Stop in any retail store, tune into your favorite radio station or flip on the Hallmark channel and you will quickly figure out ‘Tis the season.
The holidays sure seem to arrive quickly when you’re the parent with the coffee cup in hand on Christmas morning instead of the child eagerly anticipating the latest mind-numbing video game.
In the NFL it’s also that time of year — no, not the holiday season, the time where struggling teams dig deep into their back of ticks for the players-only meeting.
Not much was expected of the Atlanta Falcons after a 6-10 finish in 2014 and a move to a new head coach in Dan Quinn.
Things change really quickly after a 5-0 start, however, and the NFC South as a whole was shaping up as one of the league’s tougher divisions, just one year after Carolina captured in with a 7-8-1 mark.
The Panthers, of course, matched the Falcons every step of the way early in the campaign, but since the dual 5-0 starts, Carolina has continued on to capture six more to become the last-man standing in the race for perfection while Quinn’s club is in free fall after losing four straight and five of six overall.
With postseason dreams anything but guaranteed now, the leaders in Atlanta’s locker room got an early Festivus start by airing some grievances this week out of the earshot of the coaching staff.
While specifics weren’t revealed the team’s sudden penchant for turning the football over had to be concern No. 1 on the docket. Quarterback Matt Ryan, who was playing at an elite level through those first five contests, has all of a sudden taken on a part-time job at the local confectionery, offering up a baker’s dozen of turnovers over the last seven games (10 interceptions and three lost fumbles).
To date Ryan has shouldered the blame as a good leader should, but sources in Atlanta say the veteran signal caller has serious concerns with just how vast offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s playbook is and would prefer to scale things back and focus on sharpening up what he and his skill-position talent do well.
“I know that I’m capable of doing it and believe that I’m going to do it every time we step onto the field,” Ryan said on his weekly radio show this week. “You have to believe in your ability. You have to believe in the guys around you. And I do. And I expect every time I go onto the field to play at a really high level and give us a winning performance.”
Coming into last week’s 20-10 loss to Minnesota, Ryan has thrown for 250-or-more passing yards in 17 straight games, tied for the second-longest streak in the NFL since 1960 but the Vikings’ top-tier defense stifled him, largely with quarters coverage and a scaled-sown blitz diet.
Ryan finished 20 yards short of that 250 mark but a significant part of his passing yardage came on a late, garbage-time TD drive when Minnesota was up 20-3 and in prevent mode.
Despite the recent struggles and the fact any postseason cushion has evaporated, the Falcons’ brass has been supportive of Ryan.
“He’s what we look for and our team looks for the whole way,” Quinn said of his QB after the loss to the Vikings. “What we’ll go back and look at is, find out was there a decision that could be made that could be different. If there is in those scenarios, then we’ll find those and say, ‘Where else could you have gone with it?’ Those will be decisions that we look at. But for him, the competitor [and] the style of player that he is, we’re not backing off.”
Owner Arthur Blank is a little more concerned but realizes he’s got to dance with who brought him to the party.
“I’m worried about Matt, and I’m worried about the team,” Blank told ESPN.com. “We’re actually 1-5 in the last six games. We were off to a great start. But this unit will figure it out.”
The time to figure it out is shrinking, however.
For the first time this season, Atlanta is on the outside, looking in at the current NFC playoff picture with Green Bay and Seattle holding down the projected wild card spots.
‘Tis the season to panic.
— John McMullen is a national football columnist for FanRagSports.com and TodaysPigskin.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jfmcmullen — Also catch John this season on ESPN Southwest Florida every Monday at 3 PM ET; on ESPN Lexington every Thursday at 6:05 ET, and live every Tuesday from 2 to 6 PM ET at the Golden Nugget Casino in Atlantic City for the NFL Wraparound on ESPN South Jersey.
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