The Super Bowl inevitably exposes flaws in the team that loses. In the following season those weak links tend to be exploited by all the other teams. So we get the Curse of the Super Bowl Loser, a/k/a Super Bowl Hangover.
The Atlanta Falcons are a developing team – 14 starters 26 or younger, five of them being rookies. The long-term prospects are brilliant. And yet, you do have to wonder if they’re going to fall to the Curse.
They suffered a Super Bowl meltdown of historic proportion after leading New England by 25 points. The Falcons were unable and/or unwilling to run the ball and drain the clock, and when Matt Ryan’s protection collapsed, they were unable to pass for first downs. Being 1-for-8 on third downs caused their defense to be overworked.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick discovered four trouble spots in the juggernaut of an Atlanta offense:
- Left tackle Jake Matthews is too often a turnstile.
- Starting running back Devonta Freeman is a matador against the blitz.
- Neither Freeman nor anyone else on the team runs with power.
- Kyle Shanahan, offensive coordinator in the Super Bowl, is pass-obsessed.
Shanahan was excoriated for not running the ball to set up a field goal to lock up the win. He’s off to Santa Clara, but his successor as Falcons OC, Steve Sarkisian, is no more likely to know what to do with a ground game.
Sarkisian was shown the door at the U of Alabama because he too neglected the run with a championship at stake.
After Bo Scarborough suffered a broken leg in the national championship game, Sarkisian ditched the run rather than turn to backups Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs, who had combined for 1,600 rushing yards and 6.9 per carry during the season. Alabama went on to lose to Clemson 35-31.
Responding to the Falcons’ twitter account announcing Sarkisian’s hiring, Alabama guard Alphonse Taylor tweeted: “Let em know y’all have more than one running back.”
The Falcons know they have more than one running back, but not one who can blast out a yard when it’s desperately needed. The traps and sweeps are wonderful with the defense focused on pressuring Ryan, but they don’t do so well against a stacked line set to crush the run.
Freeman is one of the smallest backs in the NFL at 5-8, 205 pounds. No. 2 back Tevin Coleman is 6-1, 210, lanky rather than bulky and strong. He’s not more powerful than Freeman, but he is a better blitz protector. Alas, Coleman left the Super Bowl early in the fourth quarter with a sprained ankle.
It’s fair to think he might not have done as Freeman did, wave at Dont’a Hightower breezing by to strip-sack Ryan into Atlanta’s only turnover. Which turned the game around.
The Falcons allowed five sacks to New England and clearly must shore up their line. Matthews, the sixth overall pick of the 2014 draft, was a horror show on Super Sunday. His primary assignment was to block right end Trey Flowers, who rang up 2.5 sacks. Matthews also committed two holding penalties that could not have come at more decisive moments.
To be fair, he was suffering lingering effects of a sprained left knee of two months ago. But even when healthy he’s barely average. Ryan, the league’s MVP and most accurate passer, deserves better protection than that.
And Matthews is not Atlanta’s worst lineman. That would be 34-year-old guard Chris Chester, a marginal starter when in his prime and now much eroded with wear.
I admit it seems absurd to recommend remaking one of the greatest offenses in NFL history. But as we saw, posting big numbers in the regular season does not necessarily translate to winning the Super Bowl.
Certainly the Falcons’ defense also needs reconstruction. Coach Dan Quinn took needed action by retooling the defensive staff. He fired the low-energy coordinator Richard Smith and the uninspiring line coach, Bryan Cox.
On the field, the main concern is the D-line, for which Cox was held accountable. With Dwight Freeney retiring, the front four has only one reliable pass rusher: Grady Jarrett had 3 QB hits and tied a Super Bowl record with 3 sacks.
Defensive end Brooks Reed embodies a rare misjudgment by general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who signed him for 5 years, $22 million prior to the 2015 season. Reed is not much of an edge setter or pass rusher. Never has been.
I won’t fault Dimitroff for Matthews, because of the impeccable bloodlines: Jake, son of Hall of Famer Bruce, who is the uncle of Pro Bowl linebacker Clay.
So looking to the April draft, the Falcons need a left tackle, a guard, a pass-rushing lineman and a power back capable of gouging out a yard with lumbering Jake Matthews in front of him.
The secondary, though slashed by Tom Brady, needs no help other than the return of its best player, Desmond Trufant, recovering from pectoral surgery.
The 2016 draft was bountiful with linemen, and the next one is promising. But even if Atlanta’s physical shortcomings are addressed, what about the mental? Michael Irvin, who’s been on the winning side and losing side in Super Bowls, said on Inside the NFL: “I don’t see how they come back from this.”
The Buffalo Bills in 1992-93 were the last team to lose a Super Bowl and return to the main event a year later. After the Falcons lost the big one to cap the 1999 season, they sagged to 5-11. The Carolina Panthers followed up their defeat in last year’s Super Bowl by going 6-10.
That said, I think the psychological devastation of Super Bowl defeat is a bit overstated. Besides the aforementioned factor of flaws being revealed, the main reason for the traditional backward step is Regression to the Norm. You don’t reach the biggest stage without players having career years. Usually the loser is the weaker team and therefore suffers more regression than the winner.
Will Vic Beasley repeat his 15.5 sacks? Or will he be closer to the zero he was in the postseason? Is it reasonable to expect Ryan to average 9.3 yards per throw? The Falcons are likely to regress a bit, but I expect their defense to mature and the team to do well in 2017 and beyond. Any hangover will be of short duration.
Alan Truex formerly covered the Falcons for the Atlanta Journal.