Eight games into the 2017 season, the Atlanta Falcons have put their fans through an entire roller coaster of emotions.
They’ve had convincing wins and ugly losses. They’ve sat atop most Power Rankings at times and they’ve also resided in the lower half of Power Rankings at other times. The one thing that has been a constant throughout this whirlwind of a half-season is the Falcons’ clear lack of confidence on the field.
Well, lack of confidence may be too harsh a term. Inconsistency with confidence is more accurate. There have been times where every facet of the game has been clicking on all cylinders. However, there have also been times when everything appeared discombobulated and forced. Times where they clearly didn’t believe in themselves. Now, the Falcons will begin the second half of the season in need of a spark.
Most Falcons fans feel like throwing up whenever they hear the word. The players spent an entire off season downplaying the impact that their crushing Super Bowl loss would have on this season. And for a time this season they looked like all that downplaying was for good reason. After the Green Bay win in Week 2, the Falcons were riding high and were widely thought to be among the NFC’s elite. The play calls were crisp and decisive and the defense was playing fast and furious. For a game, the Falcons looked like they had the mental advantage over Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.
After a narrow win in Detroit, things started to go sideways for the Falcons. They battled through numerous injuries and questionable calls only to lose on the final drive at home to the Bills. OK, well the fact that they were even in the game with all that adversity shows how great of a team they are. Fair enough. Fast forward to the next game. It’s halftime, the Falcons are up 17, and it’s looking like it’s going to be a comfortable home win over the Jay Cutler-led Dolphins. In the third quarter, things started to unravel. Ill-advised mistakes gave Miami momentum, and suddenly the Falcons found themselves down by 3 points, having one last drive to try to make things right. For the second straight week, they were unable to convert in the opposing team’s territory with the game on the line. Well, surely the game against New England will motivate them.
It didn’t. The game in New England was like a bad dream. Instead of coming out with the fire and passion necessary to try to avenge their Super Bowl loss, the Falcons looked passive from the start and were never truly in the game. Infuriating play-calling and penalties that even fourth graders aren’t stupid enough to make cost the Falcons dearly and they were suddenly staring at their third straight loss. There were no more excuses or positive takeaways from this game. People were beginning to realize that questions about Super Bowl Hangover may have been well-founded.
The Falcons would go onto split their next two, leaving the fans and the team sitting at 4-4, wondering what went wrong since that promising start.
Is it possible that this is all due to Super Bowl hangover? Well, I doubt that when Adrian Clayborne was roughing the passer and taking away an interception, he had Super Bowl flashbacks running through his mind. However, there is no denying that the Super Bowl loss itself and the manner in which they lost it have certainly cast a sense of tightness and expectation over this season, and it shows in the way the Falcons are playing now. What they need to do is relax themselves and realize that the only way they can make it back to the big game this year is by taking the weight of last year off their shoulders and playing to conquer this season.
The play-calling from new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has been shaky at best. While in earlier weeks Sarkisian seemed to pick up right where Kyle Shanahan left off at the end of the third quarter of the Super Bowl, he has since been so poor that many Falcons fans have decided to change their Twitter names to #FireSark.
For instance, there was a fourth down and long situation in the Patriots game that occurred near mid-field. The Patriots’ defense was playing well at that point and there was a good chance that the Falcons would not convert. They went for it anyway and didn’t get it. The Patriots promptly drove right down the field and scored.
Play-calls like that demonstrated a clear lack of confidence in the Falcons’ defense to make a stop. This lack of confidence clearly got into the defense’s head as they allowed the Patriots to score easily.
Later in the game, the Falcons called a jet-sweep on fourth down and goal from less than a foot away from the end zone. It was a doomed play from the start, as they lost yards and turned the ball over on downs. Because of the ill-advised play calls from earlier in the game, the Falcons painted themselves into a corner and began to force themselves to make poor decisions later on, perpetuating the mental body blow cycle.
Penalties have also been a huge problem for this team. They have had two interceptions wiped out by roughing the passer penalties this season. Last Sunday against Carolina they gifted the Panthers fifteen yards after an illegal block on a failed fourth down attempt. The Panthers took advantage and scored. Mental mistakes like this are not seen on championship caliber teams, which the Falcons claim that they’re striving to be this season.
Instead of putting mistakes behind them, this Atlanta team lets mistakes linger over the rest of the game and they are usually unable to recover from them. If they want to make the playoffs this year, they will have to learn how to bounce back and respond to adversity. All great teams do.
What Must Change
There’s a scene in Rocky III (yes, the Sylvester Stallone movie) that is reminiscent of the Falcons’ current situation. Rocky has recently been defeated in a devastating loss to Clubber Lang, and it’s been nagging at him ever since, severely impacting his confidence. Enter Apollo Creed, Rocky’s old arch nemesis. Apollo reminds Rocky that the only way he’s going to regain his confidence is by going back to the beginning and revamping his style. He motivates Rocky to rediscover the “eye of the tiger,” or the edge that allowed him to be so successful earlier in his career.
The Falcons need to watch that scene now. They had their devastating loss (the Super Bowl) and they’ve lost the mental edge that they had all last season, up until you know what. Somehow, someway, they must rediscover the eye of the tiger and start playing with confidence. This doesn’t mean looking for a new offensive coordinator or anything drastic necessarily. It just means viewing these next 8 games as a fresh start and choosing to learn from their mistakes instead of being haunted by them.
When the Falcons are on their A Game, they play with a swagger and style that is unmatched by most teams in the league. However, when they’re not on top of their game, things get ugly. Really ugly, as the last few weeks have proven. Their fate this season could very well be decided in these next few games. If they want to turn things around, they’ll have to start winning the mental game.