It’s one of the biggest currents running through many Falcons fans, some for quite a long time: is there some sort of disconnect present within the Atlanta Falcons organization? In other words, is everyone on the same page when it comes to vision and direction, namely Mike Smith, Thomas Dimitroff, and Arthur Blank. It’s been quite the hot topic recently in The Cage, so no better time than now to get the debate rolling………
Obviously, this is all just speculation on the fans part, but something still doesn’t feel right in Flowery Branch. Fans hear one thing out of Falcons Headquarters, while their actions say something different. A look at some evidence that something is still adrift in Flowery Branch….
After the Falcons playoff embarrassment at the hands of the Green Bay Packers in 2011, the ideas of a “disconnect” started to surface.” The off-season buzzword became that of wanting to get more “explosive.” Falcons management, mainly Dimitroff, said that their lack of explosive plays was a reason the Falcons couldn’t come back from a deficit and were limited to a fairly conservative brand of football.
Cue the draft a few months later and the Falcons made a blockbuster trade to move up and snag Julio Jones. The Falcons wanted to get more explosive and they certainly achieved that. Questions arose even before the season began on whether specifically Smith and Dimitroff were on the same page. Many thought the GM wanted to move the Falcons in a more wide-open brand of football, while Smith’s bread and butter remained a hyper-conservative, control-the-clock type of football.
Fears weren’t unfounded in the season, as it appeared there was an ocean-sized gulf between Mike Smith and OC Mike Mularkey. That was one of the only ways for fans to understand the mess that was the 2011 Atlanta Falcons offense. It seemed as though the idea of “explosive” plays were being forced form someone that sure didn’t seem to be Mularkey. Having one of the best wide receiving trios in Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Harry Douglas at his disposal, Mularkey seemed incapable of incorporating more than 2 receivers at a time. Many attempts at deep passes were tried, but it just never seemed to click.
The biggest issue with fans remains whether some of the assistants who left on their own (Mularkey, Van Gorder) or asked to leave (Boudreau, Reynolds) were a cause for the ills the Falcons experienced in 2011 or just symptoms of a deeper disease. Fans continue to fret whether or not Mularkey and Van Gorder were that hyper-conservative in their gameplans and execution or something larger was at play. Namely, Smith having his hand way too far in the cookie jar, so to speak, in terms of dictating and mandating what direction the Falcons truly went in.
Mularkey was always known as being conservative in his past, so the shoe naturally fit that it was Mularkey’s gameplans, Mularkey’s play-calls, and ultimately his success or failures on offense. Fans will soon find out whether or not it was in fact Mularkey or Smith all along. Perhaps nothing exhibited a potential rift anymore than Smith apparently deciding when the Falcons went into the no-huddle offense, essentially taking the offensive responsibilities out of his offensive coordinator hands.
One of the more surprising off-season developments was the pink slip handed to offensive line coach Paul Boudreau. The former Falcons OL coach was a main driving force in the Falcons success in the Dimitroff / Smith Era. He took a rag-tag offensive line including several undrafted free agents (Dahl, Clabo), a rookie LT, and several other lesser-named linemen and developed one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, including making the playoffs 3 out of 4 years, becoming the first ever team to have back-to-back winning seasons, and grabbing the NFC #1 seed with the best record in the National Football Conference. The offensive line had developed an attitude of being tough and nasty without much of an infusion of talent and almost all the credit goes to Boudreau.
Perhaps it was something deeper, but it was one of the more surprising moves after Boudreau had seemed to have pretty darn good success in his tenure in Atlanta. The Falcons offensive line was a major problem in 2011 and some believe that Boudreau was simply someone to take the fall for much deeper issues, not the least of which includes lack of needed talent.
Fans are hard-pressed to say the Falcons front office haven’t done anything this off-season to adjust to their mistakes. They found a new offensive and defensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach, offensive line coach, and defensive backs coach, among others. Mularkey and Van Gorder found other jobs (conveniently) and they let go of Boudreau and Reynolds. The Falcons added Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan to the coordinator spots, and Pat Hill to offensive line coach, among the most notable of positions.
It’s hard to argue with the pick of Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator since he’s one of the most successful defensive coordinators in the NFL that has produced good-to-great defenses everywhere he’s been. It’s hard to imagine the defense not being much improved in many areas.
The offense is the big question mark. Many fans are still reeling with what they see as a very interesting selection of Dirk Koetter as offensive coordinator at best and an extremely weak selection at worst. For all the talk of trying to incorporate a vertical passing attack, Koetter’s resume lends itself to being heavily reliant on the running game. Sound familiar? Some fear that the Falcons staff have replaced the real Mularkey with Mularkey 2.0 and a different name.
A final complaint comes about the confusion on the offensive line and general setup. Many think that the Falcons will going to some sort of zone blocking scheme on the offensive line in 2012. A zone blocking scheme requires linemen who are quicker on their feet and more agile than a traditional power blocking scheme that was supposed to have been present under Mularkey the last 4 years. The selection of Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes leads credence to the potential of a zone blocking scheme, but what running backs would even thrive on that system of needed cut-backs? Maybe Jacquizz Rodgers, but surely not Michael Turner or Jason Snelling. Ultimately, many are frustrated by what they perceive as mixed signals from the organization.
For all the talk of a disconnect and inaction from the Falcons front office including Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith, they have taken as many steps as fans could ask to address the inefficiencies and issues that plagued the Falcons in 2011. No one will ever know if the coordinators would have been asked to leave if they didn’t get other jobs, but Brian Van Gorder getting the Auburn defensive coordinator job less than 24 hours after the embarrassment in New York sure lends itself to a conspiracy theory of someone asking him to look for another job. The same goes for Mularkey and his head coaching job in Jacksonville. Regardless of how it happened, they were able to get two new coordinators.
Mike Nolan was a slam dunk hire since he’s been successful everywhere he’s gone so it’s hard for anyone to argue with that pickup. The Dirk Koetter hire is certainly one that many were upset about and will have a closer eye on as this season rolls around. He has had success in the NFL, but that was many years ago. Recently, however, his results have been mixed at best. Koetter can’t ask for any better situation to come into than what he has in Atlanta. He will have a plethora of weapons here with Roddy White, Julio Jones, Harry Douglas, Tony Gonzalez, Michael Turner, Jacquizz Rodgers, and Jason Snelling among many others. Luckily for Koetter, the bar hasn’t been set too high with Mularkey’s offense often looking lost and failing to even score an offensive point in the playoff game in New York. As many have said, he only has to be better than Mularkey.
One of the favorite examples that fans bring up in a positive manner is the fact that Mike McCarthy was offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers, which ranked as one of the worst in the NFL. He was hired with heavy doubt as the Packers new head coach and led them to being one of the best offenses in the league. Perhaps a reach, but anything is possible.
The idea held that Smith had way too much control over the offensive and defensive gameplans and hamstrung both coordinators in their ability to do their job and the fact that everything he touched reeked of hyper-conservatism, whether it be offense, defense, or special teams. While that may be true at times, it’s hard to place all the blame on Coach Smith and leaving the coordinators without sharing a large part of the responsibility, especially Mularkey.
The former Falcons coordinator was always known as being very run-oriented and conservative all on his own. After all, Smith was the one to put the Falcons in the no-huddle, not Mularkey. It was Mularkey’s failure to integrate more than 2 receivers in an offensive gameplan. It was Mularkey’s failure to making any adjustments after the initial gameplan fell apart. It was Mularkey’s failure to integrate ANY screen passes into the offense or be anything other than completely predictable in his scheme, something said by many opposing defensive players. “We knew exactly what they were going to do,” has been said on many different occasions by many different teams. Most argue that Van Gorder was never really qualified to jump from linebackers coach all the way to NFL defensive coordinator. However, much of that blame does go to Smith for making that initial hire in that case.
The idea is that he has hired coordinators he can fully trust and will not tamper with their gameplans, decision-making, or schemes. It’s hard to believe that he’ll be telling Mike Nolan what to do since he worked for him in Baltimore and his success speaks for itself. The hope is that he will also let Koetter do his thing since he coached against him and was on the same level as him while in Jacksonville.
As mentioned above, Boudreau was one of the main reasons the Falcons had early and continued success since Mike Smith took over in 2008. He put together a rag-tag group of linemen and turned them into a nasty unit that was physical and helped pave the way for the Falcons being a run-first offense. Boudreau’s success was especially impressive with many fans feeling that hardly any talent was infused into the offensive line.
A deeper look at Boudreau does paint a different story. His success was unquestioned in the beginning, but the idea that the offensive line has ever been a great protection for Matt Ryan is fairly laughable. Ryan has rarely had the time in the pocket that other elite quarterbacks have had and that lack of time definitely affected his play this year as he often seemed jittery and uncomfortable. Even though good in the running game, Boudreau’s OL was never confused with being a solid pass protection line.
Perhaps one of the biggest failures on Boudreau’s part was his failure to develop the offensive line prospects over his tenure. Although it is true that Dimitroff never spent many high draft picks on the offensive line, there were some candidates that have never shown any progress. Garrett Reynolds, Mike Johnson, Joe Hawley, and now departed Jose Valdez never showed any progress under Boudreau, despite being in his system 2 or more years. It’s true that none of the candidates were high draft picks, but tons of great offensive lines in the NFL contain players that were taken in the later rounds and developed into solid and even Pro Bowl players.
This was no more evident than the debacle at right guard. They let Harvey Dahl go in free agency and felt they had enough talent to fill in the gap while retaining both Justin Blalock and Tyson Clabo. Yes, that may have been a call made by GM Dimitroff, but if Smith and Boudreau had said that he absolutely had to be kept, it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t have tried. The competition included Mike Johnson and exclusive right tackle Garrett Reynolds. Reynolds won out and performed extremely poorly. Sam Baker gave it a shot and was just as bad. It got so bad that they had to bring over Joe Hawley to play right guard after being considered the heir to Todd McClure at center.
Finally, a look at Boudreau’s resume indicates that he hasn’t stayed with any NFL team more than 3 years since being with the New Orleans Saints for 7 years from 1987 to 1993. Perhaps that’s unfair, but it would lead credence to Boudreau being unable to continue his improvement and development after his initial success. Some may think that Boudreau was a fall guy, but he shares at least some of the blame for an offensive line that had a major regression in 2011.
Mike Smith has already established himself as arguably the best head coach in Atlanta Falcons history in only 4 years with the club. Yes, the glaring omission from his resume includes no playoff victories in 3 attempts, 2 of them being downright embarrassing. However, Smith has earned the right to correct it after all he’s accomplished in such a short time. Smith will likely get not only this year to get the errors fixed, but also a few more chances as well. Arthur Blank has said that Mike Smith will be the Falcons coach for a very long time. Smith has to change, but he’s certainly earned the right to prove it.
Tom Coughlin is a good example. Coughlin was 4 and 4 in the playoffs in Jacksonville when he was hired as the Giants head coach. He followed that up with losing in the playoffs the next two years, with an 0-2 record for the Giants and a 4-6 overall playoff record. Most fans were ready to dump him immediately. They hung onto him, he made needed changes in his coaching style, and has delivered two Lombardi Trophies since. Yes, Coughlin did have success in Jacksonville in the postseason before losing each year, but the idea that coaches can change is a valid one.
There’s certainly evidence that something was wrong with Atlanta Falcons in 2011. Even from preseason, the Falcons looked off. Their offense was a trainwreck, the offensive line was a mess, the defense looked like an old-Willie Martinez led D, and even the special teams didn’t measure up.
There are still signs that everyone may not entirely be on the same page, but the Falcons front office have attempted to address many issues, gaining two new coordinators, a new offensive line coach, a new defensive backs coach, infusing the offensive line with talent, and trading for one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL.
Falcons fans have every right to be skeptical of Mike Smith and their Birds heading into the 2012 season. However, they at least have to get the benefit of the doubt on attempting to improve their team that has clearly underachieved. The comforting thing is that fans will know pretty quick whether the disconnect has been bridged this season.
1) Straight up: Do you believe that a “disconnect” still remains at Flowery Branch?
2) Do you feel confident or skeptical heading into the 2012 season?
3) Have the Falcons done enough to address their issues going into 2012?
4) What is the most worrisome aspect of the Falcons moving forward?
5) Your thoughts on the new coordinators: upgrade, downgrade, or the same?
6) Should Mike Smith be on the hot seat soon?