The NFL season starts Thursday, and Atlanta Falcons fans would like nothing more than to erase the brutal memories from last season’s blown 28-3 Super Bowl lead by winning it all this year. Unfortunately for the Falcons faithful, that isn’t going to happen.
The Falcons will be lucky to make the playoffs this year. The 2017 ESPN Football Power Index projects only 9.3 wins and Vegas has the Falcons winning only 9.5. As defending NFC Champions, how can this be?
The Falcons defense should be improved thanks the return of Pro Bowl cornerback Desmond Trufant from a season-ending shoulder injury, and an offseason of internal growth from many promising young players like safety Keanu Neal and linebacker Vic Beasley. Nevertheless, this is largely the same unit that gave up the seventh most yards per game and the ninth most points per game last season. It was not due to —but rather despite of — this defense that the Falcons made the Super Bowl. They outscored their opponents with their top-ranked offense led by quarterback Matt Ryan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
Shanahan is considered by many in the NFL to be a quarterback guru. In each of his assignments, Shanahan has elevated the play of his quarterbacks by play-calling to their strengths, masking their weaknesses and relentlessly preparing them for each opponent. But upon his departure, there were drops in his former team’s offensive production. That slump in production and wins is an effect I call the “Shanahan regression.”
Before Shanahan became the Houston Texans’ offensive coordinator in 2008, Matt Schaub was a career backup quarterback, starting only 13 games over four years. By his second year in Shanahan’s system, Schaub completed 68.9 percent of his passes for 4,700 yards, 25 touchdowns and 15 interceptions on his way to the Pro Bowl. Houston had the best passing offense in the league in 2009. When Shanahan became the offensive coordinator in Washington, Houston fell from 9-7 to 6-10 the following year.
Shanahan’s next stop was as an offensive coordinator in Washington. After inheriting two unadaptable, past-their-prime quarterbacks, Donovan McNabb and Rex Grossman, for the 2010-2011 seasons, Shanahan worked his magic with rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III in 2012. As a malleable rookie quarterback in Shanahan’s creative system, Griffin completed 20 touchdowns with only four interceptions, while adding 815 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns on the way to the playoffs, the first time since 2007. Unfortunately, a torn ACL in the 2012 playoffs derailed Griffin’s promising career. Griffin was never again able to execute Shanahan’s offense the same way, and a 10-win Washington team became a three-win team the next season.
The perpetually pathetic Cleveland Browns were Shanahan’s next coaching stop in 2014. He inherited a quarterback with a total of four career starts in Brian Hoyer and a team coming off a four-win season. Shanahan won seven games with Hoyer and the Browns, the most games Cleveland had won since 2007. When Shanahan left to become the offensive coordinator in Atlanta after just one season in Cleveland, the Browns won only three games, demonstrating the “Shanahan regression” once again.
This brings us to Atlanta. With the Falcons, Shanahan recreated his Houston magic. The Falcons had the NFL’s best offense. Quarterback Matt Ryan had a stellar year, shattering his career averages of 4,200 yards, 27 touchdowns and 13 interceptions to post 4,900 yards, 38 touchdowns and only seven interceptions on his way to NFL MVP and a Super Bowl berth.
This season, Shanahan is gone, which means regression is highly likely for the Falcons. While Julio Jones will continue to be one of the best receivers in the NFL, and running back Devonta Freeman will likely have another 1,300 total yards and 10 touchdowns, Ryan, the catalyst for last year’s Super Bowl run, won’t play at an MVP level. He will likely regress back to his career averages of 4,200 passing yards, 27 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. That translates to good quarterback play, but it’s not good enough to drag a team with a bottom-ten defense to the Super Bowl.
The NFC South should improve thanks to an expected bounce back season from the Carolina Panthers, a Super Bowl team just two years ago, and the rapid improvement of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That improvement, coupled with the “Shanahan regression,” indicate that at least a two-game win decline should be expected, if not more. That turns an 11-win team into a nine-win team, a fringe playoff contender.
Pump the breaks, Falcons fans. This team isn’t going to soar gracefully to the Super Bowl, and those expecting it are likely in for some serious disappointment. The Falcons will need to claw their way into the playoffs to overcome the “Shanahan regression.”
All stats provided by pro-football-reference.com and nfl.com