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NFL Offseason Review: Atlanta Falcons

By Peter Brooks
Published on March 02, 2017

Atlanta Falcons
In our 24-hour sports news culture, the Super Bowl is quickly disappearing from view. The game is now something that very few NFL fans even still think about, with the historic New England Patriots victory already several weeks in the rearview mirror.

But one franchise hasn’t quite forgotten about the game on February 5th, and likely won’t forget for the rest of their lives. Of course, that franchise is the Atlanta Falcons.

For every high there is a low, and the mountaintop experience for the New England Patriots in Super Bowl 51 came at the expense of a crushing, stomach-churning, nightmarish experience for Atlanta Falcons fans across the nation. Much in the same way as getting over a bad car accident, the players, coaches, and fans that participated in this historic game will surely need some time to process things.

But even though things did not work out as hoped in the world championship game, this is not to say that the Atlanta Falcons’ entire 2016/17 campaign should be thrown out the window as a failure. In many ways, last season was Atlanta’s coming-out party

For 18-and-a-half games, Matt Ryan and the Falcons proved that they can absolutely be legitimate championship contenders.

And now, with some important offseason changes already made to the team and likely more to come, the big question on everyone’s mind – both Falcons fans specifically and NFL fans generally – is whether or not Atlanta will be able to climb the mountain again next year, after coming so close to the top last year and then having to turn back.

And for the rest of the teams in the NFL, this matters a whole lot, as everyone wants to know whether or not the Falcons will once again be the team to beat in the NFC.

In this edition, we mosey on down to Georgia and take a look at the currently grim offseason situation of the Atlanta Falcons, in order to determine what they’ll need to do in order to get back to the biggest stage and compete for that still-elusive Super Bowl win.

Last Season: In Review

The 2016/17 Atlanta Falcons came into the regular season in a place of uncertainty. After going 13–3 in two out of three seasons (2010, 2012), the team went into a skid after losing in the 2012/13 NFC Championship game to the San Francisco 49ers.

The subsequent three seasons saw steady improvement, moving from 4 to 6 to 8 wins. They also saw serious turnover in the coaching staff, with incumbent head coach Mike Smith replaced by former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, and the arrival of highly-touted offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan off to greener pastures after being a part of the Browns organization.

But not only were the Falcons in a period of rebuilding, coming off of three season where they failed to win the NFC South or make the playoffs at all, they were also managing a roster with a lot of youth and inexperience that could have gone in any direction. Particularly on the defensive side of the ball, there were a lot of question marks headed into the season.

Not only had new head coach Dan Quinn brought an entirely new scheme to Atlanta (a process that always takes time to implement effectively), but there were also plenty of personnel changes that shook up the team, making it younger and supporting an overall change in the style of play.

And finally, as there had been throughout his entire career as an elite player, there were still question marks around the league surrounding quarterback Matt Ryan’s ability to lead a team to a championship. While undoubtedly Falcons’ fans believed in Matty Ice, their confidence didn’t necessarily extend to some of the doubters.

It was in this place of hopeful uncertainty that the Atlanta Falcons began their 2016/17 season.

FootballAtlanta’s Offense Gains Confidence

After opening the year with a loss to their division rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Falcons immediately went on an impressive four game win streak to start off the regular season 4–1. As a result of this stretch of games, football pundits across the nation were beginning to herald Atlanta among the early Super Bowl favorites.

The major storyline coming out of this stretch of games was how impressive the offense was playing: After putting up 35 against the Oakland Raiders in Week 2, the Falcons had back-to-back victories against division opponents where they put up more than 45 points.

While in hindsight the Saints and the Panthers were obviously not the stiffest tests, defensively, it is nonetheless never easy to score points against a division opponent that knows you well and that plays against you twice a year.

An even more impressive test came when the Falcons were able to beat the Denver Broncos in Week 5, who at that point (and throughout the regular season) claimed one of the toughest defenses in the league.

While they were going against a rookie quarterback in his first start (with Paxton Lynch), and while they were only able to manage 23 points, the performance of the Falcons’ offense against the Denver Broncos’ explosive defense went a long way to convince NFL fans of three things.

First, the Falcons’ early success convinced fans around the league that Matt Ryan was a legitimate MVP contender. Ryan was remarkably efficient in the early going, with an average passer rating of 119.5 over the first five games of the season, and was also demonstrating excellent ability to distribute the ball amongst a variety of different receivers and also to utilize the run game effectively.

The second thing that become clear about the Atlanta offense in the early stretch of the season was that the Falcons’ offensive line had been much improved by the addition of center Alex Mack from Cleveland. Clearly his worth was demonstrated by the fact that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan wanted to take him along for the ride when he himself left Cleveland, but Mack’s play in the early games and the improvements in the Atlanta run game certainly demonstrated his importance to the team.

The final thing that the Falcons proved in the early part of the season was that head coach Dan Quinn had effectively done his job in addressing the primary areas of concern that the Falcons had on offense. It was clear from the beginning that the combination of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman was helping improve the run game, and that the additions of Mohamed Sanu and Austin Hooper were giving Matt Ryan additional throwing options outside of the production of Julio Jones.

FootballMid-Season Margin Runs Thin

While they continued to lead the NFC South through the middle of the season, the Falcons faced the most adversity that they would in the entire year during their stretch of games before and immediately after their Week 11 bye. Atlanta would end up going 3–4 in these middle seven games.

By the time the bye week rolled around, Matt Ryan had continued to contribute to his MVP portfolio, creating production in play-action, when throwing the deep ball, and in causing big plays generally. Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman also padded their stats, and the overall spread of the offense contributed to their being one of the most efficient and least-turnover prone units in the league.

One significant turning point came in their Week 9 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where the Falcons lost star cornerback Desmond Trufant to a season-ending shoulder injury. Considering the fact that before the season, had stated about the Atlanta secondary that “outside of Trufant, this unit is a real concern,” naturally the end of his season had Atlanta fans concerned.

In the end, though, the absence of Trufant and the major question marks for the defense in general were all solved as the season progressed.

A major contributing factor in this was the process of Dan Quinn – himself a former defensive coordinator for the Legion of Boom in Seattle – taking over the defense from defensive coordinator Richard Smith, a move that would ultimately foreshadow his release from the team following the Super Bowl.

Over two seasons Quinn had built himself the type of young, speedy roster required to run a Seattle-style defense, and now it was time for the young players to step up and make things happen.

And this is exactly what the defense did, with a host of young secondary players stepping in to fill the void left by Trufant, with Vic Beasley dialing up his production in the pass rush (with 8.5 sacks from Week 6 to Week 13, leading the league during that stretch), and with rookies like Keanu Neal becoming key role players and learning on the fly. This training would end up proving important for the team.

Ultimately, though, the margin of error ended up being quite low for the Falcons during this middle stretch of the season, as they would lose three of their five season losses during this stretch by 3 points or less.

One of these games ended up going into overtime (against the Chargers) and another was lost on a wild two-point conversion attempt interception return with only 5 minutes left in the game (against the Chiefs). The Falcons also won a game by 1 point on a last-minute touchdown drive (against the Packers), yielding four total games that were decided by 3 points or less during the middle of the season (the only such four of the entire year).

After making the adjustments necessary to accommodate the absence of Trufant and getting some rest during the bye week, the Falcons were poised and ready to make a run into the postseason, and well-positioned as both a heavy favorite in the NFC that was simultaneously receiving comparatively little buzz, giving them the opportunity to fly under the radar.

FootballTragic Playoff Run

While we all know the end of the story, it is important to note that the stretch of football that the Atlanta Falcons put together during the six games leading into the Super Bowl was truly a wonder to behold. The team would end up winning out after their crazy Week 13 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, and headed into the Super Bowl looking absolutely dominant.

In their final four games of the regular season, the Falcons first put up 42 and 41 points against the L.A. Rams and San Francisco 49ers – not an altogether impressive feat, when you consider the opposition. More importantly, however, their improving defense also held these struggling offenses to 14 and 13 points, respectively, giving them some confidence heading into the final two games of the season.

When Week 16 rolled around, the Falcons still had an opportunity to blow it and lose the division, with the Buccaneers lurking. What ended up happening, though, was that Matt Ryan led his team to two consecutive victories over division opponents (the Panthers and Saints), keeping his cool, while Jameis Winston ended up and losing his.

With the Falcons thus heading into the playoffs as the second seed overall in the NFC, securing home field advantage throughout the playoffs, this gave the team an opportunity to give their long-time stadium – the Georgie Dome – a magnificent send-off.

Knowing that the stadium was set to be demolished during the offseason in order to make room for parking for the nearly-completed Mercedes-Benz Stadium – looming right next door – the Falcons knew that the last game the Atlanta Falcons ever played in the stadium would come during their playoff run. Undoubtedly, this provided them a little extra motivation to make sure these playoff games were wins.

Ultimately, though, the team didn’t need an overabundance of motivation to dominate the Seattle Seahawks in the Divisional Round and the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game.

The strong play of the defense certainly played a role – particularly in how the Falcons were able to put pressure on Aaron Rodgers in the NFC Championship game and generate turnovers – but more important to their two playoff victories was the absolutely indomitable play of their offense, averaging 40 points in these two contests.

It’s at this point in the story that it all comes crashing down, though, as everyone knows: After playing an absolutely magnificent half of football in Super Bowl 51, the Falcons found themselves up 28–3 with 23 minutes remaining between them and football history.

As we discussed in depth in our Super Bowl Review, tragically, it wasn’t meant to be for the Falcons. The fast-paced, flying-around-the-field defensive scheme that Dan Quinn had implemented worked to perfection up until the point where the players became physically exhausted, and at that point Tom Brady took over and pressed his advantage, putting up 25 unanswered points to tie the game and then winning it on the first possession of overtime.

What had been a truly remarkable rise to glory for the 2016/17 Atlanta Falcons unfortunately had to end in tragedy.
FootballAtlanta’s Strengths and Weaknesses

By laying out the full story of the 2016/17 Atlanta Falcons in this way, we see that even though the incredible MVP performance from Matt Ryan and the remarkable feat accomplished by Dan Quinn with the defense didn’t culminate in a Super Bowl victory, it still taught us an awful lot about who the Atlanta Falcons are and who they will continue to be going forward.

Let’s take a unit-by-unit look at the 2016/17 Atlanta Falcons team in order to diagnose what were their strengths and weaknesses throughout the season. In particular, we’ll try to get an understanding of what holes the team will need to address in the offseason, and whether or not we believe they will be able to climb to the same heights that they attained last season.

FootballOffense

The Falcons were essentially universally accepted as having the best offense in the league in 2016/17, and the story told by the aggregated season statistics certainly backs this up. The team led the league in points, averaging 33.8 per game, and was ranked second in yards, moving the ball for an astonishing average of 415.8 yards per game over the course of the regular season.

The offense moved the ball through the air at an astonishing clip, ranked 1st in net yards per attempt, 2nd in total passing touchdowns with 38, and 3rd in total passing yards. This is made all the more astonishing given the fact that the Falcons had only the 26th-most passing attempts in the league, demonstrating just how many more yards they gained per attempt than other, higher-volume teams.

Their production in the run game is almost equally impressive, ranking 5th in yards per attempt and in total yards while scoring the 3rd-most rushing touchdowns of any team. Their commitment to the run game showed, being ranked the 12th-highest in attempts of all teams.

This also indicates (along with the low amount of passing attempts) just how safe the Atlanta Falcons were able to play during the regular season: When a team jumps out to an early lead, or when the game is essentially over early in the second half due to the score margin, the winning team becomes able to run the ball more often to run out the clock, rather than needing to rely on the passing game in order to catch up. Atlanta’s incredible offensive efficiency (tied for 1st in total giveaways) also reflected this.

This astonishing offensive production began, first and foremost, in the booth, with offensive mastermind Kyle Shanahan earning a head coach position in San Francisco based on the job he did in two seasons with Atlanta. But it must also be said that Matt Ryan was ideally well-suited to execute the offensive scheme put together by Shanahan.

Matt Ryan earned himself the Most Valuable Player award for his performance during the regular season, as well as the nod for First-Team All-Pro and a Pro Bowl berth. While his statistical contributions have been listed ad nauseam, to us the more impressive thing is that his stats last season aren’t truly very different from the stats that he has put up throughout his entire career.

The thing that changed this season (besides the fact that he finally stopped being criminally underrated) was that Ryan was finally put in a position with coaches and a supporting cast that truly gave him the opportunity he had been waiting for to shine. In addition, his continual improvement throughout his career this season centered around the deep ball, for which he led the league in passer rating at 136.9.

Undoubtedly this remarkable efficiency in passer rating on deep balls is helped greatly by the fact that Ryan was throwing to a receiver who undoubtedly deserves to be mentioned almost immediately in the conversation on the best receivers in the league. Julio Jones seemed to catch just about everything.

But not only did Julio rise to the top of the league stat sheets in almost every conceivable category this past season (despite missing several games due to nagging injuries), he also received a boost from the offseason acquisition of Mohamed Sanu from the Bengals and the emergence of third-year receiver Taylor Gabriel.

With this much production from the top three receivers as well as an equally-dynamic three-headed monster at tight end, Matt Ryan had simply too many weapons for defenses to handle in the passing game.

And it helped that both of his dynamic running backs were also able to catch balls out of the backfield, providing an excellent check-down option. The one-two punch of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman revitalized the Falcons’ run game.

It can’t be overstated how helpful it is to have a second back who is able to come into the game and give the starter a few plays to rest while not seeing a huge drop-off in production, as over the course of a long season this helps your backfield keep fresh legs even for a run deep in the playoffs.

It also helps the backfield when the offensive line creates gaping holes for the backs throughout the entire season. The Atlanta Falcons’ offensive line had been rated in the top five in 2015/16, and then they went out and acquired intelligent veteran center Alex Mack from Cleveland, improving the unit even more.

But it wasn’t just that the Falcons’ offensive line was a talented group, they also had the good fortune of winning the injury lottery. In the NFL, the continuity of the offensive line group is one of the most important factors determining postseason success, because the mental component of protection schemes is cumulative throughout the season and losing personnel packages due to inadequate understanding of scheme can be quite limiting for an offense.

In this way, the fact that the Falcons’ offensive line was able to maintain the same five starters throughout the entire course of the regular season and into the Super Bowl (in which, admittedly, , which undoubtedly had an impact on the game), was certainly a major factor in Atlanta’s success throughout the season.

In summary, then, when looking back purely at the statistics for the 2016/17 Atlanta Falcons’ season, no major holes emerge for the offense. As can be expected from the team billed as an offensive juggernaut headed into the Super Bowl, they were about as dynamic as they come.

FootballDefense

While the Atlanta offense basically started out the year hot and kept their production throughout the entire course of the season, the defense followed a much different path.

Ultimately, the team ended up ranked 27th in the league in terms of total points allowed, giving up 406 points over the course of the regular season or 25.4 per game, and 25th in the league in terms of total yards allowed, giving up just under 6000 yards total over the course of the regular season or 371.2 yards per game.

However, this doesn’t tell the whole story. If you look at how opposing offenses played the Falcons, it’s clear that the defense was forced into a tough situation too often.

While the Falcons were ranked 28th in both yards and touchdowns allowed in the passing game, it’s important to factor in the number of attempts. Not only were the Falcons thrown against the most in the league, (due primarily to the fact that they were usually ahead in the game and received the opposing teams best shot to get back in it), they were also ranked as high as 12th in the league in net yards per attempt.

What this means it that the Falcons were actually in the top half of teams in terms of defensive passing efficiency, but ultimately lagged behind simply by virtue of being overwhelmed by the volume of pass attempts.

On the flip side, the Falcons’ run defense showed the exact opposite pattern than their pass defense: Atlanta gave up the 18th-fewest touchdowns and 17th-fewest yards on the ground, being ranked 26th in rush yards per attempt, despite the fact that they were only run on the 5th-least in the league.

It’s possible that the converse of the above trend also holds true for the run defense – due to the fact that the opposing team was passing the ball on Atlanta so often, the rare and unexpected rushing attempt caught the team off guard and in an unfavorable personnel package, yielding high gain runs – but no matter how you try to explain it away there’s no escaping that the Falcons’ defense did not perform well against the run this season.

The Falcons’ front seven was ranked 24th in the league over the course of the regular season, with their highest-ranked player against the run (nose tackle Grady Jarrett) only rising as high as 52nd in the league as his position group.

And the performance of the front seven in pass rush wasn’t that much better. Despite the fact that 2016/17 NFL sack leader Vic Beasley had a career year with 16 and a half sacks, the fact that this number accounts for just under 50% of the team’s sack total indicates just how few other players contributed to the effort.

The secondary did a lot to make up for the deficiencies of the front seven in pass rush, getting excellent contributions from rookie Brian Poole and second-year player Jalen Collins, but did little to shore up the run defense. In one of the dark ironies of their season, their best player against the run in the entire defense was none other than cornerback Desmond Trufant – ranked 5th at his position across the league against the run – who they lost for the season after Week 9.

The Falcons defense improved significantly over the course of the season, as the young players that made contributions later in the season needed time to develop in Dan Quinn’s scheme and to come into their own in the NFL.

Ultimately, though, there are deficiencies in the front seven in both pass rush and especially in the run defense that must be addressed in the offseason, as well as an overall orientation towards run defense in all position groups.

Next Season: A Preview

In looking back at the statistical trends demonstrated by the Atlanta Falcons in 2016/17, we saw that they have very few deficiencies on the offensive side of the ball, having what can essentially be considered a juggernaut for 18 and a half straight games.

On the defensive side, however, we saw that there are some real deficiencies in both pass rush and particularly in run defense that the Falcons would do well to address going into the 2017/18 season.

However, we are hard-pressed to believe that this appraisal of the team merits their current Super Bowl odds, which are published at the Bovada sportsbook as +1200. While this is the third-most favorable odds of any team (with the only two better being the Patriots at +350 and the Cowboys at +750), their +1200 is almost even with the odds of the other late-round playoff teams – the Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers, Oakland Raiders, and Seattle Seahawks, all at +1400.

We wonder how much differently the gambling public would feel about the team if they had somehow weathered the 25-point comeback in Super Bowl 51 and ended up on top in overtime, rather than losing the game.

Either way, though, such a drop from grace in the eyes of the gambling public deserves a closer look. Let’s see where the Falcons stand going into the 2017/18 season. We’ll pay particular attention to what roster moves Atlanta will need to make in order to stay competitive going into next year, and give our prediction for how far we think the Falcons will be able to go along the road to Super Bowl 52.

FootballRoster Moves

The first and most important “roster move” that the Atlanta Falcons will have to deal with is losing both their offensive and defensive coordinator immediately following the Super Bowl. While not players on the field, the change in leadership will undoubtedly color the arc of the team’s 2017/18 season.

It’s important to note, however, that only one of these two moves should have a huge impact. Defensive coordinator Richard Smith was fired at the end of the season after Dan Quinn had already essentially taken over the defense midway through the year, making Smith’s job more-or-less superfluous.

Given the fact that Dan Quinn is a former defensive coordinator himself and that he promoted from within to replace Smith, (naming 37-year old secondary coach Marquand Manuel defensive coordinator), it’s not likely that there will be any significant change in defensive philosophy for the Falcons to contend with in 2017/18.

However, this is not at all the case on the offensive side of the ball.

Kyle Shanahan solidified his reputation as one of the best – if not the best – offensive minds in the entire game with the campaign he put together over the course of his two-year tenure with the Falcons.

Despite the anguished Falcons fans decrying his play-calling in the last 23 minutes of the Super Bowl, his accomplishments stand.

In fact, wherever he’s gone Shanahan has had a history of elevating the play of whoever he works with, making Matt Schaub look competent in Houston, making RGIII the Rookie of the Year in Washington during a season where Andrew Luck was also in his first year, and finally being primarily responsible for the emergence of Terrell Pryor as a wide receiver in the National Football League in Cleveland.

The influence of Shanahan cannot be overstated, and it will be very interesting to monitor what course former Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian elects to follow in establishing himself as a first-time NFL offensive coordinator. It’s unclear if Sarkisian will opt for preserving the schematic legacy of his predecessor, or if he will instead try to establish an entirely new system of his own.

But not only is it currently uncertain what kind of offensive scheme the Falcons will run in 2017/18, it’s also uncertain how their roster will shape up between now and then.

The Falcons’ restricted free agents entering into the 2017/18 season include offensive lineman Ben Garland, wide receiver Taylor Gabriel, linebacker Taylor Starr, and defensive back Akeem King. Key unrestricted free agents include offensive guard Chris Chester, tight ends Levine Toilolo and Jacob Tamme, aging front seven defenders Dwight Freeney and Jonathan Babineaux, wide receivers Taylor Gabriel and Aldrick Robinson, as well as linebackers Philip Wheeler, Sean Weatherspoon, and Paul Worrilow.

And with the 6th-lowest amount of cap space in the entire league, the Falcons do not have a whole lot of wiggle room to resign all of these players, nor do they have undue flexibility to add new players to their roster without making trades.

It’s possible, however, that precisely these trades might be in order, particularly considering the fact that Kyle Shanahan is now commanding a team of his own. Given the fact that Shanahan brought over several players to the Falcons from his time in Cleveland (including center Alex Mack and wide receiver Taylor Gabriel), it’s not outside the realm of possibility that some of the Falcons free agents could follow him to San Francisco, or that the Falcons could engage in trades with the 49ers.

The putative candidates for the 49ers to snatch off of the Falcons’ roster include Gabriel, tight end Jacob Tamme, as well as backup QB Matt Schaub, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent and who has experience with Kyle Shanahan going back to his days as the starter in Houston.

As the Super Bowl loser, (or, spun more positively, the second-to-last man standing at the end of the season), the Falcons have the 31st pick in the draft.

As of the time of this writing, the Falcons have one of the most straightforward draft situations of any team in the league: Atlanta has retained each of its original 7 picks in their original positions with no compensatory selections, save for a single 6th-round pick that they have forfeited to the Tennessee Titans as a result of the Andy Levitre trade.

In our minds, with the Falcons dealing with limited cap ability to make significant roster moves, their primary goal both in free agency and through the draft should be to bring in a few new key role players in the defensive front seven, for cheap, as well as to make sure that either each position group that features multiple unrestricted free agents (the linebacking corps and the receiving corps, primarily) either ends up with a key player resigned, or with new fresh blood brought in.

FootballPredictions for 2017/18

Immediately above we saw that despite the fact that the Falcons are returning the bulk of their team’s championship-caliber core, the fact that their coaching staff will be going through a period of high turnover for the second time in three years indicates that the relatively low Super Bowl odds posted by the Bovada sportsbook could potentially be accurate.

And of course only time will tell if the doubt that gamblers feel about the Falcons’ ability to repeat the same path they followed this year is warranted or not, (particularly considering the fact that we have yet to go through free agency or the NFL draft), but even still, there are already some existing statistical and scheduling factors that we are to look at now that portend the level of success the Falcons will have next season.

The first important statistical factor to consider in predicting a team’s future performance is called Pythagorean expectation.

Pythagorean expectation is a statistical formula originally developed by sabermetric wizard Bill James for use in baseball; it was later modified for the NFL by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. The idea behind Pythagorean expectation is to use advanced statistical modeling to more accurately assess a team’s past performance, in the hopes of better predicting their future performance.

Specifically, Pythagorean expectation is a modified version of the original Pythagorean theorem that we all learned back in algebra class, used to deduce the length of one side of a right triangle based on knowledge of the other two sides.

But the NFL’s Pythagorean theorem doesn’t deal with triangles and lengths: Instead the numbers that are manipulated in the theorem are the amount of points scored and the amount of points allowed by a particular team. By plugging these points totals into the formula, the number that ultimately gets spit out is an expected win percentage, based purely on points.

The idea behind this is that in the NFL, not all wins should be valued the same amount. For example, when the 2016/17 Indianapolis Colts lost 7–28 at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers, that’s a pretty terrible loss. That loss should certainly mean more than when the same Colts lose 23 to 26 in overtime in Houston. And yet, at the end of the season, all we remember is that the Colts were 8–8, with both of these two losses receiving the exact same weight in the loss column.

By the same token, when the 2016/17 Buffalo Bills beat the Cincinnati Bengals 16–12, even though there’s a W on the win column, this shouldn’t impress anyone. However, when those same Bills beat the San Francisco 49ers 45–16, that same lone W should go a whole lot further to tip us off that the Bills could be legitimate contenders. Once again, though, at the end of the season, the Bills are just 7–9.

In this way, utilizing Pythagorean expectation gives us a way to evaluate a team’s performance over the course of a season using statistics that truly capture not just whether a team won or lost games, but how well they won or lost games. We learn more than just how many games a team won; we learn how many games that team should have won.

For the 2016/17 Falcons, the Pythagorean expectation they notched over the course of the regular season was heavily influenced by the fact that the team scored the most points of any team in the league while simultaneously giving up the 27th-most points.

The fact that their point differential ended up at the second-best in the league despite this drastic disparity between offensive production and defensive production is rather astounding: Atlanta managed to fall almost 60 points below the #1 team in terms of point differential (the Patriots) despite the fact that they scored 100 more points than the Pats and allowed 156 more points – just under 10 points per game.

But it’s important to note that when you look at the difference between what the numbers spit out about how the Falcons should have performed and how they actually performed, the result is pretty consistent. The reason for this is that in addition to the 10 more points allowed per game, there’s another key difference between the Falcons and the Patriots: The Falcons lost three more games than the Patriots did.

Specifically, according to the Pythagorean expectation formula, the Falcons were expected to win exactly 10.6 games based on their point differential, and they won 11, indicating that they performed at roughly the level that they should have based on the numbers. And when looking at their schedule, it’s easy to see why there’s such an easy correspondence between the numbers and the results: The Falcons were exactly 4–4 in their 8 games decided by one possession or less.

So in summary, when running the statistics, there’s no reason to expect that the Falcons are headed for a regression based on luck, or more specifically based on the fact that they over- or under-performed last season in terms of their total points scored and allowed.

In addition to the raw numbers of Pythagorean expectation, it’s crucially important to put the Falcons’ 2016/17 performance in the context of the second statistic that clues us in to how well the Falcons will play next season, and that is the strength of the schedule that Atlanta played over the course of the 2016/17 regular season.

According to the meticulously calculated “DVOA” value (put together by the team at ) which accounts for every single play of every game individually, the Falcons played the 16th-easiest schedule in the entire league in 2016/17 out of 32 teams – exactly middle of the road.

The combination of this schedule information with the spot-on Pythagorean expectation combines to tell us that there is absolutely no reason to expect that the Falcons’ 2016/17 win/loss record was unfair, or an inaccurate representation of their team’s ability.

And while we can’t look at next year’s schedule in its entirety, (as the full dates and times won’t be released until April), the moment the Super Bowl victor was decided we all instantly have access to the information which opponents each team would have in the 2017/18 season.

The way this happens is that each year, the 16-game schedule for each NFL team is composed of the following games: 6 games against division opponents (3 at home, 3 away); four games against teams from a single division within the same conference; four games against teams from a single division within the opposite conference; and finally two games against opponents within the same conference that finished in the same position in their division the previous year.

For the Falcons, this means the following:

  • 3 home games against the Panthers, Saints, and Buccaneers
  • 3 road games against the Panthers, Saints, and Buccaneers
  • 4 games against the NFC North: the Packers (home), the Vikings (home), the Lions (away), and the Bears (away)
  • 4 games against the AFC East: the Patriots (away), the Jets (away), the Bills (home) and the Dolphins (home)
  • 2 games against NFC division leaders: the Seahawks (away), and the Cowboys (home)

There are several factors to note about this schedule. First, the one game whose date and time we do know is that the Falcons will be one of the two teams playing in the first regular season game of the 2017/18 NFL season, with the standing tradition for the last few years being to feature a rematch of the two Super Bowl opponents from the previous year.

Secondly, in terms of the overall strength of this schedule, the Falcons are likely to once again be ranked in the middle of the road next season for strength of schedule.

Despite the fact that the Super Bowl combatants generally receive a tougher slate of opponents the following season, Atlanta’s adversaries for next year ended the 2016/17 regular season collectively ranked 15th in total wins, 16th in win percentage, and 20th in point differential.

Finally, it’s important to note that the 2017/18 season will be the first season that the Falcons play in their new $1.6 billion play pen – the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. This makes the question of which games fall home or away all the more meaningful, as one would think a brand new dome would draw out more home fans and make Atlanta’s home field advantage all the more potent.

In examining the split between home and away games, we see that Atlanta made out generally even: playing the Seahawks in Seattle and the Patriots in Foxborough is certainly not ideal (particularly considering the possibility that both of those games could be played in cold weather), but at the same time they will receive the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys at home, two teams that tout two of the stronger home field advantages in the National Football League in recent years.

So in summary, we believe that 11–5 was the exact mark that the Falcons should have hit last season, in hindsight, based on the amount of points scored vs. allowed and the strength of their schedule.

We don’t believe that the Falcons are likely to go above or below 11 wins next season based on their schedule for next season.

However, we do foresee a relatively dramatic slide for the Falcons based on the combination of coaching changeups and the legacy of their Super Bowl performance. We believe that when the play-calling and offensive scheming becomes less dynamic in the absence of Kyle Shanahan, the players will lose confidence in their offense’s ability to move the ball, and defenses will have an easier time stopping them. And as we saw in the Super Bowl, when confidence is shaken, it can be very hard to regain.

Predicted regular season record for the 2017/18 Atlanta Falcons: 8-8

Conclusion: The Story of the Atlanta Falcons

To recap, the Atlanta Falcons headed into the third season under Dan Quinn with a lot of uncertainty: It was unclear whether or not their young defense would be able to keep the team in games, and many across the league (though few Falcons fans) doubted Matt Ryan’s ability to lead a team to championship.

Ultimately, the course of the season demonstrated that Matt Ryan is a legitimate Super Bowl-caliber quarterback (as if there was ever any doubt of that), that Kyle Shanahan is a brilliant offensive mind, and that Dan Quinn’s Seattle model of defense (fast and young) is enough to bring a team to the championship level.

Ultimately, their heartbreak in the Super Bowl has Atlanta fans wondering whether or not the team will be able to climb the mountain once again and make it back to the world championship. If they are to do so, it will take some careful roster maneuvering in order to maintain the strengths they had last season, as well as to improve the play of the defense against the run and in front seven pass rush.

In looking at the advanced statistics for the Falcons’ performance last season as well as their strength of schedule, we felt that their record (11–5) accurately expressed their team’s ability, and we didn’t predict any sort of a slide based on next year’s strength of schedule.

However, we ultimately expect to see a three-win drop-off from the Atlanta Falcons next season based primarily on the fact that they are losing offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, and they have also had their team confidence severely shaken by their gut-wrenching loss in Super Bowl 51.

Ultimately time will tell how long it takes a franchise to rid itself of the stink of a historically bad Super Bowl loss, and being in a new stadium should certainly help keep things fresh. But for fans across the NFL, the difference between how far down Atlanta falls vs. how far up San Francisco climbs should certainly demonstrate to all of us just how much the brilliance of Kyle Shanahan meant to the 2016/17 Falcons.

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