Everyone in and around the Atlanta Falcons has spent the offseason rehashing the brutal Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots, a collapse of epic proportions that saw the city of Atlanta miss winning its first professional sports championship since 1995. Of particular note is the final Falcons drive, which saw the Falcons hold the ball on first-and-10 at the Patriots' 22-yard line and needing just a chip shot field goal from Matt Bryant to take a 31-20 lead and likely secure the Lombardi Trophy.
Watching it unfold in the stadium was breathtaking. Rewatching it today isn't that less painful -- it might be more so knowing the outcome. (Although even in real time, when Tom Brady got the ball down 28-20 with time on the clock, everyone knew what was happening.)
The Falcons' three plays starting at the 22-yard line could have been handled so differently. That is not hindsight. It would not be revelatory to put some of the blame on former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, now the 49ers head coach. But something Matt Ryan said to CBSSports.com's Pete Prisco recently -- to go with -- stood out as worth looking at even further.
Specifically, Ryan said that Shanahan often took too long to call plays, and it created an issue late in Super Bowl LI.
"Kyle's play calls -- he would take time to get stuff in," Ryan told Prisco. "As I was getting it, you're looking at the clock and you're talking 16 seconds before it cuts out. You don't have a lot of time to say, 'There's 16 seconds, no, no, no, we're not going to do that. Hey, guys, we're going to line up and run this.' You're talking about breaking the huddle at seven seconds if you do something along the lines.
"With the way Kyle's system was set up, he took more time to call plays and we shift and motion a lot more than we did with (former coordinator) Dirk (Koetter). You couldn't get out of stuff like that. We talk about being the most aggressive team in football. And I'm all for it. But there's also winning time. You're not being aggressive not running it there."
Ryan is specifically referring to the second- and third-down plays in this stretch, when Shanahan elected to pass. Remember that, as Pete notes in his story, Dan Quinn decided not to veto any of Shanahan's playcalls. He gave Shanahan carte blanche to make the calls.
Let's look at this particular stretch.
- Lined up: 16 seconds
- Snap: 13 seconds
- The play: Devonta Freeman run left side
- Result: Loss of 1 yard
Nothing much really to see here. The Falcons needed to burn clock so they ran the ball. They had just pulled off a play -- a 27-yard completion to Julio Jones -- that would have gone down in history as one of the all-time great throws had Atlanta won.
"We made the play to win the Super Bowl to Julio," Ryan told Prisco about that pass.
This was an easy "run the ball, keep the clock moving" situation for Atlanta. But Shanahan chose to take a different path.
- Lined up: 14 seconds
- Snap: 4 seconds
- The play: Matt Ryan sacked
- Result: Loss of 12 yards
This is where things went very wrong for Atlanta. And it's understandable to see why Ryan might still be frustrated when forced to go back and relive this particular set of plays. The Falcons are just about lined up at 14 seconds, but not really. Ryan is still moving guys around and shouting instructions to his offensive players at this point.
With both clocks ticking, the Falcons are happy burning clock, but they are also in dire need of a cleanly executed play that doesn't kill them here. The ball would be snapped at four seconds, which belies the situation -- this was not a case of waiting around and melting clock. They Falcons were hustling to get the play off.
Ryan probably couldn't have changed the play call if he wanted. And there does appear to be a case to be made that the call came in late to Ryan, forcing him to hustle to the line for the pass play.
This play would ultimately turn into a disaster. The only positive thing about it? The clock kept running. Unfortunately that occurred because Ryan was sacked by Trey Flowers for a loss of 12 yards. The one thing you cannot have happen here is a sack. The play that was called didn't leave Ryan a lot of outs -- some suggest that he could have dumped the ball to Mohamed Sanu over the middle, but as Prisco pointed out, the pocket was breaking down and Ryan was flustered.
Taking a knee would have produced a better outcome. But the Falcons still weren't out of field-goal range. On the broadcast, FOX announcer Joe Buck pointed out after the sack it still would have been a 53-yard field goal attempt
"Matt Bryant has plenty of leg for that," Buck remarked, "but that sack makes the field goal try just that much more difficult if the Falcons don't come up with any yardage on this 3rd-and-23."
- Lined up: 16 seconds
- Snap: 8 seconds
- The play: 9-yard pass negated by holding on Jake Matthews
- Result: Loss of 10 yards
The Falcons actually picked up enough yardage on the original third-down attempt to set up Bryant for a manageable field goal that would have likely iced the game. But a holding call moved them back. Again, they were in field goal range, albeit from a long distance. But kicking from 53 yards would have likely been a risk worth taking given Bryant's success (6 for 8 from beyond 50 yards during the regular season) from that range.
- Lined up: 11 seconds
- Snap: 3 seconds
- The play: 13-yard pass attempt to Taylor Gabriel
- Result: Incomplete pass
At this point, the Falcons needed to get something in the range of 10 yards to get back inside of 55 yards and force Quinn to make a decision. One could argue that even running the ball would have been the prudent play here, because it would force the Patriots to either use a timeout or to let 40 seconds run off the clock. Atlanta remained aggressive and once again passed.
There were a lot of things that went wrong for Atlanta during the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. But it's hard to find anything worse than the quartet of plays that resulted in Atlanta losing 23 yards and having to punt.
The second-down play in particular was just a disaster. There was no need to pass. Ryan was right when he told Prisco that there is a difference between being aggressive and feeling the need to pass.
Atlanta should have run the ball three times and either sliced time off the clock or forced the Patriots to use their timeouts before kicking a field goal to take a 10-point lead.
They did not. And while everyone talks about moving on, it is clearly still an issue many months later.