As the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos take professional sports' top stage, it's hard to believe that the Atlanta Falcons beat both teams just a year ago.
The Falcons were THAT close being Super Bowl champs. Now, after a humbling 4-12 season in which they lost as many games as they had in the three previous regular seasons combined, the Falcons are a franchise at a crossroads.
The long list of injuries last year certainly shaped the outcome. But they also exposed every weakness the team had. Even if everyone had stayed relatively injury-free, their flaws likely would have been exposed. And that's why as they comb the free agent market for veteran help and study the draft, they need to consider one drastic move.
Trade wide receiver Julio Jones.
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Jones is more than a good player. He's an exceptional player. Certainly one of the top 10 receivers in the NFL and maybe one of the top five. That's exactly why they should trade him.
Trade him now while his market value is at a peak.
Trade him now before his next contract stretches the salary cap to the bursting point.
Most of all, trade him now because the Falcons need immediate help at multiple positions. They need at least three new starters on the offensive line. They need a defensive end who can stop the run and rush the passer. They need an impact linebacker. They need a running back. Oh, and the best tight end in the history of football just retired.
The Falcons finished 4-12. Just as their 13-3 record in 2012 was deceptive good, last year's abysmal record was deceptively poor. Seven of those 12 losses were by seven or fewer points. One of the other five losses, to San Francisco on Monday night, hung in the balance until a pick-six in the final minute. That's eight losses that could have gone the other way.
Sure, you're not going to win all of those close games. All four of their wins were by eight or fewer points. But if they had just won five of those close losses they would have been 9-7. Still not good enough to make the playoffs, but respectable nonetheless.
Trading Jones might seem counter-productive. After all, Jones missed the final 11 games of the season. He's a true difference maker and we just noted that one play in each of those close losses would have changed the complexion of the season. But here's another stat. They were 1-4 with Jones, and 3-8 without him.
A deeper look suggests that they adjusted after his foot injury. After beating Tampa Bay, which was a mess at that time, the Falcons were blown out in four consecutive games.
But they finished relatively strong. Yeah, they lost four of their last six games. But all four losses were to playoff teams, and they had a chance on their final possession to win each game.
Again, Jones might have made a difference in some of those games. But he wouldn't have if Matt Ryan didn't have time to get him the ball. Ryan became a human pinata. They absolutely cannot afford to go through another season with Ryan getting mauled.
There are different ways to win in the NFL. Strong defense and adequate offense. Explosive offense and adequate defense. But you cannot win with an offensive line that can neither protect the quarterback or give the running backs a fighting chance.
Look at the New England Patriots. They made it to the AFC Championship Game for the second straight year despite a below average defense, letting Wes Welker leave and getting minimal production from their tight ends with Rob Gronkowski's injuries and Aaron Hernandez's arrest on a murder charge. But they protected Tom Brady and developed a running game with LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley.
This is not to say they should shop Jones like a used car with a bad transmission. But what if they could work a deal with the St. Louis Rams for their two first-round picks without giving up their own No. 1? The Rams' top needs are a big-time receiver and a safety. Maybe offer Jones, safety Thomas DeCoud and their second-round pick for the Rams' two first-rounders. That would give them three of the top 11 picks. Then they could draft Jadeveon Clowney and two starting offensive linemen. If the draft unfolds favorably, they might even be able to swap one of those later first-round picks to team nervous about losing their target player. Then they could still get a starting offensive lineman and a later-round pick for defense.
The Rams are expected to trade the No. 2 pick, and the Falcons -- who love Clowney -- have been mentioned as one of the candidates.
If a good deal isn't out there, they shouldn't force it. But if is it, they have to be willing to make it.
-- Guerry Clegg is an independent columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.