Steven Bradley: My mea culpa to the Atlanta Falcons
Not to brag, but I’d like to take this opportunity to pat myself on the back for totally predicting Atlanta’s march to the Super Bowl behind an MVP season from quarterback Matt Ryan.
OK … technically those are alternative facts.
The reality is that I — a lifelong Falcons fan — spent much of the preseason telling anyone who would listen it wasn’t farfetched for this team to start its season 0-8.
And after Atlanta dropped its season opener at home to Tampa Bay, I was resigned to hoping it would at least be bad enough to get an early draft pick, select Deshaun Watson and move on from Ryan altogether.
Anyone here at the office can confirm I said those things on multiple occasions. And now that I’m currently basking in the glow of my Falcons absolutely trouncing both the Seahawks and Packers to set up a showdown with New England in Super Bowl LI, I’d say it’s pretty much official — I’m absolutely the worst kind of fan.
But one reason I almost never watch sports programming except for the games themselves is the proliferation of shows with talking heads spewing hot takes aimed at stirring up controversy and then, when it turns out they totally missed the mark, simply moving on to another subject the next day.
But even though I never actually published my pessimism about the Falcons, I think it’s refreshing when people can admit they were wrong. And boy was I wrong.
In my defense, after watching what can only be described as a complete and utter collapse in 2015 when the Falcons went 3-8 down the stretch, it would have been difficult to foresee how this season played out.
But Atlanta went out in the offseason and signed center Alex Mack away from Cleveland in free agency and, combined with the development of tackles Ryan Schraeder and former first-round pick Jake Matthews, shored up their pass protection.
Ryan’s big weakness has always been standing tall and delivering the ball downfield when the pocket collapses, particularly up the middle, so it stood to reason that signing perhaps the league’s best center would make a difference.
I’m not sure anyone could’ve imagined how big a difference.
Not to say Ryan was a glorified game manager during his first eight years, but he’d never averaged as many as 8 yards per pass attempt and on three occasions under averaged fewer than 7 over the course of a season.
The quarterbacks who averaged fewer than 7 yards per pass this season included the likes of Tyrod Taylor, Case Keenum and Colin Kaepernick — not exactly players you’d reckon are future MVPs if their pass protection improves.
But that’s exactly what happened with Ryan. His 9.26 yards per attempt this season is the best in NFL history, while 13 different Falcons caught touchdown passes from him in the regular season — also the best figure in NFL history for a quarterback.
As of Jan. 18 — even before he threw for 392 yards and four touchdowns in a 44-21 blowout of golden boy Aaron Rodgers and the Packers — Ryan was listed as a 9/1 favorite to be named the NFL’s MVP.
Atlanta is tied with the 2000 St. Louis Rams — the offense dubbed “The Greatest Show on Turf” — for seventh in NFL history in total points in a season with 540 (33.8 points per game).
With 21 points on Feb. 5, they’d vault into third place on that list, passing the 2011 Packers. They’d need 50 to surpass the 2007 Pats for second place and 67 to usurp the 2013 Broncos’ record, but either way the 2016 Falcons will go down as one of the great offenses in football history.
Ryan doesn’t deserve all the credit, of course. Freak of nature Julio Jones is the only player in the league averaging more than 100 receiving yards per game, and the dynamic duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman spearheaded the league’s fifth-best ground game (120.5 yards per game).
Second-year coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who seems bound for San Francisco after the Super Bowl, is immensely responsible, as well. Ryan never looked anywhere close to this player under previous coordinators Mike Mularkey and Dirk Koetter.
And it’s not all about offense, either. The Falcons ranked just 25th in the NFL in total defense, but it’s an extremely young unit — eight starters are first- or second-year players — that made major strides down the stretch in its second season under head coach Dan Quinn.
Heck, they held Rodgers and Green Bay to 21 points while forcing two turnovers and picked off Russell Wilson twice in holding the Seahawks to 20 points a week before.
Two of the Falcons’ starters are former Clemson standouts, second-year pros Grady Jarrett and Vic Beasley — who led the NFL in sacks— and they have apparent rising stars at every level of the defense, such as linebacker Deion Jones and safety Keanu Neal (whose selection I also bemoaned as a “reach” when he was drafted).
Atlanta enters the Super Bowl as a 3-point underdog to the Patriots, but that’s not bad when you figure New England is headed to its seventh Super Bowl and won four since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady joined forces.
Either way, the Falcons have a chance to prove me really, really wrong on Feb. 5. And I’ll be more than happy to take my medicine if they do.
Steven Bradley has written for The Journal in various capacities since 2004 and now serves as its news editor. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.