.
The 31-year-old veteran once again came under much scrutiny after tossing 16 picks — the second most in his career — and losing five fumbles in 2015. The Falcons also watched an uplifting 5-0 start, with four of those wins against NFC East opponents, plummet to a disappointing finish, an 8-8 record and no playoffs to show for it under rookie head coach Dan Quinn. Atlanta’s offense also averaged a measly 16.2 points per game in the final nine-game stretch.
Early talks of Quinn earning the league’s coach of the year distinction quickly became an afterthought in the weeks following the Falcons’ loss to New Orleans in Week 6. Atlanta went on to reach the endzone just once in their win against Tennessee on the road in Week 7, then lost 7 of 10 to close out the season.
With the exception of handing Carolina its first and only regular season loss on Dec. 22, those so-called “highlights” of Atlanta’s epic collapse included the infamous 20-yard pickup by Jameis Winston on third and 19 late in the fourth quarter in a 23-19 Week 13 loss, and Ryan’s uncharacteristic pick-six thrown to Indianapolis Colts D’Qwell Jackson from inside Atlanta’s 10-yard line in the fourth quarter of a 24-21 loss two weeks prior. But I digress.
I am confident Matty Ice will adjust, if not thrive in Shanahan’s scheme in 2016. Simply put, his successes outweigh all the faults.
It’s no secret that Ryan has taken two steps back since his contract extension, though this feels to be the first time in his career where he was unable to immediately grasp a new offense. To remind you, the Falcons’ all-time leading passer has proven time and time again he can take the hits as one of the NFL’s most sacked signal callers and make the most out of the circumstances — lack of pass rush and a below-average offensive line to name a couple deficits.
Leading up to 2015, there have been just two quarterbacks in the NFL to compile three-or-more consecutive seasons with 4,500-plus passing yards and 25-plus touchdown passes while maintaining a completion percentage above 66: Peyton Manning and Ryan.
Ryan’s 415 completions in 2013 were the seventh-most in NFL history, all while being sacked a career-high 44 times, sporting a running attack ranked dead last and watching an Atlanta defense give up 26.9 points per game (2013-14). Yes he only has one playoff win under his belt, but without the luxury of a supporting cast, especially a capable pass rush and offensive line, that feat is difficult to attain at the quarterback position alone.
Quinn’s influence has appeared to breathe new life into a defense that has been anything but stellar in the pass-rush department as of late.
The pivotal addition of free-agent center Alex Mack, rookie tight end Austin Hooper and potential No. 2 target Mohamed Sanu could provide huge sparks for Shanahan’s offense as well. Quinn confirmed this week that the team will continue its committee approach with Tevin Coleman and last year’s breakout back Devonta Freeman.
The keys for Ryan’s success in 2016, other than staying healthy and cutting down on turnovers, of course, will rely heavily on Sanu’s quick start in providing more balance in the passing attack and upping red-zone efficiency.
Julio Jones led the league in targets with 204 last season, though the Falcons sported a dismal No. 18 ranking in red zone efficiency at 54.72 percent.
Given Sanu’s unimpressive output (33 catches and no touchdowns) last season, he has a lot to prove. Another bright spot includes the development of second-year receiver Justin Hardy, who continues to show promise in his ability to grasp the offense and produce as one of the prospective kick returners on special teams this year. The Falcons released star returner Devin Hester Tuesday.
Shanahan’s willingness to not only play to Ryan’s strengths (more up-tempo play, less bootlegs), but also adjust in certain situations will be key as well.
The wheels of Atlanta’s offense appeared to fall off and stay off after a 6-1 start in 2015. The passing game became too predictable, Ryan catching too much of the heat — I feel — as a result. Shanahan’s reputation as a “quarterback killer” also came to light in a report by Matthew Chambers of The Falcoholic on Dec. 1, pointing out his dysfunctional relationships with Donovan McNabb, Robert Griffin III and most recently Falcons’ all-time leading receiver Roddy White, who was released by the team on March 2.
The Falcons know what must be done. Now it’s time to go to work.
Sarah Woodall is a sports writer for The Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @woodall8sarah