During his appearance on the Tonight Show, Bill Belichick finally got a word in after Jimmy Fallon went on gushing for 5 minutes straight. Belichick was asked what do you say to Falcons fans after such a loss. Belichick responded with “I mean it’s tough, I don’t think you ever get over them. They are still with you… it is a missed opportunity. You don’t get many chances at it. At the same time, there is next season”. I bet a lot of fans are hung up at the first half of that. Yeah, the Falcons screwed up big time and had a huge chance to take home the Lombardi. But there is next season…
It is easy to be dejected as a Falcons fan because not only did you lose in a historic collapse, but also teams that lose the Super Bowl almost never make it back the following year. The last time the team that lost the Super Bowl made it back the following year was the Jim Kelly led Buffalo Bills of 1993 – the unfortunate team that somehow lost 4 Super Bowls back to back. In fact, the only two teams since 2000 that lost the Super Bowl and went back in the next 5 years are the Patriots and the Broncos. It has always been discussed how the window of opportunity is so small in the NFL and this really illustrates it. However, if we were to go deeper to understand why past 2nd place finishers failed to replicate that type of success, we may realize that seeing the Falcons in Super Bowl again in the near future is not far- fetched at all.
To start, let us just say that in the AFC it has been hard for any team to ever come back to the Super Bowl because of Brady & Belichick, Peyton Manning, and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even the Steelers have had a hard time against the former two. The lone exception since 2004 for that trend have been the Baltimore Ravens led by that superhuman run from Joe Flacco and more importantly, that incredible defensive unit led by Ed Reed and Ray Lewis. That defensive unit that the Ravens had is among the very best that we have seen in the NFL and despite that, they have only one Super Bowl to their credit. That speaks volumes to how much Brady, Belichick and Manning have dominated the last 13 years. Thankfully, for the Falcons, it is a completely different story in the NFC. The turnover in the NFC rep at the Super Bowl has been way more varied. The only two NFC teams with multiple Super Bowl appearances since 2000 have been the Rams, Giants and the Seahawks. So what happened to all the great NFC SB teams?
St Louis Rams, aka the “greatest show on turf”, simply went past their prime. They won their ring as a token to their greatness and were one Belichick/Brady game away from another. Kurt Warner saw a huge dip in performance and Marshall Faulk was plagued with injuries. They tried to make do with whatever was left with the offense (which was still pretty good, even though not “greatest show” good) and replace Warner with Bulger. Marc Bulger had his moments and even led them to an epic showdown with the Panthers in the NFC championship game.
Carolina Panthers, led mostly by their defense and a manageable offense, truly peaked in their 2003 season. Although they were coming off a couple of impressive playoff wins (one of them putting an end to the previous team discussed), they always felt like a team that was going on a lucky run more than a dominating one. Of course, every Super Bowl winning team needs a bit of luck, but the 2003 Panthers relied heavily in pulling out late game wins within one score. So much so that they were dubbed “ the Cardiac Cats”. It did end up coming down to that against the Patriots in the Super Bowl, but they couldn’t pull out one more clutch performance.
While this wasn’t the complete end to the John Fox led Carolina Panthers, this definitely was their chance. They should have been poised for another run the following season as they kept all of their core players. However, they were hit by injuries as they had 14 players on IR. They did finish the season 6-2 after starting 1-7, but it was too little too late. The injury bug did not let up as the years went on. Despite this, they still made a return to the conference championship game in 2005 and the John Fox Panthers made their last playoff run in 2008. The injuries were clearly the major culprit in the Panthers failing to win the big one, but the problem was that the Panthers offense was always held together by a shoestring. They were never extraordinary and easily collapsible by an injury.
Philadelphia Eagles led by Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb might be one of the most consistent teams to never win a Super Bowl. From 2000-2008, they have had only one sub-.500 season. More impressively, they made 4 straight conference championship games and 5 total in their run. It is harder to pinpoint what went wrong with this team. The fascinating thing is that this is one of the few teams that expanded their window despite never capitalizing on it. This can be credited to the consistently solid defenses that defensive coordinator Jim Johnson put out as well as some great play from McNabb and Westbrook. However, when it came down to the Championship games, the fundamental flaw of the Eagles was exposed. The offense simply was not good enough. McNabb is a solid quarterback and he did the most he could. For a significant portion of those 8 years, he did not have enough talent around him to succeed especially with a pass happy coach like Andy Reid. It is no coincidence that they made the Super Bowl the one-year they had a healthy T.O.
Seattle Seahawks (Mike Holmgren era) took too long to get built for a title run. There was some questionable business in their only SB appearance, but they simply did not have the tools to return. Much of their success is due to Shaun Alexander and Matt Hasselback and both of them struggled with injuries after that 2006 playoff run.
Chicago Bears never had a quarterback. The defense carried them to a Super Bowl in 2006, but that wasn’t going to happen again. Three years later, they traded for Jay Cutler, but that became a much different team than the one that went to the SB.
Arizona Cardinals went to the Super Bowl in the final stage of Kurt Warner’s career. This Super Bowl appearance was more of a conclusion to that team than a beginning.
San Francisco 49ers would probably still be a contender if 49ers were managed by anyone with a brain and did not fire Jim Harbaugh.
What it comes down to for a team to make it back to another Super Bowl is injuries, whether the team is actually good enough and how long you can keep that team together. The 2016 Atlanta Falcons showed all season long why they are good enough. The Falcons finished the season with the 7th most points ever scored, tying the St. Louis “The Greatest Show on Turf” Rams. This is already impressive as it is, but to make it even more so, they faced top 10 DVOA defenses 6 times this season. If you are one of those people who like to react to their most recent achievements, then you will find more of this in the Super Bowl itself. They went up 28-3 against the biggest dynasty in the NFL and played great football for 3 whole quarters.
The master behind all this offensive success is leaving however. Kyle Shanahan is now going to coach the 49ers, so there is no guarantee the offensive success sustains in his absence. The new man for the job is going to be Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. It is hard to get a take on what type of coach Sarkisian is especially since he has had only one game as an OC in Alabama, but HC Dan Quinn has maintained that Sarkisian will keep Shanahan’s successful system in place. In addition, Sarkisian seems to be more willing to let Matt Ryan audible, which was the subject of much contention with Kyle Shanahan. As great as Shanahan’s scheme was, it isn’t the best plan to forever restrict your MVP quarterback at the line. All of this suggests that the Falcons don’t intend to fix what isn’t broken and while it is incredibly difficult to repeat such an explosive offensive performance, they can still be the fearsome explosive unit they were this past season.
On the other side of the ball, the defense never stood out as much as the offense during the regular season. This is attributed mostly to the fact that the defense is incredibly young. Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen, Jalen Collins, De’Vondre Campbell, Deion Jones, Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, and Brian Poole are all 25 years old or younger. All of these players were only getting better as the season went on. In the playoffs, they slowly started to show a dominant side as they shut down Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers. They took it another level entirely for the first three quarters of the Super Bowl. All the talk before the Super Bowl was about how the Falcons don’t have the personnel to create inside pressure against Tom Brady and that was proven completely wrong. Grady Jarrett had a bit of a coming out party as he wreaked havoc and finished the game with 3 sacks.
This is a really young defense that hasn’t come close to tapping their potential yet. They dominated a Brady led offense and would have continued to do so if they weren’t on the field for over 90 plays. If they can do that now, I can’t even begin to fathom what they can do as they get more experience. If that wasn’t enough, they were missing two of their best defensive players for most of the season in shutdown corner Desmond Trufant and one of their best pass-rushers Adrian Clayborn.
One of the problems with past Super Bowl losing teams is keeping their core together. This is where the Falcons have an advantage. While most teams make the Super Bowl during their prime, the Falcons have gotten to that point before their defense has even hit their peak. Therefore, almost all of their major defensive players are signed for a while. The major exceptions are Desmond Trufant and Adrian Clayborn in 2018. While they may be able to keep at least one of those two, they made it this far this year without them both. The other free agents include aging veterans in Jonathan Babineaux and Dwight Freeney who are not going to demand major money. Lastly, they re-signed Courtney Upshaw who has fit in well with Dan Quinn’s group.
On offense, their only major free agent this year is Taylor Gabriel and in 2018 is Devonta Freeman. The Falcons have the cap space to keep both around and Gabriel has already indicated that he wants to be a Falcon forever. OG Chris Chester is going to be a free agent, but he hasn’t been good at all. The Guard position has needed improvement throughout the season and the Falcons will be looking to improve through the draft.
One of the downsides for the Atlanta Falcons is that their division is not going to lay down. The Carolina Panthers should have a bounce back year after an incredibly disappointing season. The Saints are NFL’s most under-the-radar incompetent team, but at the end of the day, they do have Drew Brees. However, the biggest threat is going to be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Though my opinion of Jameis Winston is not as high as others, the organization seems to be doing their best to make sure to help him out. They have already signed DeSean Jackson so that Jameis won’t throw to Mike Evans on every damn play. Much like the Falcons and maybe even more so than them, the Bucs D kept improving as the season went on last year and finally burst out onto the scene in Weeks 11 and 12 as they put on a show against two formidable playoff teams in the Chiefs and the Seahawks. This is a team on the rise, but the Falcons are well equipped to take on their defense. At the end, it will come down to Matt Ryan vs Jameis Winston and I am going to take the 2016 MVP.
If you aren’t sold on how good the Falcons are, well then you don’t need to be. The NFC does not have many formidable opponents right now. There is simply not enough for Aaron Rodgers to work with, the Seahawks have an offensive line problem, and the Cowboys are too young with an overachieving but poorly equipped defense. The dark horse team is, of course, the New York Giants. They should be able to replicate their defensive performance from last year, but it is their offense that needs improvement. They already showed signs of working on that, seen through the signing of Brandon Marshall and the secretly great signing of Rhett Ellison. All they need now is to work on that o-line. If they manage to fix that, then they are well equipped in every department to tackle on the Falcons except, well, the head coach. The Giants offense had its fair share of problems, but it was not at all helped by Bob McAdoo’s terrible play calling. I don’t see the Giants making another Super Bowl run with McAdoo as their HC, but Eli has proven me wrong before.
Falcons are good enough and young enough to sustain this success for at the very least the next 2-3 years. The only thing that may hold them back would be injuries, but this team is more equipped for that than teams of past. They just made the Super Bowl without their best defensive player in Desmond Trufant. They managed to win comfortably in the 2 games they played without Julio Jones. They have playmakers and depth on both sides to make it happen and Falcon fans, I’m sure, are well aware of that. It has been a terrible loss, but there is plenty to look forward.