This week, the Atlanta Falcons officially hit rock bottom.
After blowing two leads in Weeks 2 and 3 in historic fashion and starting the 2020 season winless in their first five games, the team that represented the NFC in the Super Bowl just four years ago fired their general manager Thomas Dmitroff and head coach Dan Quinn.
It doesn’t seem that long ago the Falcons had a 28-3 lead late in the 3rd quarter of Super Bowl 51 against the New England Patriots. They were nearly champions. Now, they’re one of the worst teams in the NFL and are about to tear it all down and start from scratch. As BGN Radio host and the PhillyVoice’s Jimmy Kempski noted, their fall from grace has been precipitous, and the Eagles now appear to be mirroring that descent into the abyss, with a one-year lag.
In the season that followed their Super Bowl appearance, the Falcons went 10-6 in 2017 and made it to the playoffs, where they won a wild card match-up in Los Angeles against the Rams and then lost in the divisional round to the eventual champion Eagles on a last-second, fourth down heave into the end zone that went over Julio Jones’ head. In the season after their Super Bowl victory, the Eagles went 9-7 and earned a wild card spot where they upset the Bears in Chicago in the wild card round and then lost a heartbreaker in New Orleans to the Saints in the divisional round when a ball went through Alshon Jeffery’s hands as the Eagles were driving for the potential go-ahead score.
In 2018, two years removed from their Super Bowl appearance, Atlanta went 7-9, but started the season 4-9 and won their last three meaningless games to make their record look better than it was. In the Birds’ second season following their Super Bowl appearance, they started off 5-7 and looked dead and buried, but took advantage of a weak NFC East and embarked on a four-game winning streak with a depleted roster that earned them an NFC East title. But a Carson Wentz concussion in their home wild card game against the Seahawks ended any dreams of a deep playoff run.
In 2019, three years after Super Bowl 51, Atlanta started 1-7 (their lone victory was a Week 2 win against the Eagles in the Agholor Drop game). They finished 7-9 thanks to a season-ending four-game winning streak that earned Quinn and Dmitroff one more chance to right the ship heading into 2020. Philadelphia, meanwhile, is in the midst of their third season following their 41-33 victory over the Patriots in Super Bowl 52. They are 1-3-1. Their opening week loss to Washington, in which they blew a 17-0 lead, was brutal. They were uncompetitive against the Rams in Week 2, fell all over themselves in their Week 3 tie against the Bengals, rallied for a solid victory against the 49ers in San Francisco in Week 4, and lost to the Steelers in Week 5 thanks to some awful defensive play calling.
There are aging veterans who are injured, a lack of star power up and down the roster and piles of draft picks that are either wasted or hurt.
The parallels between the two teams are spookily similar.
In the season following their Super Bowl appearance, Atlanta lost offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, the architect of an offense that ranked first in points per game and third in total yards per game. Shanahan took his talents to San Francisco and, three years later, appeared as the head coach in a Super Bowl of his own. Like the Falcons, the Eagles lost their offensive coordinator, Frank Reich, to the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts haven’t had the same success the 49ers have (thanks to Andrew Luck’s surprise retirement), but it’s clear Reich’s talents and the working relationship he had with Wentz and Pederson have been missed.
As Kempski noted in his piece, the Falcons entered the season with the NFL’s oldest roster, at 26.9 years old. The Eagles’ roster is not filled with spring chickens either, with the 14th-oldest roster at 26.0 years old. Not only that, Philadelphia has the least roster flexibility of any NFL team heading into 2021, a season in which there will likely be a reduction in the salary cap due to COVID-19 restrictions on fans attending regular season games, and their draft history doesn’t inspire confidence in their ability to add young talent moving forward.
But there are some key differences between the two franchises. Despite the justifiable criticism surrounding his play this year and the uncertainty that remains as to whether he can be an elite quarterback in the NFL, Carson Wentz’s future is far more secure than Matt Ryan’s, who is 35 and has played 13 years in the NFL. And if Wentz fails, this year’s second round pick Jalen Hurts figures to get a chance to be the guy moving forward (although it was still an arrogantly stupid pick). The Eagles are in better shape with Miles Sanders at running back (Todd Gurley is likely not a long-term solution in Atlanta’s backfield). But like DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery, Julio Jones is an aging wide receiver in his early 30s who is injured and whose best days are behind him. Both defenses have major holes and need to be rebuilt.
Atlanta will almost certainly sell off some of their assets at the trade deadline and/or in the off-season. Does Jeffrey Lurie wait until the 2020 season is over before deciding to make similar decisions? Certainly Doug Pederson, Jim Schwartz and Howie Roseman aren’t going anywhere right now, but what about after the season? Much will be determined by how they finish, but the current coaching structure leaves much to be desired, with Jim Schwartz and Doug Pederson essential co-head coaches, one on offense and one on defense.
Any attempts to get better will have to come through the NFL Draft, as the Eagles are projected to be $68 million over the cap in 2021, second only to the Saints at $78.1 million, according to Over The Cap. Roseman’s draft history is far from good, which should force some changes as to how the Eagles go about that process, but that remains to be seen.
Regardless, one can’t help but notice the similarities between the Falcons’ fall from grace and the path upon which the Eagles tread. Even if they win a disastrously bad NFC East this year, the team has lost forward momentum and has more problems than answers.
Atlanta provides a cautionary tale for Lurie and the Birds, one they should be watching closely as 2020 season unfolds.