The Atlanta Falcons were one score from winning Super Bowl LI last season. How much of that was due to Kyle Shanahan?
Although some doubted the team until the very end, the Atlanta Falcons were a field goal away from defeating the New England Patriots for the franchise’s first Super Bowl last season. With arguably the most potent offense in the NFL led by the league MVP and an athletic defense, the Falcons blossomed at just the right time for a Super Bowl run. Led on the sidelines by defensive-minded head coach Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons had great minds both on and off the field.
That said, it was undoubtedly the offense that carried this team through the season. The numbers really tell the story here. The Falcons’ offense led the league in points scored, yards per play, scoring percentage, and expected points contributed.
Meanwhile, the defense gave up the sixth-most points in the NFL throughout the season, the third-most first downs, and a score on over 39% of opponent drives.
The balance didn’t really shift in the playoffs, as Atlanta’s offense led in points/game and yards/play in the postseason. At the same time, the defense still gave up just as many points per game in the playoffs as they did in the regular season. They also managed to give up four more first downs per game throughout the postseason. Statistically, it’s evident that the offense really carried most of the weight for the Falcons’ success in 2016.
This brings us to the main question this articles poses: how much did Kyle Shanahan have to do with the championship-level of offensive production from the 2016 Atlanta Falcons? In just his second year as the offensive coordinator in Atlanta, Shanahan managed to coordinate an offense that carried what was an 8-8 team in 2015 to a near Super Bowl victory. Was Shanahan the driving force behind this team’s success?
Prior to Shanahan’s arrival in Atlanta, Dirk Koetter was the offensive coordinator of the Falcons under Mike Smith’s regime. After a 6-10 season, most of the Smith regime, including Koetter, were forced out of Atlanta. However, the offense Shanahan inherited was not in a terrible place. Ranking eighth in the league in total offensive yards powered by a top-five passing attack, Shanahan had something to work with immediately. Matt Ryan had just thrown for nearly 4,700 yards and Julio Jones looked like a top-tier receiver. Further, although Roddy White was aging, he had still put up 921 yards on a 80 receptions.
The problem with the offense, however, was that there was no running game. Ranking just 24th in total rushing yards with Steven Jackson as the leading rusher (just 700 yards), the ground attack in Atlanta put no pressure on opposing defenses. Given the laughable run game and the resulting extra man back, it’s a wonder how the passing game put up the numbers that it did in 2014. Requiring a balanced offense for effective use of his system, Shanahan’s first task would be to bolster the run game. The Shanahan/Kubiak system uses a bevy of vocabulary to give the offense seemingly endless options and combinations. For this to be utilized at capacity, the offense needs to be able to do, at the very least, the basics of rushing and passing.
The First Year
In 2015, the Atlanta Falcons had a massive coaching staff overhaul, bringing in former Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn as the head coach and Kyle Shanahan from Cleveland to run their offense. Many people were excited to see what Shanahan could do with the likes of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. Unfortunately, the first season was not the honeymoon Atlanta would have liked to have seen. Finishing 8-8, the Falcons were mediocre at best that season.
It certainly didn’t help that Shanahan, who is known for scripting plays for a game, kept scripting designed passes to a Roddy White who had lost his step. The Falcons dropped to 21st in offensive scoring that season, putting up just 21 points a game. To be fair, a lot of that had to do with Matt Ryan developing a knack for turning the ball over in the red zone (Ryan had the second-most red zone interceptions in the league, with just a 56% completion rate within 20 yards). However, there were certain improvements on the offensive side of the ball.
The most eye-popping improvement was the emergence of a run game. A Pro Bowler in 2015, Devonta Freeman made a name for himself by running for over 1,000 yards and 11 TDs. He also tacked on nearly 600 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns for good measure. Kyle Shanahan had found his versatile running back.
Julio Jones was also a complete monster in 2015, producing almost 1,900 receiving yards while hauling in a whopping 136 receptions. Averaging 117 yards per game and putting the ball in the endzone eight times, Jones had undoubtedly pushed himself to elite status by the end of the season. Just like that, Shanahan had his featured receiver.
The offense in general had actually not regressed much from the year prior. Although scoring was difficult, again, thanks to Ryan’s red zone struggles, Atlanta still ranked seventh in offensive yards. Further, they were moving the chains more often than the year before, finishing third in the league for that statistic. This helped the Falcons stay on the field longer than in 2014, allowing the suspect defense to stay off the field more often. Further, with some semblance of a run game and a legitimate threat in the backfield, the offense had become far more balanced. By end of the season, the pieces were in place for Shanahan’s offense to come alive.
The Shanahan Effect
With the puzzle coming together, especially as Tevin Coleman was poised to put in significant time, the Falcons’ offense could become a manifestation of Kyle Shanahan’s ideas.
It began with a part of the offense not yet talked about in this piece: the offensive line. While the aforementioned things were happening, the Falcons’ O-line was slowly developing and becoming a respectable unit. According to Football Outsiders, Atlanta’s line ranked 10th in run blocking last season. This gave a place for the offense to start.
In 2016, Atlanta’s running back duo, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, combined for nearly 2,500 all-purpose yards and 24 touchdowns. Especially with Freeman averaging 4.8 per carry, there was a very dangerous run game for opponents to fear in Atlanta. The rushing attack ended up finishing fifth in yards and third in touchdowns despite being only 12th in attempts. This team nearly rushed for 2,000 yards last season, a 33% improvement from the pre-Shanahan days.
With this ground attack, the Falcons were able to create more space and also use speedster and Cleveland outcast Taylor Gabriel to exploit it. Creative uses of slants and screens allowed Gabriel to make the most of his speed in the space created by the offense. This effort, of course, was still supported by All-Pro Julio Jones, who averaged over 100 yards/game and 83 receptions in 14 games. With other options like rookie tight end Austin Hooper exploiting seams, Patrick DiMarco coming out of I formations, and Mohamed Sanu doing whatever Shanahan asked, the Atlanta offense turned out new play after new play after new play.
The greatest benefactor to this was quarterback Matt Ryan.
Always overshadowed by other ball throwers in the league, the talented QB finally had his chance to shine, and he took it. With a lot more open space and open receivers flying around the field, Ryan’s completion percentage reached nearly 70% last season. He did this while throwing for just 56 yards shy of the 5,000 mark, tossing 38 touchdowns, and having an interception on just 1.3% of attempts. Recording by far the best season of his career, Matty Ice ended the season by receiving MVP honors for the first time in his career.
Kyle Shanahan successfully schemed together arguably the best offense in the NFL, including those of Tom Brady and the Patriots, Aaron Rodgers’ Packers, Ben Roethlisberger with Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, and Derek Carr and company. He had made a career top-10 quarterback the league MVP, and his offense came within a score of winning a Super Bowl.
Certainly I don’t want to take away any of the credit from the individual players of Shanahan’s Atlanta offense. Without a doubt, Julio Jones is a generational talent and Matt Ryan has always been talented, but they never created anything like this 2016 season. The creative usage of unique skills on the offense allowed Ryan and company to become an unstoppable offensive monster.
Losing Kyle Shanahan to the San Francisco 49ers was a huge blow to the Falcons. The 2016 Falcons were so unstoppable because Shanahan was able to continuously draw up new variations for seemingly infinite plays. Without the innovative shot-caller on the sidelines, it will be difficult for the Falcons to recreate last season’s success, despite the talent they possess. That being said, the 2017 season will create a nice point of comparison to better evaluate the impact of Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta. Though I believe the Falcons offense will regress without their former OC, the magnitude is yet to be determined.
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