On Halloween in 1981, Virginia Tech was the homecoming guest in Lexington, Ky. The Hokies, then an independent, were coached by Bill Dooley, brother of Vince. The Wildcats were 1-6; the arrival of VPI, as it was then known, figured to be maybe their last best chance to win.
They lost 29-3. Returning alums began exiting Commonwealth Stadium at halftime. A smallish running back named Cyrus Lawrence, who had conceded that week to this correspondent that he’d written a letter to Kentucky expressing his interest in signing with the Wildcats, ran over and through the Big Blue, from whom he’d heard nary a peep. Coach Fran Curci would meet with the school president the next day and be informed that he’d soon be fired.
Curci’s post-VPI briefing was as bleak as bleak ever gets. Everyone in the media room knew what was coming. And yet, about five minutes into the sorrowful session, a TV reporter piped up: “Any bright spots, coach?”
To his credit, Curci had the grace to laugh out loud.
Apologies for the trip down memory lane, but this correspondent, now rather older, had a similar reaction after the Falcons’ loss to Seattle. He began to list all the signs toward which the local franchise might look for sustenance, and then he came close to laughing.
These Falcons, see, weren’t built in the hope that they’d get incrementally better. They’re built to win now. (Also to save their coach’s job.) They lost their opener at home. They did some nice things, true. They also lost by 13 points after trailing by 20. What might have been the final margin had they not done such nice things? Thirty? Forty?
Were this the first game of a rebuilding team under a new coach, we might see it differently. This, however, was Game 1 of Season 6 under Dan Quinn. Nobody’s looking at a five-year plan. If results don’t improve posthaste, DQ might not make it to Halloween. (Don’t forget that there’s one job Raheem Morris hasn’t yet filled in Flowery Branch, that being head ball coach.)
Think of the talent imported over the offseason. Todd Gurley was the 10th overall pick in 2015. Dante Fowler went seven spots ahead of Gurley in that draft. Hayden Hurst went 25th overall in 2018. The Falcons can start 10 Round 1 picks on offense. (Had LaQuon Treadwell made the team as a slot receiver, they could have become the first team to start a full platoon of first-rounders.) They can start five No. 1s on defense, not including Deone Bucannon, who’s on the practice squad. This is not a roster that can cry hunger.
And yet: The Falcons’ last lead Sunday came with 4:44 remaining in the first quarter. They scored two touchdowns, one per half. Seattle managed five.
Matt Ryan threw for 450 yards. Gurley rushed for 56. Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage all surpassed 100 yards receiving. The Falcons had three sacks, one more than Seattle. They outgained their opponent by 123 yards. We might deem these bright spots, except there can be no such things for a win-now team that loses at home by double figures.
I know, I know. Even by my snarky standards, this sounds harsh. Really, though, what’s left to say? Quinn pronounced his team “pissed and upset.” Pretty sure the fan base shares those sentiments. How many more times can we hear these Falcons say they need to “work on the little things” before we run off screaming into the night? How many more times can this star-spangled team re-invent the lead balloon?
The Falcons are 25-27 since winning the NFC title in January 2017. They’ve since changed every coordinator, some more than once. The team viewed as a burgeoning colossus in its Super Bowl run — and in the first three quarters of that Super Bowl — has backslid into being just one of 32, and not an especially imposing one. Forget all those No. 1 picks. Wonder instead, as Steve Spurrier famously did of Georgia’s vaunted recruits: “What happens to them?”
We stipulate that one game can mislead. (The first game of that Super season saw them lose 31-24 at home to Tampa Bay.) San Francisco is likewise 0-1. So is Dallas, the Falcons’ next opponent. So are the Buccaneers, Tom Brady’s latest employer. That said, the Falcons’ 2018 and 2019 seasons began 0-1 and wound up 7-9. That would seem a pattern.
Were this another team, we might be well advised to take a deep breath and count the number of things it did right on opening day. These, however, are the Falcons. They’ve been losing the same game for a while. They did it again Sunday. Unless/until they prove otherwise, there’ll be no bright spots. There will only be the Same Old Falcons.
©2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)