FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — The Atlanta Falcons couldn’t save their season even though their second-half turnaround rescued coach Dan Quinn from being fired.
A 6-2 second-half record certainly boosted spirits, including after Sunday’s 28-22 overtime win at Tampa Bay,
Still, in a bottom-line league, the Falcons missed the playoffs for the second straight season with a 7-9 record. Two consecutive losing seasons are a bitter reality check after two straight playoff seasons, including the 2016 run to the Super Bowl.
“There is no trophy for playing well in the second half,” Quinn said Monday. “It has to carry over.”
The big hope is the Falcons can take the momentum to 2020.
“You know it’s something to build on next year,” linebacker De’Vondre Campbell said after Sunday’s win.
The Falcons proved they are resilient. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett knows players must prove much more.
Jarrett says the Falcons are “a team that is going to be hungry — hungry for success. We want to be playing back in the postseason and winning big.”
Now Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff, also retained for 2020, must prove Blank’s confidence in them was justified.
FIRST PRIORITY IS FAST START
The Falcons have been devastated by slow starts in two straight seasons. They opened this season with a 1-7 mark. Quinn has said that finding a way to start better in 2020 will be an offseason priority.
Quinn wasn’t ready to say on Monday he’ll play veterans more in preseason games. He said he still believes the preseason games are more important for younger players.
Quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked 48 times this season, a career high. That included six sacks by the Buccaneers on Sunday. The season-long beating caused him to miss a game for the first time since 2009. He will be 35 by the start of the 2020 season and must have better protection.
Despite the sack numbers, Dimitroff said he’s convinced the line is better than a year ago. Rookies Kaleb McGary and Chris Lindstrom finished strong at right guard and right tackle, respectively. With center Alex Mack and left tackle Jake Matthews established, the position to watch in the draft and free agency is left guard.
Raheem Morris was named defensive coordinator for 2020 last week, capping his chaotic season. He began the year coaching wide receivers before a midseason move to secondary coach helped spark the defense’s resurgence.
Quinn indicated Friday he plans to retain Dirk Koetter as offensive coordinator. On Monday, he said it was too early to say if more staff changes would come.
SALARY CAP HELL
The Falcons face salary cap constraints, thanks largely to efforts to re-sign such players as Ryan, Jarrett, Julio Jones and Deion Jones. Ryan and Jarrett restructured deals to clear cap space, an example of moves Dimitroff said the team can make to remain financially flexible.
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“I am not concerned about it being a situation where we are going to be in what has been perceived out there as ‘cap hell,’” Dimitroff said. “It’s not the case at all. We will accomplish what we need to accomplish to continue to be able to bring the right players in here to be a contender.”
The Falcons cannot afford to keep all their unrestricted free agents. Among the most notable players set to enter free agency are Campbell, tight end Austin Hooper, defensive ends Vic Beasley Jr. and Adrian Clayborn, punter Matt Bosher and safeties Kemal Ishmael and J.J. Wilcox.
Hooper said Monday he would like to remain in Atlanta.
HOW TO GET IT RIGHT
Despite small improvements late in the season, the Falcons ranked only 30th in the league in rushing with 85.1 yards per game. Devonta Freeman was slowed by injuries and hasn’t played a full season since 2016, also his last 1,000-yard season.
Quinn spoke warmly about Freeman’s late-season return but with frustration about the inability to establish a consistent running game.
“That identity, it has to come through,” Quinn said. “The fact it didn’t, I’m not happy with that. … It will be addressed going forward.”
Improved stability on the offensive line should help the ground game. Ultimately, addressing the running game may require the Falcons to make a tough decision on Freeman.