Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta Falcons

Caught Between a Win-Now Goal and Turning the Page on the Last Falcons Era

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The best place to start is Week 2. Less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter. Falcons 39, Cowboys 37. It had once been 20-0. Then 29-10. Then 39-26.

The Cowboys line up for an onside kick. Dallas is out of timeouts, so if Atlanta recovers, the game is over. Greg Zuerlein places the ball on the ground, laces up, at a 45-degree angle. He kicks the right side of the ball, sending it spinning like blades on a helicopter.

As it spins, the Falcons watch. And watch. And watch. They're frozen, unsure whether to attack the ball or assume it will sputter out of bounds before it travels the required 10 yards. You scream at your television, "Someone do something!"

The ball takes an unexpected turn and stays in bounds. The Falcons lunge for it, but they're too late. The Cowboys have boxed them out. They pounce. It's Dallas' ball.

Two plays later, Falcons cornerback Darqueze Dennard stumbles in coverage, leaving CeeDee Lamb open for a 24-yard gain. The completion sets the stage for a 46-yard game-winning field goal. Zuerlein's kick sails through the uprights as time expires.

The truth is time had run out on the Falcons long ago. For a while, you could understand owner Arthur Blank's reluctance to make sweeping changes. His patience had been rewarded before. In 2015, the Falcons started 5-0 but lost eight of their final 11 games to miss the playoffs for the third straight season. General manager Thomas Dimitroff and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan received the largest share of the blame. Blank chose not to fire either. The next season, Atlanta went 11-5 and reached the Super Bowl. Vindication. And then soul-crushing heartbreak.

The week after the Falcons collapsed against the Cowboys last year, they did it again, blowing a 16-point fourth-quarter lead against the Bears. Back-to-back chokes. Somehow, the Falcons out-Falconed the Falcons.

Someone do something!

It took two more losses to finally extinguish the false hope Atlanta had been clinging to for years. Hours after the team fell to 0-5, Blank, at last, did something, dismissing both Dimitroff...