Brian Allee-Walsh

Shanahan may be leaving soon but Atlanta Falcons are expected to keep soaring

Saints columnist Brian Allee-Walsh
Saints columnist Brian Allee-Walsh Biloxi

One person hasn't made the Atlanta Falcons the team that it is today. The list is bountiful.

But it is my belief they would not be playing the Green Bay Packers for the NFC championship on Sunday afternoon at the Georgia Dome if it were not for offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, the soon-to-be-named head coach of the San Francisco 49ers according to multiple media reports.

That certainly is good news for a currently dysfunctional 49ers franchise, which has gone through head coaches the past 24 months with the same alarming rapidity as the Cleveland Browns have changed their quarterbacks.

Perhaps, Shanahan, the 37-year-old son of former longtime NFL head coach Mike Shanahan, will bring stabiliity to what has been a proud and storied organization.

Time will tell.

Shanahan is the man, the coach behind the NFL's most prolific and creative offense and a major reason why the Falcons (12-5) have become relevant again after winning the NFC South.

Presumptive league MVP Matt Ryan has played brilliantly under center this season, establishing personal bests for passing yards (4,944), touchdowns (38), completion percentage (69.9) and yards per attempt (9.3) and a season-low for interceptions (7).

He posted a league-high 117.1 passer rating and established a league record with at least one TD pass to 13 different receivers, this after throwing 21 TD passes and committing 21 turnovers in 2015, including throwing four of his 16 INTs in the red zone.

Last season, Ryan seemed to butt heads and push back against Shanahan, sparking media reports of their growing disdain for one another. Fueling those reports was the team's sudden decline in the second half of the season, especially on offense as Ryan struggled mightily with Shanahan's balanced run-pass scheme while throwing off play-action bootlegs.

Shanahan and Ryan mended those fences during the offseason, agreeing to bury the past and working to find a common ground that satisfied both the schematic creativity of the playcaller and the insatiable thirst for perfection of the player.

Yes, Falcons coach Dan Quinn has worked wonders in two short seasons, changing the culture, restoring hope and instilling grit in a franchise owned by billionaire businessman/philanthropist Arthur Blank that seemed to be floundering in the aftermath of a shocking loss at home to the aforementioned 49ers in the 2012 NFC championship game.

The Falcons bottomed out under former coach Mike Smith during the last two years of his tenure, finishing 4-12 in 2013 and 6-10 in 2014. Quinn got them airborne again last season, starting 5-0/6-1 before leveling off under the radar and finishing 8-8.

Now they stand on the precipice of Super Bowl LI.

I suspect Quinn will keep the same offensive system in place, no matter who succeeds Shanahan. Besides Ryan, many of the same offensive pieces are expected to remain in place: center Alex Mack, running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and receivers Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, Justin Hardy, Jacob Tamme and Austin Hooper, among others.

The good news for fellow NFC South brethren Carolina, New Orleans and Tampa Bay is Shanahan will be heading West in the coming days, perhaps weeks. The bad news for those teams is the Falcons' highly productive offense and plethora of game-changers aren't going anywhere.

Except, perhaps, onward and upward.

Brian Allee-Walsh is a longtime Saints reporter based in New Orleans. He can be reached at sports@sunherald.com.

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