ATLANTA - It wasn't, we concede, the first, or even the second, thought that danced across the ole brainpan on the star-crossed night of Feb. 5, 2017. The first was, "Holy cow! The Falcons are leading 28-3!" The second, and the one that will linger forever, was, "Holy crud! How'd they blow THAT?"
Lost in the debris of egregious defeat, though, was the notion that a franchise that had spent nearly the entirety of its existence searching for answers had at last struck the proper blend. The coach knew what he wanted, and his players were playing to specifications. They went 11-5 against a wicked schedule. They routed the Seahawks and the Packers, brand-name opponents, in the playoffs. In the Super Bowl, they were blowing out the biggest brand name of all, until they weren't.
Beyond Super Bowl 51 - we concede that, for the Falcons, there has been nothing much beyond Super Bowl 51 - there winked what appeared to be a smudge-free window of opportunity. Dan Quinn had his DQ Guys, and they'd come as close to being champions as was possible without being handed the trophy. The was a chastened team, yes, but it also was youngish. It figured to get better. It has not.
Two years on, a roster adjudged by Pro Football Focus in the summer of 2017 as the NFL's best has become pockmarked. This is the NFL, which as the crackpot Jerry Glanville noted stands for "Not For Long." Turnover is inevitable. The true genius of Bill Belichick isn't so much that he's the best tactician, though he is, but that he keeps redoing his personnel (with one notable exception) and winning 10-plus games and the more-than-occasional Super Bowl. These Falcons reached one Super Bowl and botched it. They haven't come close since.
As Draft Week approaches, the Falcons are - pardon the mixed avian metaphor - something of an odd duck. They consider themselves talented enough to play for rings, but they're coming off a season in which they beat no team that finished better than 7-9. Over the past two years, they're 17-15 in regular-season play. Their records under Quinn - 8-8, 11-5, 10-6 and 7-9. The temptation is substantial to suggest their moment has passed, but then you remember: Matt Ryan and Julio Jones work here, and they're still great.
For the first time in a few drafts, the Falcons have more than a single pressing need. Vic Beasley, the first draftee of this regime, had 15-1/2 sacks in the Super Bowl season; he has had 10 in the two seasons since, and it's possible to watch an entire Falcons game without being reminded that he's on the team. The cornerbacks, holdovers from the Mike Smith days, were so wretched at the beginning of last season that you wondered what anyone ever saw in them. (Desmond Trufant steadied; Robert Alford, the human penalty machine, was cut in February.)
The offensive line, the hidden force in the rise to being NFC champs, has never really replaced guard Chris Chester, who retired after the Super Bowl. Andy Levitre, the other guard, was lost in September to a torn triceps; he'll turn 33 in May. Right tackle Ryan Schraeder, the undrafted free agent from Valdosta State who'd been the biggest find of Thomas Dimitroff's tenure, lost it so completely that he was benched and then released. Left tackle Jake Matthews, now on his second contract, has essentially become a healthier Sam Baker - serviceable but not exceptional.
As we speak, Ty Sambrailo - a Round 2 draftee who washed out in Denver - is projected as the starting right tackle, which inspires no great confidence in anyone. Also of note: Alex Mack, the center on whom so much depends, will turn 34 in November. This no longer is one of the NFL's 10 best O-lines, which means upgrades are warranted. But how much upgrading can be done in one draft?
Even if we assume that safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen return to health, cornerback remains a concern. Trufant hasn't been himself since he was hurt in November 2016. The Falcons like Isaiah Oliver, a Round 2 pick last year, but this is another area in need of a touch-up. That said, has the disappearance of Beasley as a pass-rushing force made these corners look worse than they are? (In Alford's case, probably not. He was awful.)
Key question: On a team with multiple needs, is edge-rusher again/still the most pressing? Can a team that has under Quinn spent two of its four first-round picks on pass-rushers - Takkarist McKinley being the other - without lasting effect turn around and do it again?
There are enough good players here - Ryan, Jones, Mack, Neal, Mohamed Sanu, Devonta Freeman, Deion Jones, Calvin Ridley, Austin Hooper - that a bounce from this draft could push them above their over/under win total of 8.5. With Quinn coordinating his defense and Dirk Koetter taking the offense from Steve Sarkisian, there's reason to believe the coaching will rise to something approximating NFL specifications.
But let's be honest. The glow has faded from these Falcons. They were a semi-fashionable Super Bowl pick last summer; they won't be this time. They haven't won a game that mattered since beating the Rams in the wild-card round in January 2018. Those Rams became NFC champs last season; the Falcons had to close with three victories over losing teams to reach 7-9. When they open in Minneapolis on Sept. 8, they won't be favored - and Ryan and Jones and Mack and Sanu will be on the high side of 30.
This is no longer the NFL's hot young crew. Indeed, the team's creeping age - the veteran stars are among the highest-salaried at their positions; the contributing twentysomethings are coming off their rookie deals - has pushed the Falcons so close to the cap that they cannot sign any free agent of worth. If there's new blood to be added, it must be through the draft. And new blood is needed.
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