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The Falcons are too stubborn to succeed

After a 5-0 start to the season, the Falcons are at risk of being the first team in NFL history to finish with a losing record after such a hot start. Despite the results, head coach Dan Quinn isn't changing his approach.

Following the Atlanta Falcons' loss to Tampa Bay in Week 13, Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said Atlanta's defense was "jogging" when they allowed Jameis Winston to convert a third-and-19 attempt on the ground.

Several Falcons defenders had opportunities to stop Winston. Nobody does, and the effort they put into running down Winston is questionable.

One week later, after Atlanta was called out by an opponent for a lack of effort, the Falcons had their absolute worst game of the season, a 38-0 loss to the Carolina Panthers.

The Falcons continue to regress from week to week, and there's not a simple answer as to why.

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The end of the 2014 season brought change to the Atlanta Falcons. The team parted ways with head coach Mike Smith and hired Dan Quinn, the dynamic defensive coordinator who orchestrated the vaunted Seattle Seahawks defense. As the Falcons jumped out to a 5-0 start to the 2015 season, it seemed clear that Quinn's Falcons were on a completely different trajectory than the team that had gone 10-22 over the previous two seasons.

National media took note of Atlanta's success, penciling offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan in as the hottest candidate for whatever head coaching jobs end up being vacated on Black Monday. Atlanta's offensive line, cobbled together just before the season began, looked dominant in those early games, not only adequately protecting Matt Ryan, but also paving the way for Devonta Freeman to establish himself as one of the top running backs in football.

Atlanta's defense, which had been statistically below average to poor in 2013 and 2014, was suddenly tough against the run and creating big turnovers to win games. Quinn's influence was evident. The Falcons were back.

A rude awakening

As the team prepared for a Thursday night matchup against the New Orleans Saints, a division rival, their approach was the same as it had been through the first five wins of the season. Quinn emphasizes preparing for each opponent as if that week's game is a championship game. Week 6 was no different for Atlanta before they took the field, but after the game kicked off, the Falcons didn't look like the same team that had won five in a row to start the season. Atlanta looked unprepared in all three phases and made mistakes -- a blocked punt and two fumbles -- that they were unable to overcome. They lost to the Saints by a final score of 31-21.

It seemed like Atlanta would have an opportunity to turn things around against a Tennessee Titans team that was 1-4 heading into the Week 7 matchup. Rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota was unable to play against the Falcons. Backup Zack Mettenberger got the nod to start in Mariota's stead. Surely the Falcons would bounce back.

Atlanta beat the Titans by a three-point margin and nearly fell prey to mistakes and miscues that were similar to what the Falcons experienced against the Saints. Ryan threw two interceptions, and the Falcons barely edged out the struggling Titans 10-7.

It was a win that felt much more like a loss for Atlanta and the last victory to date.

An epic collapse

Things have gotten much worse since that last win.

The Falcons somehow stayed competitive in a loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at home despite catastrophic turnovers. One Matt Ryan interception and fumbles from Ryan, Julio Jones and Mike Person didn't keep the Falcons from forcing the Bucs to overtime, but the Falcons lost 23-20 on a Tampa Bay field goal. Blaine Gabbert had just been named the starter when the Falcons traveled to San Francisco to take on the 49ers in Week 9, but Gabbert looked like a seasoned pro against Atlanta. The Falcons offense struggled to get into the end zone, and the Niners won 17-16.

The Falcons were keeping things close, but just not finishing games the way they had during the 5-0 start. The team's bye, which came in Week 10, couldn't have come at a better time. Coaches and players thought that some rest and the opportunity to get players fully healthy would help the team get back on track.

But three more losses after the bye -- to the Matt Hasselbeck-led Indianapolis Colts, the Minnesota Vikings and the Buccaneers -- suggested that the Falcons had no idea how to get back on track.

In Week 14, facing the undefeated Carolina Panthers on the road and knowing that a loss would all but destroy any postseason aspirations, the Falcons looked completely lost. The defense gave up 349 offensive yards to the Panthers before the half. The Panthers defense had five sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. Atlanta's defense gave up explosive play after explosive play to the Panthers.

It wasn't just that the team wasn't playing well. The Falcons looked like they were utterly incapable of being competitive against Carolina. Atlanta barely resembled the team that started the season 5-0.

What went wrong?

One of the more obvious factors is that Atlanta's offense is making too many mistakes to overcome. Since Atlanta's bye week, Ryan has thrown seven interceptions, compared to just five touchdowns over that interval. Overall, the team has a minus-6 turnover differential, which puts the Falcons tied for 25th in the league.

A new scheme and the growing pains associated with that transition may be a factor. A lack of explosive offensive talent outside of Jones and Freeman is certainly part of the issue. Effectively abandoning the run, which was a significant part of the team's early success, is another factor.

Defensively, Atlanta has no pass rush, despite spending their first round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft on rookie edge rusher Vic Beasley. They're last in the league with just 15 sacks on the season. Atlanta's run defense, which had been a strength, has fallen apart, and they've allowed an average of 166.3 yards per game on the ground over the past three games. They're not playing disciplined football.


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The biggest issue for the Falcons is that the coaching staff and the players don't seem to know how to make the necessary corrections, and the same mistakes and weaknesses plague the team with no visible improvement. Quinn used the word "unacceptable" to describe Atlanta's play against the Panthers, and the Falcons' recent performances raise the question of whether this coaching staff has lost the team.

In Week 14 against the Panthers, cornerback Robert Alford appeared to quit on a play that resulted in a 74-yard touchdown by Ted Ginn, Jr. Alford was flagged for illegal contact on the play, and Quinn said Monday that Alford thought Ginn had stepped out of bounds. Still, Alford's effort on the play was enough of a concern that Quinn did speak to him about it.

"Yeah, he certainly did," Quinn said when asked Monday if Alford had quit on the play. "We are all about finishing, so that one was difficult for him and for us."

Defensive line coach Bryan Cox and defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman had an altercation on the sideline during the loss to Carolina last week. The lack of poise was cited by Quinn as one of the reasons for the loss to the Panthers. Quinn said that he was handling the situation between Cox and Hageman in-house.

"They are both top notch guys," Quinn said. "Cox was looking out for him when Ra'Shede was emotional during that time on a play. At no point is that going to be part of our football. I talked to both of them about it."

A physical altercation between a player and a coach doesn't inspire confidence that the players and the coaching staff are of one accord.

Is there hope for the Falcons?

The coaching staff has not yet figured out how to correct the issues that have derailed Atlanta's season after such a strong start. Quinn and his staff have tried to adjust, but if anything, things are getting worse. Quinn said Monday that while he wouldn't deviate from the style and attitude he wants the Falcons to play with, that the coaching staff would look for different ways to feature players and make corrections that need to be made.

"When there's a lack of production in one area, the point of emphasis gets stronger, so for us, there's going to be some more points of emphasis to certain parts," Quinn said.

Those points of emphasis haven't made a difference over the past few weeks. Barring a miracle, it's difficult to imagine the Falcons making a big turnaround in the last three games of the season.

Assuming the Falcons retain Shanahan, one more full offseason for Ryan to settle into Shanahan's scheme should be beneficial. Ryan looks downright uncomfortable at times, and he isn't the best physical fit for the type of offense that Shanahan prefers, but more time to adjust to the change and improve his mechanics and footwork would help.

It's possible that Quinn needs one more offseason with a solid draft and a strong effort in free agency to stock the roster with more talent that better fits the schemes Atlanta wants to run on both sides of the ball. Looking at the talent Atlanta has on both sides of the ball as well as draft outcomes, it's not difficult to imagine the team parting ways with general manager Thomas Dimitroff after the season.

Regardless of what happens in the front office, adding more receiving options and upgrading the interior line should be offensive priorities. Defensively, the Falcons have a lot of needs. They have to have some players who can disrupt opposing quarterbacks, and they need linebackers who can play effectively and stay sufficiently healthy.

Quinn isn't giving up on the season. When asked Wednesday how he's adapting his approach as a rookie head coach to handle this adversity, Quinn said that his focus and his message to the team remains the same.

"Everything counts in terms of the way you prepare, the way you play, the way you battle," Quinn said. "So that part of it, it's never going to change. That's the league we live in. That's the competition that we thrive under."

Quinn said there have been times he has been pleased with Atlanta's effort, and there have been times that it leaves something to be desired.

"We've had it at times, and we've not had it at times, and that's the challenge," Quinn said. "Can you be so strong mentally that it's there for you exactly when you need it, which is all the critical situations that come up in ballgames."

Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, no team has started the season 5-0 and ended with a losing record. The Falcons are poised to make history in an unfortunate way, and for the third season in a row, Falcons fans have to invest their hope in next season.