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Falcons reach Super Bowl by following Polian's offense-first model

HOUSTON − You get a top-flight quarterback and give him top-flight money. You invest heavily in your big-time wide receiver and add more game-breaking targets.

You open the vault again to land arguably the best center in the NFL as the main cog for an offensive line assembled to make sure that quarterback stays upright and keeps the high-flying offense flying high. You put exceptionally talented players in your backfield.

And you do all of this while generally treating your defense as an afterthought, knowing it likely won't consistently be the driving force behind victories but will be sufficient − provided the offense consistently scores enough points to win.

That's the model the Atlanta Falcons have followed all the way to Super Bowl LI. With Matt Ryan throwing and Julio Jones and others catching and running, they have the top scoring offense in the NFL.

If it all sounds familiar, it should. The Indianapolis Colts, under the direction of Bill Polian, took the exact same approach with those Peyton Manning-led teams that reached two Super Bowls and won one.

The fact the Falcons are copying what Polian, the Hall-of-Famer and former Buffalo Bills general manager, did with the Colts − and to certain degree with the Bills − is hardly a coincidence.

"When I came (to Atlanta) in 2008, I looked very, very closely at what Bill Polian did in Indianapolis and I've talked to Bill about this," Falcons General Manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "I always was amazed at the teams they put together and the firepower they had. And I've always thought about having that prolific offense from back when we first drafted Matt and we started putting tools around him and big-time players around him.

"We always wanted to continue to rise to this spot during those earlier years."

It all starts with the most difficult, and for most teams impossible, step of all: striking gold at quarterback.

In 1998, the Colts owned the top overall pick of the NFL Draft. Their QB choices were Manning, from Tennessee, or Ryan Leaf, from Washington State. They went with Manning because they correctly concluded he was the most prepared, mentally, for the NFL. His Hall-of-Fame career speaks for itself.

Leaf, who showed a clear lack of maturity in the pre-draft process (and beyond), wound up going to the San Diego Chargers with the No. 2 choice. He became one of the biggest busts in draft history.

In 2008, the Falcons used the third overall pick on Ryan, a former Boston College star. Through most of his first eight seasons, he proved more good than great, often falling short of expectations attached to his draft status. His inability to win in the postseason was a major strike against him.

While meshing much better with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and playing behind a line anchored by center Alex Mack, a $45-million free-agent acquisition from the Cleveland Browns, Ryan broke through that barrier this year. His success will allow Shanahan to become the new head coach of the San Francisco 49ers after the Super Bowl.

Ryan and Shanahan made the most of Jones, who the Falcons traded five picks to Cleveland to make the third overall choice in 2011 (he received a $71.5-million extension in 2015). They took full advantage of his other top receivers, Mohamed Sanu, who the Falcons signed as a free agent from the Cincinnati Bengals, and Taylor Gabriel, picked up off waivers from the Browns. And they heavily incorporated running backs Devonta Freeman, the NFL's ninth-leading rusher with 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns, and Tevin Coleman, who added 520 rushing yards and eight TDs, into the passing game.

As a result, Ryan, who in 2013 signed a contract extension worth $103.75 million, threw for nearly 5,000 yards and 38 touchdowns with a mere seven interceptions.

The NFL is universally seen as a quarterback-driven league. Sunday's matchup of Ryan and Tom Brady of the New England Patriots  galvanizes that notion. For that matter, the final four quarterbacks in the playoffs (including Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger) provided the strongest argument yet that you can't compete for a championship without an elite passer.

Bill Polian used the offense-first model to some degree with the Bills and full-out with Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. (Getty Images)

Yet, another factor when Polian was putting together the Colts' offensive machine in the late '90s and early 2000s, was the fact the team played eight home games in a dome and, after moving from the AFC East to the South in 2002, would play 12 games (including the dome here) in climates favorable to passing.

Dimitroff, who was the Patriots' director of college scouting before becoming the Falcons' GM, followed the same thought process with Atlanta playing eight games in its own dome and four others, against NFC South rivals, in climates favorable to passing (including the Superdome in New Orleans).

Polian had a Hall-of-Fame quarterback with the Bills in Jim Kelly, Hall-of-Fame receivers in Andre Reed and James Lofton, and a Hall-of-Fame running back in Thurman Thomas. But he also was able to have a Hall-of-Famer at defensive end in Bruce Smith and other defensive standouts such as linebackers Cornelius Bennett, Darryl Talley and Shane Conlan, and cornerback Nate Odomes.

That was before the NFL's salary-cap era. Times have changed, which is why the Falcons' defense, which starts four rookies, ranked 25th in the NFL in yards allowed and 27th in points surrendered.

Such is the necessary sacrifice in order to have a prolific offense.

"We're in the real world here; it's the NFL," Los Angeles Rams GM Les Snead said. "I call it post-Dallas Cowboys-run (in the mid-1990s), when they had everybody. You can't have everybody within the (salary-cap) budget, that's just the way it goes."

Other teams allocate cap dollars differently.

The Bills, for instance, have poured the majority of their money into defense and running back. According to Spotrac.com, the four biggest cap numbers on the Bills belong to defensive tackle Marcell Dareus ($12.7 million), soon-to-be-free-agent cornerback Stephon Gilmore ($11.1 million), running back LeSean McCoy ($7.7 million) and defensive end Jerry Hughes ($7.6 million). They believe in trying to win with defense − although that unit has ranked 19th in the league in each of the last two seasons − and a strong rushing attack, which has been the NFL's best the past two years.

The Bills haven't been to the playoffs in 17 seasons and haven't had a franchise quarterback since Kelly's retirement after the 1996 season.

Then there are the Falcons, who have pushed all of their chips into the middle of the offensive table.

"And then, if you have a quarterback like Matt and you add to that receivers like Julio and Sanu and a really good receiving tight end (in former Colt Jacob Tamme), you've got the ability to move the ball in chunks and score a lot of points, which takes pressure of your defense," Polian said.

GM Les Snead is betting on Jared Goff allowing the Rams to put their emphasis on the offense.

"Now, in order to protect them, you've got to have an athletic offensive line because they've got to pass protect. They're not road graders, who move people three yards off the line of scrimmage. So they added Alex Mack, who's really good at that like (former Bill) Kent Hull and (former Colt) Jeff Saturday. They added (Andy) Levitre, who's perfect at that. The left tackle (Jake Matthews, the Falcons' first-round pick in 2014) has come on and played awfully well.

"And then they added the two running backs (like former Colts) Edgerrin James and Dominic Rhodes or Thurman Thomas and (fellow former Bill) Kenny Davis, if you will. And there you go."

That isn't to say the Falcons' defense is without redeeming qualities. They know how to rush the quarterback, generating a solid 34 sacks during the regular season and five in two playoff games.

In 2015, they deviated from the offensive-oriented script and used a first-round pick, eighth overall, on Clemson outside linebacker Vic Beasley. In 2016, he led the league with 15.5 sacks. The Falcons continued to aggressively address defense in the '16 draft by using their first two choices on safety Keanu Neal, from Florida, and outside linebacker Deion Jones, from LSU.

They also added another former Colt, 15-year veteran end Dwight Freeney, as a free agent.

"If you have a pass-rushing front that can get after the quarterback if you're playing with a lead, then you have a heck of a chance," Polian said.

Besides drafting Beasley, the other huge step the Falcons took to help their defense in 2015 was hiring Dan Quinn, former defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks, as their head coach.

The Falcons also had interest in hiring another defensive-minded coach, Rex Ryan, but he wound up joining the Bills and posting a 15-16 record before the final game of the '16 season.

Although the Falcons' defense is pretty much along for this Super Bowl ride, it's being brought along by Quinn in such a way that it is steadily becoming a complement to the offense.

"Now, we have a young defense that really fed off the success of our offense," Dimitroff said. "It's kind of been the vision. The fact that Dan was able to continue to work with his coaching staff and to bring this offense to the level that we brought it to, and then kudos to Dan for taking four starting rookies and playing with them. And confidently playing with them.

"To me, his ability to develop these players and instill in the coaching staff the importance of development, that's music to a general manager's ears. Not putting them aside for six games or 10 games and waiting for it to come around next year. If you can get your head coach to believe in the players you're drafting and puts them on the field now, and (he) understands that there's going to be some tough times and can pull through it, our offense has allowed us to do that with this defense and they've really hit stride, in my mind."

Snead sees the same thing.

But it's all predicated on having a 31-year-old quarterback who has established himself as one of the very best in the game, something Snead hopes will eventually happen to the QB the Rams made the top pick of last year's draft − Jared Goff of Cal.

"When the quarterback gets in his prime − and I like to say prime is when the guy can not only play quarterback in the NFL but he can probably be an offensive coordinator as well − you then can probably let him handle a lot more than when he was 24-25," Snead said. "And I think they've done this. They've hired Dan, a defensive coach, and they've gone to attack the defense. And because the quarterback's in his prime, this probably allows you to go focus some player acquisition spots on that defense. And I think that's what they've been trying to do over the last few years.

"Like I like to always say in our building, we can't just let the defense die on the vine, because it's going to be a big part of our success."

At this point, however, it's all about offense for the Falcons.

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