Figured we’d go in a little different direction on this post and analyze what seems to be wrong with this Atlanta Falcons team. Coming off a 13-3 record, an NFC South Title, and the NFC’s #1 seed, the Birds seemed to be poised for another strong year after adding Julio Jones and Ray Edwards in the off-season and keeping most everyone else. It surely hasn’t gone that way in 2011. A few things to ponder……..
The Falcons are the epitome of average after the midway point of the season. They have been able to beat the basement dwellers (Colts), the below average (Seahawks, Eagles, Panthers) and the slightly above average (Lions) and that’s it. Their combined record of opponents they have beaten comes to 14 – 32 (30.4% win). They have lost to every elite team (Packers, Saints), very good team (Bears), and even found a way to lose to a now fairly average team (Bucs). Teams they have lost to have a combined record of 26-11 (70.2% win).
Sure, they’ve played good halves (Packers) and quarters (Saints) here and there, but to say that this team is underachieving is a major understatement. When you go 13-3 and grab the NFC’s #1 seed , you shouldn’t be indulging into any moral victories. They had their doors blown off in Chicago (perhaps an omen for the season), had no business losing to the Bucs in Tampa Bay, played fantastic against Green Bay for a half only to completely incinerate in the 2nd half, and the hardest of all to swallow letting the Saints win at home in overtime where they rushed for only 41 yards and dealt a major blow on who’s truly the top team in the NFC South.
This has been a recurring theme throughout the entire season. The Falcons offense, by and large, plays much better when Matt Ryan is running the no-huddle offense and calling his own plays. This has happened almost exclusively throughout the season and popped up yet again versus the Saints. The Falcons couldn’t buy a first down and were losing by 10 with barely over 4 minutes to go. The Falcons go into the no-huddle and are able to come back and tie it, and frankly should have won it in regulation.
Is it too easy to just blame Mike Mularkey or is there something else at play here? If the NFL is a pure results-based business, the reasons really don’t matter. There’s nothing wrong with having your franchise quarterback be the captain on the field and call plays when needed, but the deeper issue is that your QB is seemingly a better play-caller than your offensive coordinator. Perhaps that’s unfair, but Ryan is surely more comfortable in that system. Is it a case of Ryan and Mularkey’s compatibility simply hitting a ceiling? For all those that say that Ryan is only a play-action QB, he set a record at Boston College for the most games with 400 yards passing.
Even though the media has tried to create a controversy in fan opinion regarding “the call,” most fans seem to agree with the guts to go for the 1st down in overtime to win the game. Smith has made some questionable decisions this year, but this one’s a case of “six of one and half a dozen of the other.” Smith made almost exactly the opposite call a few days after Christmas where he decided to punt and give the ball back to Brees and Co. nearing the two minute mark. That call ended up losing the game and seemed to draw way more ire than this one.
The most egregious part wasn’t the decision to go for it, but rather that awful, predictable, and stale play-call they went with to try and get it. They decide to hand the ball off to a running back not known for his agility 4-5 yards behind the line of scrimmage with all 11 Saints in the box ready to win the game in one play. Many will say that if you can’t get 6 inches, you don’t deserve to win. Well, that may be true, but when everyone in the universe knows what you’re running, it makes that phrase a lot harder to achieve. Throw in the fact that Matt Bryant has been automatic this year, they wilted with a chance to win it in regulation (almost knowing they were going to settle the whole time), and your perennial Pro Bowl receiver drops a pass to win the game and you see again why the Falcons lost.
Many will immediately point to the fact that the Falcons ran for a combined 125+ yards against the Saints and that Michael Turner was only 4 yards shy of 100, but that misses the larger point. The Falcons use the run game to set their tempo and style of play to the opponent which is dependent on getting multiple first downs, eating up time of possession, and keying long drives. Many times the actual yards themselves are fairly irrelevant. In all of their losses this year, they proved that if their heavy-run style offense doesn’t work, they mostly can’t win. They did beat the Eagles in somewhat of a shootout, but that win has lost its entire initial glimmer.
The goal of drafting Julio Jones was to be more “explosive” and be able to compete with the higher scoring offenses after the “Debacle in the Dome,” but that rings hollow when you have an ultra-conservative offense which has little identity and seems incapable of adjusting if Plan A isn’t working. Above all, they ‘ve proven they have a hard time “finding ways to win” if their run-heavy style isn’t working.
All that talk of “turning the corner” on defense was always prefaced with severe apprehension. To be fair, the defense did hold a very good offense to 23 points in regulation and found ways to get the ball back to their offense during crunch time. That being said, however, this defense looked like its good old self for most of the game on Sunday. Not only was Drew Brees not sacked, he wasn’t even bothered or hurried whatsoever and could have prepared a Thanksgiving feast with the amount of time he had. Some of it goes to him being a fantastic QB and moving in the pocket, but the Falcons just make it too easy for him.
It’s as if the Falcons defensive philosophy gets star struck sometimes with good quarterbacks and live in fear of them instead of being aggressive and putting pressure on them. How many times will Van Gorder and Smith revert back to that same old soft-cheese zone that NEVER works against good QB’s? The offense may be getting the majority of the blame and heat for underachieving, but the defense isn’t far behind, and it doesn’t seem to be the players fault.
It could be argued that the Falcons have the easy part of their schedule coming up with games where the Falcons should be favored to win (Titans, Vikings, Panthers, Jaguars, and Bucs). If the Birds can get back some momentum and figure out their offense for goodness sake, than they still have a legitimate shot at making the postseason for a second straight year. The problem is that they have really put themselves in a very difficult position going forward. They will have to go a minimum of 5-2 and may even have to go 6-1 down the stretch to make the playoffs. They also are way down on the tie-breaker list since all their losses have come to NFC conference opponents.
Essentially, they have left themselves no room for error. The two toughest games come at the Texans in Houston (potentially without Matt Schaub) and at New Orleans on the last Monday Night Football game of the year. Even with the other games, they have to win one of those (preferably the Saints game) to prove to their fans and the NFL at large that they could even do anything once they make the playoffs if they in fact do get there. The remaining schedule does set up favorably, but they absolutely can’t afford any slip-ups from here on out.
Should the Falcons abandon their hyper-conservative, run-heavy offense and spread the ball out and let Ryan run the show? Or should they keep their normal scheme on offense knowing this is too critical of a stretch to start playing with new ideas? Should the defense finally stop with their ridiculously soft zone and be all-out aggressive? Or should the defense continue to progress and mix in their new pressure with their usual soft zone? Should Coach Smith throw caution to the wind and feel that anything short of making the playoffs is a bust? Or should he realize the grind may help launch the Falcons in a perfect position around playoff time?
This is always the quintessential chicken v. egg argument, but which group deserves more blame for the Falcons woes in 2011? The coaches were on the hot seat for not maximizing talent, but the players have had their fair share of individual mistakes (stupid penalties, drops, fumbles, blown assignments). This one is hard to decipher as often times you can point back to coaching if the players are making the same mistakes throughout the year, but with the exact same coaching staff in place, they were arguably the most error-free team in the NFL en route to the NFC’s #1 seed. Good luck with this one.