2019 NFL preview: Matt Ryan was really good in 2018, and Falcons wasted it
Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2019 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on July 31, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.
Historically, what the 2018 Atlanta Falcons did is nearly impossible. Not in a good way.
When a quarterback plays as well as Matt Ryan did last season, his team wins. The Falcons couldn’t even finish .500. It’s very, very rare for a team to be as bad as last year’s Falcons with a quarterback as good as Ryan.
Last season Ryan became the 27th quarterback in NFL history to post a single-season rating better than 108. There are only two quarterbacks on that list who started more than five games and didn’t make the playoffs: Milt Plum of the 1960 Cleveland Browns, and Ryan. The 1960 Browns had the NFL’s second-best record, but only one team from each division played in the NFL championship game. Plum’s Browns finished second in the Eastern Division behind the Eagles.
Ryan’s 4,924 yards last season rank 17th in NFL history. Of the 16 quarterbacks ahead of him, 10 made the playoffs and Drew Brees accounts for four of the six times it didn’t happen (the Saints really failed Brees through too much of his career).
Ryan threw for 35 touchdowns last season. Of the 33 quarterbacks to throw for more than 35 touchdowns in a season, 29 made the playoffs (Steve Beuerlein of the 1999 Panthers, Dan Marino of the 1986 Dolphins and Brees in 2012 and 2016 are the outliers).
By just about any statistical measure, Ryan had a fantastic season. Yet the Falcons went 7-9, and needed to win their last three meaningless games to avoid double-digit losses. Ryan posted what is likely the best quarterback season in NFL history for a losing team. What a waste.
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There were reasons. The defense cratered after a rash of injuries, particularly to linebacker Deion Jones and safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen. They had bad turnover luck (second unluckiest team in the NFL when it came to recovering fumbles). The running game was just decent with Devonta Freeman out most of the season. There were too many games in which the Falcons’ yardage didn’t match its scoring; Atlanta scored fewer than 20 points in six of its nine losses (and Ryan deserves some blame for that).
The Falcons made some major changes the day after the season, but not with head coach Dan Quinn. They fired offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel and special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong. Quinn said he’d take over running the defense. When you make changes like that but keep the head coach, that coach’s seat becomes extremely hot.
The good news is the same as last year: The Falcons have a terrific quarterback. Ryan had a bit of a mid-career lull, but won an MVP in 2016, took a step back in 2017 in his first year with Sarkisian, but bounced back strong in 2018. If you prefer advanced stats Ryan was fourth among NFL QBs last season in Football Outsiders’ DVOA and DYAR metrics, ahead of stars like Ben Roethlisberger, Jared Goff, Tom Brady, Deshaun Watson, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson. He was really good, despite an offensive line that allowed him to get hit a career-high 108 times. We’re getting to a point in which Ryan looks like a Hall of Famer. He might be a Hall of Fame lock had the second half of Super Bowl LI gone even a little better (sorry, Falcons fans).
The roster isn’t without faults, but there is top-end talent. That’s what made last season’s 7-9 record so perplexing. Julio Jones is an easy first-ballot Hall of Famer. Calvin Ridley shined as a rookie. Austin Hooper emerged as a dangerous tight end. Jake Matthews and Alex Mack are blue-chip offensive linemen, and the Falcons drafted two more offensive linemen in the first round this season. The defense showed more cracks than you’d like, but Vic Beasley, Deion Jones, Desmond Trufant and Keanu Neal have all been to a Pro Bowl and Grady Jarrett probably will make it soon.
Star talent isn’t the issue. Quinn has had success as a head coach before. New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is an upgrade, and Quinn should be better than Manuel running the defense. Maybe 2018 was just a strange season, derailed by defensive injuries early on, and Atlanta is due for a rebound. That won’t make up for squandering a great season from Ryan. However, maybe Ryan has another one in him and the Falcons can be a little better around him this time.
The Falcons had limited resources after giving defensive tackle Grady Jarrett the franchise tag, and poured practically everything into improving the offensive line. Guards James Carpenter (four years, $21 million) and Jamon Brown (three years, $18.75 million) were the two big free-agent additions; nobody else got more than $2.75 million per season. Atlanta drafted guard Chris Lindstrom and tackle Kaleb McGary in the first round. The Falcons traded up to get McGary and didn’t have another pick before the fourth round. Atlanta practically had four big chips to play this offseason and used every one on the offensive line. Meanwhile, the Falcons lost veterans like running back Tevin Coleman, cornerback Robert Alford and pass rusher Bruce Irvin. It was prudent for the Falcons to build up an offensive line that really struggled last season, though other areas of need were ignored.
The Falcons might field a more balanced offensive attack in 2019. Devonta Freeman played just two games last season due to knee and groin injuries, and while his injury history is getting worrisome, he’s a dynamic player when he’s healthy. Ito Smith is coming off a solid rookie season and while he has a different skill set than Tevin Coleman, he’s a fine No. 2 to replace the departed Coleman. Assuming all the offensive line additions lead to improvement up front, the Falcons could be pretty good in the run game. That would make their offense even tougher to stop.
The Falcons didn’t have a great season stopping the pass last season. They’ll be better with safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen back after each missed most of last season due to injury. But cornerback is a concern. Desmond Trufant hasn’t been the same player since his Pro Bowl season of 2015. Atlanta let Brian Poole walk and released Robert Alford because his salary was too high. A lot will be expected of 2018 second-round pick Isaiah Oliver, who started just two games last season. In a division with some great quarterbacks and receivers, having questions at cornerback isn’t ideal.
From 2012-14, Dirk Koetter was the Falcons’ offensive coordinator. The Falcons finished sixth, seventh and fifth among all NFL teams in passing yards those three seasons. They finished eighth, third and third in passing attempts. Matt Ryan excelled in Koetter’s offense, making the Pro Bowl twice. Having familiarity with Koetter should be very important for Ryan, who doesn’t have to start from scratch with a new coordinator.
Ryan fits well in Koetter’s aggressive, vertical style of offense. Regardless of what happened with Koetter as Tampa Bay’s head coach, the Buccaneers’ passing offense was explosive. While it will be tough for Ryan to match or improve upon his 2018 numbers, reuniting with Koetter gives him a chance.
No need to overcomplicate this one. Julio Jones is going to finish his career as one of the greatest receivers of all time. He had 113 catches and led the NFL with 1,677 yards last season. His 96.7 yards per game through his career is the best in NFL history, almost 4 yards better than anyone else.
There is the unresolved matter of his contract. Jones wants an extension. Last season he held out of mandatory minicamp but the team gave him a raise right before training camp and said it would get to the extension this offseason. Owner Arthur Blank said Jones will be a Falcon for life. The new deal hasn’t happened yet but Jones was unworried.
“Nah, man, as far as the contract thing, Mr. Blank has spoken,” Jones said, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “At the end of the day, his word is gold. He said they are going to get something done between them and my agency. As far as me, I just hold up my end and stay ready.”
From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Early Yahoo draft rooms are giving you a healthy discount on Austin Hooper, and you should take it. Although Hooper is the TE12 in our staff composite ranks and the 11th tight end off the board in NFFC formats (ADP around 110), he has been a comical steal in the first wave of Yahoo play. For reasons I can’t quite fathom, Hooper is drafted as the TE22 thus far in Yahoo, with an ADP of 133. (He did miss June work with an ankle injury, but it’s considered minor.)
“Players don’t always show linear improvement, but it’s a tidy story when they do — and that’s been the Hooper tale. He bumped his counting stats for the second straight year last season and his catch rate has improved every campaign, topping out at 80.7 percent last year. To be fair, he’s not a downfield guy, and last year he made just 9.3 YPC. But 71 catches are lovely, especially as PPR and half-PPR formats start to become the norm.
“Hooper’s career-high for touchdowns is just four, but he’s also been a regular two-point conversion target for the Falcons, suggesting some latent TD upside. And last year he ranked third in tight-end targets inside the 10-yard line; Matt Ryan trusts him in those tight areas. Stepping into his fourth NFL season, Hooper is a solid mid-round target if you’re thinking about a value pick at tight end.”
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Vic Beasley led the NFL with 15.5 sacks in 2016. He was a key part of a team that made a Super Bowl. In 30 games over the two seasons since, he has 10 sacks.
The Falcons seem content to let Beasley play out the final year of his rookie deal before figuring out the next step. D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote that multiple teams inquired about Beasley at the trade deadline last season, but the Falcons didn’t move him. So they presumably still have faith he can be a dominant pass rusher. There was talk of Beasley adding to his repertoire of pass-rush moves this offseason, which might help. This is an important season for Beasley, and the Falcons need him to play more like he did in 2016.
HOW MANY WINS DOES DAN QUINN NEED TO KEEP HIS JOB?
The day after the season, the Falcons fired their offensive, defensive and special teams coordinators. Dan Quinn survived as head coach, but that’s as close as you can get to the flame without getting burned.
Then in May, Peter King wrote in his “Football Morning in America” column that he kept “hearing owner Arthur Blank is getting restless.” In response to that, Blank emailed the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and said he felt “very good” about what Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff had done this offseason. Quinn and Dimitroff might want to post a winning record this season, just to make sure.
Quinn has done a good job. He’s 36-28 with an NFC championship. If you want to give 2016 offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan a bulk of the credit for the NFC title season, also acknowledge that Quinn went 10-6 the next season without Shanahan. But the NFL isn’t long on patience and Quinn might be under a lot of pressure this season. When a team replaces all of its coordinators but not the head coach, we all know the next move if things don’t improve. And Quinn has the additional responsibility of calling the defense now.
It’s always tough to tell what Blank is thinking, and Quinn is probably better than anyone the Falcons could replace him with, but after the offseason bloodletting it’s reasonable to think that Quinn needs at least eight wins to feel safe for 2020. He might even need more than that.
The Falcons did a lot to fix their biggest weakness, the offensive line. They made drastic coaching changes, but those seem to be improvements. They’ll get better injury luck than last season, hopefully. If Matt Ryan plays well again, everything around him might be better. The Falcons’ depth might have been exposed last season, but the top of the roster is good. It’s easy to imagine the Falcons returning to double-digit wins.
This is a scary thought: Matt Ryan had a wonderful season, the Falcons were 4-9 at one point despite Ryan playing at that level, and there’s a very good chance Ryan won’t be as good in 2019. Assuming Ryan regresses — it’s really hard to repeat 4,924 yards and 35 touchdowns — will the Falcons actually get worse? It’s possible. Maybe what we saw from the defense last season wasn’t just bad injury luck but the group being exposed in certain areas. If injuries hit again, the Falcons might be in trouble. If the Falcons don’t improve and finish under .500 again, there could be major changes.
I want to like the Falcons more than these rankings reflect, but last year wasn’t pretty. The Falcons might have very little margin for error, especially when it comes to depth in case of injuries. And teams with a head coach who appears to be on the hot seat can go either way. I can’t rule out Atlanta catching some breaks, Matt Ryan playing very well again and all of a sudden the Falcons are battling for a division title. But I think they are in for another disappointing season, and who knows what owner Arthur Blank will do then.
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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab