The dead horse has been beaten to a pulp on the awfulness that is the 2013 Atlanta Falcons. The collapse, undisciplined play, poor effort, weak coaching, and on and on and on have been analyzed, dissected, complained about, and taken apart for months now. And there probably will be more to come when they play their remaining games in 2013, but most fans need something, anything, to take away from the pain of the 2013 season. In short, it has been an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions. In fact, the Falcons have the distinct luxury of being the very first NFL team officially eliminated from the playoffs. Everyone already knew it, but it became official when the 49ers beat the Redskins on Monday Night Football.
There’s five more games, so there will likely be plenty more teeth gnashing ahead. But to offer something a little different from the gloom and doom of 2013, this post will look at some key issues moving forward after the 2013 campaign comes to it’s merciful end and the 2014 season starts after the Falcons last game at home vs. the Panthers. Most fans are even pessimistic about the 2014 prospects, but there are a few signs of life and positivity going forward. A look at the Atlanta Falcons going forward. An “onward and upward” post if you will……
The majority of fans had long ago accepted that there would be no major changes for the 2014 season, namely head coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff. Injuries played a part in it, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Does having injuries mean you should get embarrassed and blown out? Does it mean that your players look as though they’ve just given up and stopped playing hard? Well, it doesn’t really matter at this point, because owner Arthur Blank said that both Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff will get a chance to fix the mess they’ve found themselves in.
In complete objectivity, they have earned it. Unprecedented franchise success including 4 trips to the playoffs, two division titles, and one of the best winning percentages of any franchise over that time. In terms of fans, it’s not the losing (it happens in the parity-driven NFL), but rather how they’ve lost that’s angered fans. Also, with the season essentially being over by week 7 really sucked as well. Realistically, the Falcons could have won a handful of games that were close. They had chances to win all of the following games early on: Saints, Dolphins, Patriots, and Jets. Even if they split those games or just win one of those, they’re looking at being 4-2 or 3-3 instead of 2-4 and feeling of hopelessness. At 2-4, all was not lost, but after four consecutive embarrassing blowouts to the Cardinals, Panthers, Seahawks, and Bucs, the nails were quickly nailed in the 2013 coffin. In summary, Smith and Dimitroff will get their chance, but can they make the most of it?
Since Smith and Dimitroff have been assured of their return, the question now immediately turns to whether or not they can get it fixed, more specifically if they can honestly look at every part of their job, decisions, and actions that led to the collapse. If polled right now, the vast majority of fans would say flatly: NO. However, Smith will know that his job officially will be under the microscope and the seat will quickly get hot if things awry. There’s no denying that Smith will have show growth and change in certain areas. Chief among them will be to stop being hyper-conservative in all aspects of the way the team plays and the way he coaches. The Falcons needlessly live on the edge, allow teams to come back, and can not, by any means put teams away.
Not only has the coaching displayed no killer instinct, aggression, or any sense of dominance, it has also cast a malaise over the players as well. No other series represents this more than the final offensive series against the Saints. Down by 4 points and facing 4th and 15, Smith elected to go for a 50+ field goal and try a miracle to get the ball back from Drew Brees. Yes, the probability is low, but how much higher is it to kick a long field goal, still be losing by 1 point, and try to get the ball back from one of the best QB’s in the game? As mentioned before, it also has affected the players. With a chance to get a touchdown a few yards short of the goal-line, Matt Ryan elects to slide down at the 2 yard line instead of trying for a TD. Much of that is on Ryan, but where does he get the idea of being so conservative and robotic?
There are plenty of other areas as well. The player development has to improve. Some of the mistakes were on Dimitroff for poor draft picks, but not all of it. Unless a player is a 1st round pick, they likely won’t see the field under Smith. He refuses to play young players with talent and try to develop that talent. Another spot to improve is his seeming micro-managing of his coordinators. There’s no proof to this to the common fan, but after two sets of coordinators and the same issues appear, who’s left to blame? Smith also has get this team to be tough. They have become soft and weak under Smith, and some has to be attributed to his lack of hitting and physical practices. Can he objectively evaluate himself, recognize his mistakes, and correct them going forward? Time will soon tell.
Mike Smith may get most of the heat to change in the off-season, but the general manager should get as much or more attention. It’s true that Smith plays a part in the Falcons collapse, but Dimitroff may shoulder more of the blame. It is he who thought the Falcons were perfectly OK on both sides of the ball and has thought that way the past 6 years. He has failed pretty much across the board in drafting offensive and defensive linemen. He has spent a 1st round, 2nd round, 3rd round (two in fact), 4th round, and 5th round draft pick on offensive linemen and not one of them can be counted on going forward. The only OL that seems to have a set lock on consistency is Justin Blalock, and he was drafted by someone else. No GM is perfect and Dimitroff has been instrumental in drafting well enough to have 5 winning seasons and 4 playoff trips, but his failure on both lines has been abysmal.
On the other side, he hasn’t fared much better. The only two defensive linemen that generated any pass rush were Jonathan Babineaux and John Abraham, neither of which he drafted. He missed on Peria Jerry with his 1st round pick and hasn’t done much better elsewhere. He hasn’t generated one defensive end that can rush the passer (although Smith shares much of that fault) with any consistency and defensive tackle can’t much ever push the pocket. Corey Peters seems to be a good pick and perhaps one of the few DL the Falcons can build around, but that’s about it. Lawrence Sidbury, Kroy Biermann, Cliff Matthews, Travian Robertson, Jonathan Massaquoi, Malliciah Goodman, and Stansly Maponga are just a few names who have never developed into a major pass-rusher. Missing on some draft picks happens, but it’s been the refusal on his part to acknowledge and address the lines that is the worst part. He won’t sign any free agents either on the OL or DL that would help and make significant investments in the line, but he gave Dunta Robinson one of the largest contracts for any cornerback in the NFL. He’ll get his shot to rectify it with high draft picks, but we’ll see if he makes the right decision.
One positive to the injuries has been a chance to see and maturation of the undrafted free agents and look at some strong points for 2014. Julio Jones and Roddy White being injured has led to seeing Harry Douglas, Darius Johnson, and Drew Davis step up in a big way. Douglas finally stepped out of the shadow and shown he can carry the load if need be. Darius Johnson has been one of the best surprises of an otherwise awful year. He had a career game vs. the Saints that was overshadowed by a late fumble. Davis hasn’t blown up like the other two, but he’s shown he can contribute. The Falcons may not have a ton of strengths that don’t have holes, but the return of a healthy Julio Jones and Roddy White paired with Douglas, Johnson, and Davis should give the Falcons one of the best and deepest receiving corps in the league, at least on paper. Whether or not the OL can get fixed or Dirk Koetter can utilize them all is another story entirely.
The linebacker corps looks to be on equally strong ground. The injuries to Stephen Nicholas and Sean Weatherspoon forced both undrafted free agents Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu into action. They haven’t been perfect, but they’ve shown great ability and hope for the future. Worrilow has 80 tackles in only 7 starts, proven he’s a tackling machine and supplanting former 3rd round pick Akeem Dent in the starting lineup (another apparently poor draft pick). Bartu has had some up and downs, but he’s shown an innate ability to cover in space and get after the quarterback, notching 3.5 sacks already. It’s hard to imagine that Worrilow and Bartu haven’t already cemented themselves as starters in 2014 and should only get better with a full NFL off-season.
The Falcons season is officially over, at least in terms of playoffs and much of anything else other than pride. There’s five games left and there’s always a chance to make the most out of any difficult situation, if Smith and Dimitroff so choose. As mentioned before, there has been some very pleasant surprises in a terrible season: Worrilow, Bartu, D. Johnson, Massaquoi, Motta, and to a lesser extent Levine Toilolo. Joe Hawley has even breathed new life into his chances going forward (which helps alleviate the pain of seeing Peter Konz’s downward spiral). Now’s the time to use the final games as a job interview for 2014. They should take some chances and get some of the younger guys and even those on the practice squad a chance over the next month. Guys like OT Ryan Schraeder, OG Harland Gunn, RB’s Antone Smith and Josh Vaughan, DT Adam Relopgle, DE’s Goodman and Maponga, and S’s Motta and Kemal Ishmael. It’s understandable that they want to win as many games as possible, but not using this as a chance to truly see what they have would be yet another huge mistake on their collective parts.
One of the biggest complaints and criticisms you hear from fans and, particularly, the media is that this team lacks any sort of identity at all. What are the Falcons about? What do they want to accomplish? What will they hang their hat on week in and week out? These are questions that the Falcons entire organization would find it impossible to answer. The great teams take on an identity, work to play to their strengths, and minimize their weaknesses. Some teams are known for having great defenses and running the football (49ers, Seahawks, Panthers). Other teams are known for their high-flying attacks with opportunistic defenses (Broncos, Patriots, Packers, Saints). Some teams are known for being unpredictable and aggressive, while others run the football with play-action and a good defense can win with a good defense. If forced to come up with any identity of the Falcons, what would it be? That’s a problem.
After having one of the worst defenses in the NFL, Sean Payton immediately dictated they were moving to a 3-4 defense upon his return. Contrast that with Smith and he’s cloaked his intentions in secrecy. Early on, Smith wanted to stop the run and run the football and, to a point, they followed that identity. Since the 2010 playoff “Debacle in the Dome,” it seems as though there’s no clue on what the coaches envision for this team. When you don’t know who you are or who you want to be as a team, how can you come close to being effective? Natural thought would think that the Falcons would be more of an up-tempo type of team, similar to the Broncos, Patriots, or Saints. Use their multiple weapons at receiver, pass to set up the run, have offensive linemen that at least can pass-block, and have speed at the running back position. Accept that identity and play accordingly.
Instead, they think they’re a power team that can move the pile and run their running backs up the middle on 1st and 2nd down and being forced to throw long on 3rd down. Also, their running backs of the past (Turner) and present (Jackson) don’t fit that skill set because morespeed would be needed to make defenders miss with lack of good run blocking. And just another sign that something’s amiss is the fact that the no-huddle often works and Smith (or someone) shuts it down. If they go that route, than a defense that was aggressive and opportunistic would make sense. The Falcons have no vision or identity at all and seem to change by the week. Before they can work on getting better through the draft, free agency, or the off-season in general, they must develop a vision and work like hell to implement it.