This will be part 1 in a two part series looking at the Falcons issues in 2013 and beyond.
The Falcons trainwreck of a season so far in 2013 is something that longtime fans had come to expect in the old days, but we’ve all been spoiled to not only having winning seasons, but making the playoffs the last 4 out of 5 years. The “Super Bowl or Bust” campaign has surely taken on the latter. No, the season is not over, but it surely has that feel in Week 6 as the Falcons head to the bye week. Injuries have been brutal and are surely part of it, but that does not in any way tell the entire story. The men from Flowery Branch were plenty healthy when they found ways to lose in New Orleans and Miami, and almost blew an easy victory over the Rams. There are a ton of issues with this team and organization as a whole. Sometimes bad seasons just happen, just ask Steelers and Giants fans about that.
The question is what do the people in charge do about it. Do they stand pat, ignore the problems, simply chalk it up to “bad luck,” and sacrifice a few scapegoats? Or do they make major and fundamental changes to to their organization? That’s the questions many fans will be debating as the season progresses. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Falcons could turn it around and at least make it respectable, but judging on their first games, that’s more hail mary miracle than reality. Fans won’t give up on their team, but deep cracks can no longer be patched over. Cage members have been discussing these issues for a long time, but they were able to be marginalized by the masses due to the winning seasons. That cover is now gone. A look at the major issues that has led to the Falcons epic collapse.
The one person who escapes blame is Arthur Blank. He is everything you want in an owner. He cares deeply about winning, spares no expense for the team, gives his employees everything they need to be successful, and is a beacon of hope and goodwill to the community. And above all that, he’s just a great man. While this season is not lost, short of a miracle turnaround, there will be some very difficult decisions that will be made. The team he brought in, hiring Thomas Dimitroff as his general manager, hiring Mike Smith as head coach, and keeping Rich McKay as president, has led this team to unprecedented success. A franchise with one of the worst histories in all of the NFL, the Falcons have reached heights unseen in 47 years.
They made the playoffs in year 1, broke the ridiculous streak of never having back-to-back winning seasons in year 2, claimed the #1 seed in the NFC in 2010 with a 13-3 record, made the playoffs in 2011, and earned the NFC’s #1 seed again last year with another 13-3 record. They won their first playoff game in almost 10 years and have sent a countless number of players to the Pro Bowl. Mike Smith has won Coach of the Year twice and Thomas Dimitroff has won General Manager of the Year twice as well. In short, it has been an amazing run the last five years and there’s just no denying that.
However, it also has become painfully apparent that the window for this regime in it’s current form is either rapidly closing or has already done so. Sure, it could be just “a bad luck season from all the injuries,” as many on talk radio and the executives at Flowery Branch are spinning, but that absolutely is not the entire story. There have been major cracks in the foundation for some time and 2013 has brought them erupting to the surface, as will be discussed in this post.
We can’t say enough that the season is not over, but assuming the campaign plays out like most feel it will, Mr. Blank will have some of the most difficult decisions of his career as the Falcons owner. Some will argue that only some tweaks are in order due to the previous amounts of major success. But the reality that must accompany that is the Falcons could just as easily have a repeat of this season as well. Analysts and the media elite will call us fans crazy who think major changes are needed, but it doesn’t take an expert to know that this team is no longer a few minor corrections away from championships, or even contending for them. If the season plays out like the first part, Blank will either decide that previous successes earn another year or that some different people are needed to rebuild this team going forward.
As mentioned earlier, Arthur Blank is the one person that escapes blame for the Falcons epic collapse. After the owner, though, it’s fair game to everyone else. This isn’t a hit piece on any of these gentlemen, but it’s also ridiculous to just blame the plane crash season on injuries and the offensive line. It goes much deeper. Let’s start with someone that’s not talked about very much and that’s President Rich McKay. The Godfather Cage Member Seminole Warrior has been one of the few to bring this issue to light. When Blank had to make a change at general manager he went in an extremely unusual direction by keeping the person he had just relieved of his duties by giving him a new title and job of President of the Falcons. The two are obviously very close and Blank still wanted him a part of the organization. McKay has done a masterful job of negotiating contracts, getting the new stadium deal done, and generally helping to run the organization extremely well.
However, McKay’s moves essentially left Dimitroff next to nothing to work with. The only holdovers that remain from McKay’s time is Jonathan Babineaux, Roddy White, Justin Blalock, and Stephen Nicholas. Of course much of it is age because it’s been awhile since 2007, but McKay was the one who chose Jamaal Anderson over Patrick Willis. To be sure, it’s unfair to blame it all on previous draft picks alone. However, having only 4 players from a previous regime is not an awful lot to work with. Deangelo Hall, Michael Jenkins, Jamaal Anderson, Chris Houston, and Jimmy Williams are some pretty big early round whiffs. Hall was a Pro Bowler, but an also well-known headcase. He did draft Matt Schaub and he can’t be blamed for trading him with Michael Vick in tow. No one knew old #7 was running an illegal, federally incriminating dog-fighting ring. The final thing with McKay is that there’s a feeling that McKay has undue influence over decisions even though he’s just the “president.” Of course there’s no proof to us common fans, but does Dimitroff really have full control over all football decisions? Many of us say no.
Next up is Thomas Dimitroff. Some feel as though Dimitroff’s job is more secure than Coach Mike Smith’s. That may be the case, but should it be? An ESPN article recently revealed that not only were the Falcons dead last in total first 3 round draft picks the last 5 years (where teams are built), but they were also near the bottom in later round draft picks. The summary is that Dimitroff has traded away entirely too many picks to move up and get players “he wants.” There almost seems a tint of arrogance to trading away picks to move up and get the guys he wants, showing a tunnel vision to his strategy.
Even though he’s had some hits in the draft (Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, William Moore, etc), it’s also becoming painfully clear that he’s starting to accumulate more misses than hits. Peria Jerry, Sean Weatherspoon, Sam Baker, Chris Owens, Chevis Jackson, Curtis Lofton, Harry Douglas, and Akeem Dent are either not living up to their draft status or no longer even with the Falcons. Obviously, Dimitroff has done a decent job overall since the Falcons have had so much success. And he generally does well in keeping players that continue to produce, save for the Harvey Dahl debacle (also hurt to see Darrin Walls starting and playing really well for the Jets and he couldn’t even be the #5 Falcons DB?). When things are good, as they have been for the last 5 years, many things are overlooked. But when operations go awry, everything’s under a microscope.
Free agency has been a pretty sore spot as well. Michael Turner was an obvious homerun, as was the trade for Tony Gonzalez. Asante Samuel was generally a good trade, since they only gave up a 6th round pick, more so last year than this injury-riddled season. Dunta Robinson was a huge, and insanely expensive, bust. Nothing even needs to be said about Ray Edwards. Osi Umenyiora seems to be an adequate replacement for Abraham, if not great. Steven Jackson was a good signing, but he’s only played 5 quarters, an assumed risk on signing a 30+ RB. He let Harvey Dahl walk and the OL has never been the same since. He signed Brent Grimes to a 10 million dollar franchise tag and then let him walk the next year. He cut Tyson Clabo this year. Taking everything together, you’d have to say he’s below the mendoza line. As will be discussed later, his most obvious and abysmal failure has been both lines, especially the offensive line. He may have more security than Smitty, but should he?
The head coach will be discussed more throughout the post, but Smith is the one on the hottest seat. It can’t be said enough what a magnificent job he has done raising this team and franchise from the ashes. Simply put, he’s the greatest head coach the Falcons have ever had. If you’re talking about postseason, well then, not so much. But overall, he’s amassed an unbelievable record, which is why he’ll probably get another shot to make it better in 2014. But has Smith shown that he has the potential to get all the way? Opportunities and windows don’t come along very often and, even though football is a team sport and it has a ton of people involved in success and failure, doesn’t the buck stop with the person leading the team on the field? There are obvious issues with Smith and the way the Falcons play. They are not things that have just occurred in a “bad luck” year, but rather this season has simply removed the mask of all the things that were wrong with a ton of last-second wins, feasting on lesser opponents, and regular season success.
As mentioned in the first bullet point, if Blank truly wants championships, than Smith has been a major failure in the postseason. A 1-4 record that could have easily been 0-4, save for some last second heroics. That includes two of the most embarrassing playoff performances in franchise history: the Debacle in the Dome (destruction by Packers @ home) and the Meltdown in the Meadowlands, 24-2 by Giants). Also throw in the fact that the Falcons held sizeable leads at home in last year’s playoffs and gave it away in one and almost did in the other. Again, it’s not all Smith’s fault, but as will be discussed shortly, there is no killer instinct, player development has been deplorable, the lines are weak to say the least, and there’s a hyper-conservative malaise that always hangs over this team.
Those were the words of the great Steve Young when asked about the Falcons future by Suzy Kolber after the pitiful loss to the Jets on Monday Night Football. Technically, no, it’s not over since it’s only week 6 in the NFL. Anything can truly happen. But if you are guided by common sense and look at history, it’s next to impossible with the Falcons schedule. It’s true that the NFC is not on fire right now since only 6 teams have winning records, but extrapolating the first 5 games out for the rest of the season, it’s hard seeing the Falcons rebounding on this one. Proponents will say they’ve been in every game down to the last series, but they’re finding ways to lose and two of the teams they lost two are anything but perennial contenders. Also, considering the Falcons have yet to play the Packers, 49ers, Redskins, Seahawks, and Saints again, as well as a surprising Bills and Cardinals team, the future looks pretty bleak. Smith’s seat may be getting warm, but if he can coach his tail off to a 9-7 or even 8-8 record at this point, then he’ll definitely get another shot in 2014.
This has been discussed ad nauseum in The Cage, but this is really evident in an injury-riddled year. Ok, the advocates will say that the Falcons have had several players that have been drafted and gone to the Pro Bowl including Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, William Moore, and Thomas DeCoud. While true, that doesn’t even come close to telling the whole story. If you look at the positions and what the Falcons have to rebuild around going forward, it’s fairly shameful. Look no further than the offensive line (as will be hammered later). Essentially Dimitroff has seemingly drafted one legit offensive lineman in Peter Konz. He’s having a rough transition taking over for Todd McClure, but he was considered by far and away the best center in the draft when he came out. The insane cross-training idea has been a miserable failure, as will be discussed later. Mike Johnson, Garrett Reynolds, Peter Konz, and even Lamar Holmes have been played out of their natural position from college.
Pretty much every position seems extremely bare going forward. The Falcons have been unable to develop any receiver other than Roddy White and Julio Jones in 6 years. Harry Douglas is too inconsistent and has never taken the step many thought he would. They have had numerous amounts of players go through the practice squad and #4 and #5 receiver spots and nary a player ready to take over for Roddy White, who turns 32 in a few weeks. At running back, Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers have stepped up when asked, but are they a feature backs? Antone Smith and Josh Vaughan are just players on a roster because evidently they can only play special teams. Tight End has new draft pick Levine Toilolo showing some promise, but could they not have someone ready to take over for Gonzalez, who was already 33 when they traded for him? Chase Coffman showed great promise and is now buried deep on the depth chart, a common theme in 6 years of operation.
Back to the offensive line. They signed Baker to a big contract after essentially one really good and injury-free year and now it’s back to standard operating procedure on the injury list. Justin Blalock is getting up there in age and salary cap. Konz is definitely someone to build around, but he’s taking lumps at center. Reynolds is out of position and Lamar Holmes is still a big question mark. All the other linemen drafted were either bad draft picks, developed poorly, or both. Joe Hawley, Mike Johnson, Garrett Reynolds, and Holmes have never stepped forward. They let Will Svitek, Harvey Dahl, and Tyson Clabo go, which all seem to be mistakes. Of course hindsight is 20/20 and it’s a little unfair to go back and do armchair quarterbacking, but the offensive line has been atrocious for a long, long time and there’s almost a feeling of arrogance from both Smith and Dimitroff that it will “be OK.”
The defensive side of the ball is even worse. The defensive line is almost as bad as the offensive line. They inherited Jonathan Babineaux, which has been the only consistent defensive linemen the Falcons have had. They depended on John Abraham for entirely too long. Corey Peters seems like a legitimate DT to build around, but that’s about it. They have failed completely on all the rest. Travian Robertson, Lawrence Sidbury, Cliff Matthews, and Peria Jerry have either been hugely disappointing or poorly developed. The Ray Edwards experiment was a fatal disaster and even though Jonathan Massaquoi, Malliciah Goodman, and Stansly Maponga might have potential, it hasn’t been realized yet. The deep failure to generate any pass rush whatsoever casts a net of blame wide and far. Moving to linebacker, most thought that Sean Weatherspoon was on his way to being among the elite group of LB’s in the game, in the likes of Patrick Willis or Von Miller. That has not turned out to be the case at all. He’s been good and solid, but anything but great. When you take linebackers in the 1st round, they need to be great.
Outside of that, the LB corps is pathetic. The Falcons have been rendered to Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu as their starting linebackers. They are a bright spot moving forward, but a regime that’s been in place for 6 drafts has two undrafted free agents starting in year 6? How is that possible? Akeem Dent has been wildly inconsistent as a 3rd round pick and Stephen Nicholas never became more than a situational player. Finally, the defensive backs are a mixed bag. William Moore and Thomas DeCoud both had Pro Bowl years last year, but seem to have regressed in year 2 under Mike Nolan.
Many are questioning if DeCoud should even be on the field. Kemal Ishmael and Zeke Motta are unknowns at this point. The cornerbacks are one of the few places that seems to be in decent shape with Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, and Robert McClain, assuming they keep McClain next year. They let Chris Owens, a 3rd round pick, go. They franchise tagged Brent Grimes for $10 million and then let him walk the next year. The Asante Samuel trade was good last year, but he’s barely been on the field this year. And of course there was the free agent big bust of signing Dunta Robinson. The Falcons made him one of the highest paid cornerbacks in the NFL and it’s safe to say that he never lived up to his salary, to put it lightly.
This isn’t meant to be a hatchet job on the Falcons because they’ve earned great credibility with the success they’ve had the last 5 years, but issues have been simmering for awhile and they should be looked at in an objective light.
Jack of All Trades, Master of None
Offensive Line a Failure of Epic Proportions
Injuries Not Sole Reason
Super Bowl or Bust
Major Rebuilding Coming, or at Least it Should Be
Defense Worse in Year 6 than Year 1
Criminal Pass Rush
Biggest Changes Made in 2011
Creative vs. Stale
Witness Protection Program
No Killer Instinct
Scrap the Rise Up Already