***Super Cool Cage Poster that Fellow Cage Member Arno Created!***
Sure, it was a good year and it will be an even tougher road back for many fans after this one had the feeling that it could finally be “the year,” but alas it was not in the cards yet again. It was a good year that saw the Falcons starting to take a step further and they did finally rid themselves of the playoff albatross (although no one really cares about that now). Even though it may seem as though it’s the end of the world, it really isn’t. There are a ton of teams that would gladly trade places with our current franchise in being competitive every year and giving themselves a chance every season. It should be acknowledged that this regime has reached heights never before seen in it’s history (they only had back-to-back winning seasons back in 2008 and 2009). But it should be a wakeup call to everyone involved, including Arthur Blank, that changes will need to be made and all apart of the Falcons organization will have to work even harder to finally get to that next level. A look at the game and a peek ahead to the off-season……..
The sensationalist, craven writer and pundit crowd have been waiting for this moment since the kickoff of the 2012 NFL season. Most writers love nothing more than to beat up on a franchise with a terrible history and a known penchant for falling short. The biggest line that is out there is that it’s all Matt Ryan’s fault and he’ll never win the big, never win a Super Bowl, he regularly plays the Grinch at Christmas, and is solely responsible for everything wrong in the world. Sure, he picked a bad time to make a fumble and threw an interception in the second half, even though Roddy White took full responsibility for tripping and that’s exactly what happened on replay. The fact is that this was a complete team loss from top to bottom, including General Manager Thomas Dimitroff as well.
All involved are to blame. The coaches got outcoached halfway into the 2nd quarter and completely overwhelmed in the second half. There literally seemed to be no adjustments to either side after their initial schemes were figured out. The defense had another epic failure, having no answer for really any of the offensive players, particularly Vernon Davis. Seems like the TE was an issue in the Seattle game also, right? The running game stalled. The play-calling became more predictable and less aggressive. Julio Jones was dominant, only to never to be seen from in second half. Roddy White trips on a route, leading to an interception. Harry Douglas trips on a wide open route that would have seen him walk into the endzone. The defense was exposed as being weak and the largest indictment on this regime of all, lack of pass rush, was finally taken advantage of.
And yes, Matt Ryan isn’t doing himself any favors with his mistakes in the postseason, but in case you haven’t noticed, even the super-elite QBs (Brady, Manning, Rodgers) couldn’t do it all by themselves this year either. There was a reason that the vast majority of pundits picked the Niners, because in almost all aspects save quarterback and wide receiver, the 49ers had better players and more depth. Still, after finding a way to win at the end, the Falcons found a way to lose. It’s not the end of the world, but the Falcons have some big, and perhaps painful, decisions to make if they want to take the whole thing.
Yes, there were two second half turnovers and a stall in the red zone to end the game, but as fellow Cage Member Coop said, being up 17-0 in the first half, playing at home with the crowd going nuts, and allowing the Niners to literally do whatever they want for 3 quarters has epic fail written all over it. In was a mirror repeat of the Seattle game where once the defense seemed to be “figured out” there were no answer to be had. The only problem was that instead of one quarter against the Seahawks, it was essentially 3 quarters vs. a more talented and battle-hardened team in the 49ers. The easy and obvious place to go is to Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator. He’s the one designing the scheme and calling the plays, so he gets much deserved criticism and rightly so.
Mike Smith gets some as well for being a defensive minded head coach working with an excellent DC, only to get completely exposed two weeks in a row on defense. The defensive players get some blame too. There was literally no pass rush (see below) and a less-than 100% John Abraham wasn’t to be found. Of course no one assisted him whatsoever in rushing the passer, but what else is new. The defensive tackles weren’t good either after doing a decent job of keeping Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick in check early on. They, along with the linebackers, allowed the Niners run game to get on track somewhat and it opened up the pass. Speaking of the linebackers, they were terrible in coverage all night. Coverage was atrocious including all cornerbacks and safeties. Kaepernick had a great second half, but the receivers were so wide open that a high school QB may have completed them.
The net was cast wide and far, this was a defensive collapse from top to bottom. Frankly, you don’t deserve to win any championships when you play defense that poorly. Last but not least, Thomas Dimitroff deserves some blame as well. We can talk about schemes and missed assignments all day long, but it was painfully obvious in the second half that this defense simply was overmatched personnel wise, especially along the defensive line. He’s missed on some draft picks on defense and will have to find a way to rectify it both through the draft and free agency if the Falcons will ever take the last step.
The Falcons can take some solace in looking at the team that just beat them to advance to the Super Bowl. The 49ers hosted the Giants just last year and came up just short in their bid to go to the big dance right at the end. They dedicated themselves to pushing through, building themselves up during the regular season vs. good opponents, making some moves in free agency, and using that experience to push down that final barrier. The same can be said of the Packers when they lost the NFC championship at home in 2007 in OT. 3 years later, they were Champs. The Eagles actually lost three straight NFC Title games (two of them at home) before they finally went to the Super Bowl, albeit falling short. Maybe those teams made tweaks, maybe they made overhauls, but they fixed what went wrong in the NFC Title game.
This will be discussed at length from now to free agency to the draft and training camp, but the Falcons do have some serious, and perhaps painful decisions to make. The question is whether they have the willpower to make those decisions, which has a mixed history at best the past 4 off-seasons. The opposite is obviously also possible as well. If the Dimitroff, Smith, and Co. feel as though they don’t need to make many fixes and were just a play away from the big dance or make the wrong choices than they could be in for a nosedive. The Bears, Cardinals, Eagles, and Seahawks are all examples of teams that were one game away from the Super Bowl and either did too much, didn’t do enough, or simply made the wrong choices and fell back to playoff obscurity. Coincidentally, all four teams got rid of their coaches soon thereafter.
Every single person associated with the Falcons defensive side of the ball deserves blame on this one, save John Abraham. For the past five years, no one in the organization has been able to muster ANY pass rush whatsoever other than Abraham. That is simply inexcusable on all levels. Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith deserve the most blame because, ultimately, they’re the heads of the ship. Dimitroff has drafted Lawrence Sidbury, Peria Jerry, Jonathan Massaquoi, Cliff Matthews, Travian Roberston, and signed Ray Edwards. Rich McKay isn’t absolved either because the Jamaal Anderson pick at #8 overall set this franchise back years. Dimtroff may have the best intentions and picks skill players pretty well, but he has been abysmal on both sides of the trenches. Matthews and Massaquoi have shown some potential, but that hasn’t translated into results. Which leads into the next point.
If Dimitroff has failed at drafting defensive lineman, than Mike Smith has failed equally bad with his “Witness Protection Program” (see below). It would be one thing if every single defensive linemen drafted by Dimitroff showed absolutely no potential whatsoever, but that simply isn’t the case either. Sidbury showed some flashes in his very limited time as a Falcon (seemingly coming to an end). They can’t figure out what to do with Kroy Biermann and is a little too light for an every down DE. Robertson showed flashes during preseason only to never be heard from again. Matthews and Massaquoi never saw the field until Abraham got hurt and that’s only a handful examples. They have drafted extremely light defensive tackles that never draw double teams and allow every DE drafted to not see single coverage blocking and only
The fact remains that whatever the issue, the Falcons have failed miserably at all levels to address the pass rush situation. The defensive coordinators have been part of the problem, but they haven’t had a ton to work with for whatever reason. Nolan did a pretty good job early on to generate a pass rush, only to see it submarine yet again towards the end and in the playoffs. If the Falcons organization can’t find some way, any way, to fix it than the Falcons will either be in for a bad year or will not take the next step anyway.
This one goes to no one other than Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith. We can talk about the coordinators, schemes, players, and personnel all day long, but the truth is that this is Smith’s problem and his alone. The Falcons have long been good for a quarter, a half, or even 3 quarters, but just cannot find ways to put teams away. Sure enough, it came back to finally bite them big time at the worst moment imaginable. Fans knew it was just a matter of time. It’s true that sometimes the ball doesn’t bounce your way and other times teams make good adjustments, but this is not only a trend, but an every game certainty. There was one exception with the Giants shutout, but that was about the only one in memory of the last five years.
Some refer to it as a killer instinct. That’s a part of it for sure. Smith has presided over teams with two different sets of coordinators that exemplify the exact same thing of letting teams back in the game. Most times Smith has found a way to win anyway, but that luck finally ran out in the playoffs, as many thought it would. Many times its becoming hyper-conservative with a decent lead. Others it’s trying to run out the clock and others it’s just becoming undisciplined and tensing up. If Smith can somehow find a way to fix this, it could be the final piece in getting over the hump. If he can’t, he might be looking for a new job in the near future.
The Falcons and Mike Smith could take a cue from Jim Harbaugh, whose on his way to his first Super Bowl. Harbaugh took a lot of heat for changing quarterbacks very late into the season and it’s paid off. Meanwhile, Smith and Co. either can’t make the tough decisions or their changes are at a glacial pace. This will obviously be discussed a ton over the next several months, but there there is some doubt that Smith and, to a lesser extent, Dimitroff that they are unable or unwilling to make the needed changes necessary to take the Falcons to the next level. And Arthur Blank needs to be honest about what he wants as well. He pronounces that only championships will be accepted, but the cold fact is that Mike Smith has led a franchise out of the abyss, but also is 1-4 in the playoffs, has been the #1 seed in the NFC two out of three years, and has yet to grace the Super Bowl. Is Blank prepared to make a hard decision himself if the Falcons have hit a plateau?
Fellow Cage Member Big Ray came up with one of the most poignant, and funny, descriptions of Mike Smith’s Player Development System: Witness Protection Program. Their inability to develop draft picks and get them meaningful playing time is deftly abhorrent. Maybe it’s all on Thomas Dimitroff for drafting poorly, but when fans see players do well at training camp in Flowery Branch and in preseason only never to be seen or heard from again, it’s supremely frustrating. On the surface, it seems that it’s simply Smith’s conservative nature taking hold in every aspect of this team. The list is infinite on seeing potential and never to be seen again: Antone Smith, Drew Davis, Kevin Cone, Lawrence Sidbury, Chris Owens, Dominique Franks, Travian Robertson, Mike Johnson, Lamar Holmes, Dominque Davis, Kerry Meier, Jonathan Massaquoi, Cliff Matthews, Charles Mitchell, and there’s likely plenty more.
Some of these listed maybe unfair since they were likely just bad picks (Johnson), but others have shown flashes and never seen the field. Not only that, but other players must “wait their turn” and be an apprentice before earning their chance (DeCoud, Moore) or only seeing the field when someone gets hurt (Peter Konz, Matthews, Massaquoi). This is not saying that these players would have necessarily made a difference in the grand scheme of things, but unless you’re a 1st round draft pick, you’re likely to be placed firmly in the Witness Protection Program. As Big Ray has said many times, either keep them, develop them, and let them play or cut them loose.
There can’t be that many things wrong with a team that goes 13-3, gets the #1 seed in the NFC, and is only a play or two away from going to the Super Bowl, right? Well, they had to do something right, but at the same time, his team has some major areas to address in the off-season and it will take an honest, objective, and sometimes difficult look at every single aspect of this team. Successful organizations do it on a regular basis and this is no different. The Falcons are seemingly good in several areas including quarterback, wide receiver, maybe safety, and perhaps cornerback. Even in those areas, the window is either quickly closing (Roddy White, Asante Samuel, Dunta Robinson over 30) or needs another look (is Harry Douglas a legitimate slot receiver? How big of a contract should Ryan get? What happed to the safeties in playoffs?). Those are the best case scenarios. The others, not so much.
Like mentioned several times above, this will get a long and detailed look in the off-season, but everything else is up for debate. Defensive tackle needs a major overhaul. The Falcons must do something, anything, to solve the defensive end problems. The linebackers, once thought to be a strong area, looked awful in the playoffs. The offensive line played well in the playoffs, but weren’t a Super Bowl caliber unit in the regular season and needs some strength, youth, beef, and overall change to the unit. The running back situation is one of the biggest areas of need. Tony Gonzalez is likely retiring and leaving an enormous void on offense. Punt returner was a joke the entire season and the list goes on and on. Some areas may need tweaks, while others will require major overhauls, and still others will face difficult and sometimes painful decisions. This has been a great run for this franchise, the best in it’s history, but loyalties cannot get in the way of finding the best 53 man roster to make another run, especially on defense. This looks to be the most critical of all the off-seasons to date, seeing the Falcons getting so close, but now looking so far away if some things aren’t fixed in a major way.
We’ve discussed this before in The Cage many times the past several seasons in that the Falcons are reaching one part of a phase where the window is closing for many players that have helped to reach this level of success. Tony Gonzalez is likely retiring. Todd McClure will be 36 in February. Roddy White will be 32 next November. Asante Samuel just turned 32. John Abraham will be 35 in May. Dunta Robinson will be 31 in April. Jonathan Babineaux will be 32 in October. Michael Turner will be 31 in February. The list goes on and on.
This is not to say that the Falcons don’t have a few good years left and some (White, Samuel) have shown no signs of decline while most of the others have. Will the Falcons organization try to go piecemeal and only tinker for one more year or will they make some fairly dramatic changes to set themselves up for the future? It would be tempting to go with the former, but the Falcons are at a point where some major changes are needed in certain areas. This will be a big point in the off-season.
If you are masochist or glutton for punishment than this is your Christmas and Birthday all wrapped into one. You won’t have to venture very far to see that there are literally hundreds of hatchet jobs, gleeful revenge, “I told you so’s,” and “Same Old Falcons” as an ESPN writer said. Matt Ryan is the worst QB to ever grace the playoffs. This is worst franchise to ever play professional sports and should be burned at the stake for even attempting to win. They should have gone 3-13 like those true “same old Falcons.”
Sure, some of the points they make are valid and some major questions will take hold this off-season and some major weaknesses must be addressed, but these are the times why most Falcons fans (and many non-darling team fans) despise national, sensationalistic, and even sometimes, downright hateful sports media. The fact is, these AREN’T the same old Falcons. This regime hasn’t taken the final step, but it has pulled a broken and historically terrible franchise from the ashes to being an annual contender. They completed back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in it’s 40+ year history. They have made the playoffs 4 out of 5 years. They are only second to the New England Patriots in regular season wins (who, by the way, aren’t doing that great themselves in the posteason lately). They finally won a playoff game after everyone said they couldn’t and were a play away from going to the Super Bowl. Sure, this sounds like complete justification and rationalization and, to an extent, it is.
The Falcons haven’t figured out how to get over the final hump and Mike Smith and Co. will start entering a much more critical mode this off-season and coming regular season. And if they don’t make certain fixes and tough decisions they could slip right back into mediocrity, but they aren’t those “same old Falcons.” Those would be the ones that never even sniff the playoffs. This is a long-winded way of saying that getting rid of the hateful, virile, infantile, and sensationalistic national sports media may help getting past this loss.
Some great resources Atlanta Falcons news instead of biased, Entertainment Sports News:
For those of you who are new to The Cage, we ask that you stay with us because even though it won’t have as much to talk about in terms of games, wins, and losses, it can be just as much fun to discuss about all the possibilities for free agency, the draft, off-season questions, and the upcoming 2013 season. The Cage already has a ton of topics ready to roll for the off-season.
No questions, just let it go on the crushing loss, your thoughts on the season that was, a look ahead to the off-season, and anything else about your favorite team………..