The Atlanta Falcons and the Art of Failure

Most NFL teams lose games because they were outplayed over the course of 60 minutes. They were sloppy and made too many mistakes. They weren’t aggressive enough or prepared for every new detail. Even if they still had their chances at the end, you just know they weren’t good enough that day to earn the win.

Then there’s the Atlanta Falcons, who have mastered the art of f*cking people over for three hours without a happy ending. Oh, there’s plenty of teasing and choking, but it always seems to end in unsatisfactory disappointment in the Matt Ryan era.

From the team that brought us 28-3, the Falcons may have found their regular season equivalent on Sunday in Dallas with a 40-39 loss that likely just killed their season.

Atlanta is the first team in NFL history to lose after scoring 39 points without a turnover.

Since 1940, teams are now 457-1 when scoring at least 39 points without a turnover. That includes playoff games and excludes two AAFC games. The Falcons led 20-0 in the first quarter after Dallas lost three fumbles. That’s right, the Falcons finished +3 in turnovers and still lost. Since 1940, teams are now 492-1 when scoring at least 38 points without a turnover and with multiple takeaways. The Falcons own the only loss.

Sound familiar? Of course, the worst part of this loss felt like a turnover when the Falcons calmly watched an onside kick attempt with 1:49 left trickle just over 10 yards before the Cowboys legally recovered it. That set up Greg Zuerlein’s 46-yard game-winning field goal at the buzzer to stun the Falcons. The play doesn’t count as a turnover since the Falcons never had possession and it wasn’t a fumble or interception, but it hurt just the same. Head coach Dan Quinn even managed the late stages so poorly that the Falcons were out of timeouts for the final drive, unable to save any time for Ryan to have a chance to answer.

Yet if you told a person this was how a game ended on Sunday without mentioning the teams, chances are if they know their NFL they would have guessed the Falcons came out on the losing end.

It Wasn’t Always Like This in Atlanta

To say things were always this bad in the Ryan era would simply be untrue. Let’s not forget how the Mike Smith era started.

From 2008 through the 2012 regular season (Ryan’s first five seasons), the Falcons under head coach Mike Smith blew just three fourth-quarter leads, including two tussles with Drew Brees and the Saints. That was the lowest total in the NFL in that time span. That was a great job of protecting leads for a team that had five straight winning seasons for the first and only time in franchise history.

But on the cusp of greatness, everything started to change in the 2012 playoffs. The top-seeded Falcons hosted Seattle in the divisional round, and despite taking a 27-7 lead into the fourth quarter, Atlanta surrendered three touchdowns in the quarter and trailed 28-27 with 31 seconds left. It was going to be a monumental collapse to a team with a rookie quarterback (Russell Wilson), but Ryan was able to complete two passes for 41 yards to set up a game-winning field goal, saving Atlanta’s season for the moment.

The following week in the NFC Championship Game against San Francisco, the Falcons again started hot and rolled to a 17-0 lead before things fell apart. Colin Kaepernick led the 49ers back to a 28-24 lead and Ryan was unable to connect on a fourth down in the red zone to keep the season alive. It was at the time the second-largest blown lead in a championship game in NFL history.

Atlanta didn’t recover for years, falling into a pattern of blown leads and red-zone failures. From the 2012 NFC Championship Game through the 2014 season, Smith’s Falcons blew eight fourth-quarter leads and he was fired.

Enter Dan Quinn in 2015

Quinn was the former Seattle defensive coordinator, so his most recent game was not the most flattering part of his resume. Yes, the guy who blew 28-3 and a 19-point fourth quarter lead in the Super Bowl already held the record for the biggest blown fourth quarter lead (10 points) in a Super Bowl. The Seahawks blew a 24-14 lead in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIX against New England. Outside of that stellar 2013 Super Bowl season, the Seahawks have had consistent problems with holding leads in the fourth quarter, and Quinn is very much a believer in Pete Carroll’s defensive philosophies. You’re rarely going to see these defenses send the house and blitz in critical situations. They believe they can limit big plays and keep everything in front of them with strong tackling, but time and time again we have seen opposing quarterbacks pick their way down the field against soft zones with ease.

In Quinn’s first four seasons (2015-18), the Falcons blew 13 leads in the fourth quarter, which trailed only the Chargers during that stretch of time. Even in the Super Bowl year and MVP season for Ryan (2016), the Falcons managed to blow four leads while the rest of the NFL’s playoff field that year combined to blow one. That’s why the Falcons were only 11-5 and a No.2 seed despite having superior statistics to most teams in the NFL.

Against the 2016 Chiefs, Atlanta invented a new way to lose a game. Ryan led the Falcons back from an 11-point deficit in the fourth quarter to a 28-27 lead with 4:32 left, but something funny happened on the two-point conversion attempt. Ryan was intercepted by Eric Berry, who returned the ball for two points to give the Chiefs the first “Pick 2” in NFL history, not to mention they regained a 29-28 lead.

Ryan never got another chance on the field to make up for the error. The Chiefs ran out the clock and won the game. However, it looked like this was going to be the last time the 2016 Falcons lost after crushing their next six opponents to reach Super Bowl LI.

Unfortunately, that only set the stage for Atlanta’s masterpiece.

28-3

I’ve detailed on here before the numerous breaking points where if Atlanta just made one positive play, the Falcons win that Super Bowl. Even something as simple as Jake Matthews not getting a holding penalty in New England territory should have done the trick.

6:04 left, 3Q (ATL leads 28-3): NE converts a fourth-and-3 to Danny Amendola. A stop at midfield would have put Atlanta in great shape to score again.

1:30 left, 3Q (ATL leads 28-9): A holding penalty on Jake Matthews turns a second-and-1 at the NE 32 into second-and-11 at the NE 42, out of FG range. An incompletion and sack of Ryan lead to a punt.

8:31 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-12): The turning point. Falcons throw on third-and-1, Devonta Freeman misses the block, Ryan is sacked and fumbles. Patriots take over at the ATL 25. This had to be a running play.

5:56 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-18): Stop a two-point conversion and you’re still in great shape. The Falcons didn’t. James White takes a direct snap to make it 28-20. Game on.

3:56 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-20): Ryan is sacked for a 12-yard loss on second down at the NE 23. The other major turning point. You just hit the Julio Jones pass to get into field-goal range. Kneel down three times if you have to. The pass here was insane.

3:50 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-20): Matthews has another horrible holding penalty, wiping out a Ryan completion to the NE 26. Matt Bryant could have made a field goal there, but on third-and-33, Ryan threw incomplete and the Falcons had to punt from the NE 45.

2:28 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-20): Robert Alford can clinch his Super Bowl MVP with a second interception of Tom Brady, but the pass goes off his hands, and he even helps keep the ball alive with his leg while a diving Julian Edelman makes an unbelievable catch for 23 yards.

0:57 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-26): Alright, you’re not going to give up TWO two-point conversions, are you Atlanta? Yes, you did, and on a bubble screen of all things. By then, your goose was cooked, because you know the Patriots weren’t going to give the ball back in overtime after winning the coin toss.

Any one of those eight things goes right for the Falcons and Atlanta is the reigning champion.

It’s hard to imagine a team finding a more soul-crushing way to lose a Super Bowl than Atlanta. Teams that start games that well just do not lose in this league’s 100-year history. The 25-point blown lead is of course the worst in championship game history now, so the Falcons have the first and third spots on that list.

While Ryan’s five sacks, including a huge strip-sack fumble in the fourth quarter, were pivotal in the loss, he still finished the game with a 144.1 passer rating and 12.35 yards per attempt. Both of those numbers are the highest in NFL history for a playoff loss (min. 15 attempts).

Thanks for the PTSD, Atlanta

In the seasons since Super Bowl LI, the Falcons have looked like only a shell of the team that created the greatest collapse in NFL history. Maybe that’s all that’s left of the psyche for Quinn, Ryan, Julio Jones and company. The defense hasn’t been good since 2017 and has fallen back to terrible status much like the seasons that canned Smith in Atlanta. Ryan’s had some moments and a big stat line in 2018, but he hasn’t consistently put a full year together like his peak MVP performance of 2016 when Kyle Shanahan was the offensive coordinator before taking the San Francisco job.

So what the Falcons provide us now are games like Sunday: PTSD-triggering moments of 28-3 where a game performance that has been a sure win in NFL history turns into a loss for Atlanta.

The last four NFL quarterbacks to lose a game with a passer rating of 140+ (min. 20 attempts):

  • 2019 Matt Ryan at Arizona
  • 2018 Marcus Mariota at Houston
  • 2018 Matt Ryan vs. New Orleans
  • 2016 Matt Ryan vs. New England

The last three NFL quarterbacks to lose a game with 350+ passing yards and a 130+ passer rating:

  • 2019 Matt Ryan at Arizona
  • 2018 Matt Ryan vs. Cincinnati
  • 2018 Matt Ryan vs. New Orleans

Ryan’s passer rating against the 2018 Saints (148.1) is the highest in regular season history in a loss with at least 25 pass attempts. His 144.9 rating against the 2019 Cardinals ranks third on the same list.

It’s not just Ryan either, but the offense as a whole has lost in historic fashion in these games highlighted against the Saints, Bengals and Cardinals. The Saints and Bengals were back-to-back home games in 2018.

That means the 2018 Falcons lost back-to-back home games after scoring at least 36 points and having zero turnovers. Since 1940, home teams not named the 2018 Falcons are 428-3 when scoring at least 36 points and having zero turnovers. The Falcons were 1-2 doing that.

Since 1991, home teams that converted at least 70 percent of their third downs and scored at least 25 points are 83-2. The Falcons, against the 2018 Bengals, had the first loss in that group. (The 2018 Raiders also lost 40-33 to Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs)

Sunday was the sixth time since 2012 that the Falcons have lost after leading by at least 17 points, two more than any other team in the NFL. It’s almost like the Falcons spent years looking for the perfect way to lose a game in inexplicable fashion, painted their masterpiece in Super Bowl LI, and have struggled to recreate that art in lower-stakes environments.

If Vincent Van Gogh can lose it and cut off his left ear at 35, then I hate to see what Ryan will become if he has to go beyond this season with Quinn as his coach. This is not the legacy you’d like to see for players the caliber of Ryan and Julio, but the fact is the Falcons are best known for the games they’ve artfully lost than anything they’ve ever won.

Sunday was just the latest exhibit, but unlikely the last.

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