*****Make sure to stay with us here in The Cage during the entire off-season as we’ll do our best to analyze, break down, and dissect everything Atlanta Falcons Football
Now that the season of misery has come to an end, it’s time to officially move on to the off-season. Thank goodness for that. Long ago when owner Arthur Blank and Thomas Dimitroff said that Mike Smith was going nowhere, it was assumed that some on the Falcons staff would be scapegoated and be relieved of their duties. No major changes to make at the top, only the lowest on the totem pole would be blamed for the wretched season that was. It’s that old adage of stuff rolling down hill (to put it cleanly) and that’s just what’s happened up at Flowery Branch. So, there has already been countless changes to almost every position coach, coordinators, strength and conditioning coaches, and now even one position has been changed not once, but twice in Smith’s tenure. This is not necessarily to say that some changes weren’t needed, but the issue is that the same problems that were apparent in year 1 are still occurring in year 6 and there’s only one common denominator: the head coach and general manager.
There has been unprecedented success with Smith and Dimitroff in Atlanta. The best run in franchise history, in fact. The problem is that fans are starting to lose faith on whether or not these two can produce a championship, or at least compete for one. What does the Falcons owner want with this team: does he want a championship or is he content with 9-10 wins a year and just making it to the playoffs? He said emphatically after the 2011 Meltdown in the Meadowlands that he wants championships (as in plural). Smith and Dimitroff have piled up a great record over the past 6 years and it’s hard to argue on them getting a “chance to fix it,” as Blank said, but the Falcons organization are literally out of people to blame other than the main two in charge and many fans have lost faith in their ability to “fix it.”
It’s inevitable that anytime the main cogs stay in place in an organization, especially the NFL, that changes will happen. But the funny thing is that almost every position coach and other position on the football team has been made short of the head coach. Some coaches have moved on to higher positions, but most were asked to leave. There will likely be some that are missed, but since 2008, there have been a bunch of changes. CB coach Emmitt Thomas, OL coach Paul Boudreau, QB coach Bill Musgrave moved to be the Vikings offensive coordinator, offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder “got new jobs,” QB coach Bob Bratkowski moved with Mularkey, strength and conditioning coach Jeff Fish, and now OL coach (for a second time) Pat Hill and DL coach Ray Hamilton. And for good measure, they made sure to get rid of the assistant OL coach Paul Dunn.
Perhaps this is just the normal occurrences of any football organization in the NFL that stays as long as they have, but what’s become painfully apparent is the seeming refusal to address those at the very top of the organization, and after this most recent collapse there doesn’t seem to be any attempt to look at the deep-seated issues that have plagued this team for 6 years. When a team changes it’s highest 3 positions underneath the head coach (OC, DC, OL coach) after one weak season and feels the need to change the very same position only 2 years later after they’re the ones who hired said OL coach, than there’s more problems than just a few position coaches away from a Super Bowl.
Assuming no other changes are made, this has all the feel of the best of scapegoating in the world. This is certainly not to say that changes weren’t needed, but it’s so ridiculous to pin the entire disaster on two coaches. Oh yeah, and the injuries excuse as well. It’s amazing how the Packers went without one of the best players in the game in Aaron Rodgers for 7 weeks and they found a way to make the playoffs, but that’s for another time. Ray Hamilton hasn’t done much of anything in the way of producing one single pass-rusher in his time as a Falcons assistant coach. That’s simply the truth. However, it’s impossible and ridiculously short-sighted to blame one position coach for not generating a pass rush, and the lowest hanging fruit nonetheless.
Hamilton probably could have been replaced a year or so ago if it was only his problem, and he surely shares some of that blame. However, he’s only one part in that machine. He didn’t draft any of the countless number of players that have turned out to be busts (Peria Jerry, Lawrence Sidbury), spent only lower round selections on DL (Jonathan Massaquoi, Cliff Matthews, Travian Robertson), had an epic fail on a free agent DE (Ray Edwards), and can only claim two players in 6 drafts that are marginally OK (Biermann, Peters). Not sure Hamilton was the one drafting all these defensive linemen. The fact that the only pass rush has come from two McKay holdovers (Babineaux, Abraham) the past 5 years is pretty criminal. Furthermore, the development system has been pretty putrid across the entire team in most positions. Does he get the blame for that too?
While Hamilton could conceivably been let go or scapegoated a few years ago, the case of Pat Hill is just preposterous. After the terrible showing vs. the Giants where the Falcons barely squeaked into the playoffs and could only claim Detroit as their biggest win, the Falcons fired Paul Boudreau after leading an OL more resembling a scrap heap of undrafted free agents including Harvey Dahl and Tyson Clabo, combined with 7th round pick Todd McClure, Blalock, and oft-injured Sam Baker with Todd Weiner taking over or him much of the time. While nowhere close to perfect or even great, they provided a good enough OL to get the playoffs in 2008 and secure the #1 NFC seed in 2010. After Dimitroff parted ways with Harvey Dahl, the OL went to crap, but apparently Boudreau was the only one responsible.
So they bring in Pat Hill, their own hire by the way, and a coach who hadn’t been in the NFL in over a decade. After one pretty good year in 2012, again seeing the Falcons wrap up the #1 NFC seed, a year later it was Hill’s turn to be the sacrificial lamb, along with his OL assistant coach Paul Dunn. It’s simply amazing how Hill takes the fall in only 2 years after they were the ones who hired him, and in 6 years all the higher-ups consider any talk of it being their fault as heresy or that they might need to change their ways as beyond reproach. While it’s true that Hill probably shares some of the blame, just as Hamilton did, he only had two years, and one of them garnered enough productivity to get the #1 seed and be only a few yards away from going to the Super Bowl. Thomas Dimitroff has used draft picks in every round going up to the 5th round: Baker (1st), Konz (2nd), Holmes & Johnson (3rd), Hawley (4th), and Reynolds (5th).
It’s not as though he hasn’t spent high picks on players, it’s just that something has gone terribly wrong with developing not ONE of these picks into anything more than halfway solid. Whoever is charged with developing and scouting these draft picks should be getting their pink slip along with Hill, Dunn, and Hamilton. This hasn’t just been an issue with the OL and DL, but with pretty much the entire roster. Does the head coach, general manager, strength and conditioning coaches, and scouting staff not get any blame whatsoever for this epic failure? Guess not.
If the Falcons organization is into blaming everyone but the main people in charge, than they should really take a look at all the underlings who severely underperformed in 2013 and beyond. Let’s start with the QB Coach Glenn Thomas. Should he keep his job after Matt Ryan had one of the worst years of his career. He threw boatloads of interceptions, couldn’t escape the rush, threw out of bounds way too many times, and didn’t get it done this year. Terry Robiskie did a very good job of developing some of the lesser known receivers in 2013, including Harry Douglas, and undrafted free agents Drew Davis and Darius Johnson, especially when Julio Jones and Roddy White had injuries most of the year. Besides, he has the title of assistant head coach, so he’s definitely above reprieve.
How about the running backs coach Gerald Brown, who has he developed in 6 years? Michael Turner came in tough for many years, but fell off the 30 year old cliff with no backup plan. Jacquizz Rodgers has shown bursts here and there, but he’s proven not be a feature back. Jason Snelling has been Mr. Dependable for the Falcons, but never able to carry the weight. They have one of the fastest running backs in the NFL and he can’t get more than 10 touches in a season? Can Coach Brown not stand up for Smith getting more carries? Does Mark Collins, labeled as a defensive assistant, not get major blame for helping to produce one of the worst defenses in the NFL?
What about DB coach Tim Lewis and his assistant Joe Danna. I guess they should get credit for rookie cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, but shouldn’t they be held responsible for for the wretched performance by their safeties, especially Thomas DeCoud? The Falcons LB coach Glenn Pires could have been saved by the performance of undrafted rookies Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu. But that pales in comparison to the failure the linebackers have shown since 2008. Sean Weatherspoon was a 1st round pick, but surely doesn’t play like one. Stephen Nicholas was re-signed to a big contract and lost his spot to a UDFA. Akeem Dent was a 3rd round pick, and also lost his job to an undrafted free agent. Talk about failure.
Chris Schelfo has had Tony Gonzalez, the best tight end to ever play the game, at his disposal in every year except one. But how can he not be held accountable for not developing one single tight end in 5 years, knowing that Gonzalez would be retiring sooner rather than later? Andy finally, what about special teams coach Keith Armstrong and his assistant Eric Sutulovich. Sure it’s true that the Falcons special teams weren’t terrible, but didn’t the Falcons have a couple of punts blocked and never once returned punts or kickoffs more than 20 or so yards? Keith Armstrong is a coordinator, so obviously he’s immune to any criticism, him being a higher-up and all.
While this is obviously tongue-and-cheek, the point is that it’s completely absurd and foolish to simply blame a terrible season on three assistant coaches. It would be one thing if this was the first time that changes have been made in Smith and Dimitroff’s tenure, but it’s not. This is not to say that the Falcons won’t or can’t turn it back around in 2014, but it’s fairly cowardly to throw all the blame on 3 coaches with the least amount of power. Anything to prevent real criticism for the two with the most power and thus the most influence on why the collapse occurred.