Like you, my fellow Falcon friends, I have had time to sit back and reflect on the season that was lost in 2013. Many fans came into the season with extraordinary expectations of being a Super Bowl team. Many, including many in this forum, warned that the image in the mirror was false. So now, we turn our attention to the reconstruction; the re-tooling of this franchise. This is part one of a two part series that will lay out a plan that, if followed, would restore the faith and confidence of the fans in the direction of the team.
In this narrative, we will assess how we got here. Then, in the next week’s follow-up, we will address, position by position, where the team stands and what must be done to field a consistent winner.
Simply put, our Falcons suffered a major collapse in 2013. The Branch would have you believe that it was all a result of the numerous injuries we sustained during the season. Proceed with caution as you cross that bridge. I would suggest that the implosion that became known as the 2013 football season ACTUALLY began on December 30, 2012.
The Falcons had a playoff berth and home field advantage secured. On this day, they hosted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the final home game of the year. The Falcons, in a rather ragged and uninspired performance, would lose that game. But it would prove costly for two key reasons.
First, key injuries would befall the team in the form of John Abraham and Dunta Robinson. Second, it would set into motion a mental approach, a gradual meltdown that would continue for some twenty-two (22) ensuing games.
There are several theories that could come into play here. All of them have one element in common, the front office at the Branch.
Let’s start with the fact that the Falcons’ current regime has been in power now since January 2008. During that five year term, the Falcons have had TWO offensive coordinators (unofficially three), TWO defensive coordinators (unofficially FIVE), TWO secondary coaches, THREE defensive backs coaches, and THREE offensive line coaches.
Not a single one of these leaders left the Falcons for a better opportunity in the NFL; in fact, most of them were “scapegoats” in the seasons of “decline”; seasons in which our Falcons benefitted from the weaker schedules they played.
In five drafts under this regime, the Falcons have acquired some forty-four players (44). Of those selected by the team, twenty one (21) remain or are currently projected to be with the team. Sounds fair, right? NEGATIVE!! Why? Of those 21 players, ONE THIRD of them, EIGHT to be exact, are from the 2013 draft class!!
That means of the possible 36 drafted players from the previous FOUR classes, there are only THIRTEEN (13) remaining and are projected to be on the roster come 11 March 2014, the start of the free agency period. OUCH!!! Therein lies the reason why our team has no true core.
Here is another stunning fact. Not a single draft pick from the selections of the regime have been a STARTER in a Pro Bowl. Not one. And of the selections, Matt Ryan has the highest number of appearances, two, as a Reserve.
The Falcons have invested heavily in free agency over this period and as a whole, the team has benefited in a marginal way from it. Michael Turner is clearly the best FA signing of this regime. Dunta Robinson was semi-productive while Ray Edwards took the money and ran. The rentals known as Osi Umenyiora and Steven Jackson have not produced the dividends expected.
The trade for Tony Gonzalez was a great move while the Asante Samuel and Ty Hill deal have resulted in mixed or failing reviews.
This is absolutely horrid when you consider the extensive experience in the front office when it comes to management, scouting, and talent evaluation. There have been several rounds fired from the chamber of the Falcons’ big guns. Unfortunately, most of them have been “blanks.”
By some estimates, the Falcons could have up to 15 to 20 million to work with in this year’s free agent market. If they make some “big” cuts or restructure some deals, the number could rise. But even if they have the money to spend, will it be used wisely or will we yet again make a mid-spring visit to the local Rent-A-Center?
When this regime came aboard, we were all told to anticipate that the draft would be the principal means by which this team would be constructed. The draft would then be supplemented with focused, specific, and selective free agent signings.
The draft has not resulted in a core of players. There is a scattering of proven talent on the offensive side but the defensive side, littered with youth, remains largely untested or significant underachievers. The time is now to address the reconstruction of this team going forward.
Well, in my opinion, we have failed on both fronts. So as we begin this re-construction of the team, we have to address some very key points?
Simply put, our Falcons suffered a major collapse in 2013. For a recap of the many reasons why the collapse took place, please stroll through the archives of The Cage.
What we will do now is evaluate, position group by position group, the team’s core. We will use a scale of one to five to evaluate the needs of the group. A grade of one means that there is a minimal need for change at the position while a grade of five means a critical overhaul is needed. We will state the need, suggest draft prospects and identify the most viable free agency candidates that we could reasonable acquire.
A key point Cocoa and staff make in this breakdown is the assumption that the Falcons will continue to move away from power football and more towards a west coast themed offensive (WCO) scheme. Now when we say WCO, we are focused totally on the Bill Walsh approach. There are a couple of variations. And both Minnesota (1997 – 2005) and New England (2001 – now) have used them well and been very productive, including the three Super Bowl titles won by New England.
Rating: Two (Some Concern)
The Atlanta Falcons are quite stable at the quarterback position. The team has invested heavily in Matt Ryan and the investment, in the eyes of Cocoa, is well worth it. A former first round pick, we have seen a steady progression and improvement in Ryan during his ATL tenure. The issues that have haunted him have more to do with other areas than his talent, abilities, and leadership from the position.
Quarterback is the most important position in the game today. We know firmly what we have in Ryan. After that, the view is unclear in terms of what we have in both Dominique Davis and Sean Renfree. Davis is an up and down performer while Renfree’s talent is overshadowed by his injury history.
SUGGESTED DRAFT MOVES: Cocoa suggests San Jose State’s David Fales. An excellent WCO themed quarterback, Fales represents a slightly smaller version of Matt Ryan or Matt Schaub with a similar college trajectory. Like Russell Wilson a few years ago, this young man will be underestimated by many. Cocoa is not among them.
Rating: Three (Great Concern)
Cocoa and his team feel that it is past time that the Falcons address the position of running back with youth and vigor instead of a Rent-A-Center free agency approach. Of the backs listed at this time, only Jacquizz Rodgers is seen as one with staying power. Steven Jackson has had a fine NFL career but is past his peak. All other backs are clearly situational in nature. The Falcons, in order to open up their offensive, must get younger and more diverse. A quality receiving and blocking running back is a GREAT need in 2014.
FREE AGENCY MOVES: None. The Falcons should not invest significantly in free agency at this position. The Tee Pee has concerns about the injury prone nature of the top five free agents. In addition, they are on the wrong side of the age scale (27+) therefore they are risky long term investments when you consider the shelf life of running backs in this league.
SUGGESTED DRAFT MOVES: Trey Mason, Devonta Freeman, and Charles Sims.
Each of these young men represents the type of physical, break-away talents Atlanta needs at the position. They are great inside and outside, outstanding receivers, and effective blockers. And each can change the game in an instant if afforded the chance.
Rating: Three (Great Concern)
The position of wide receiver is becoming an increasing area of concern. The Falcons’ Big Three consists of an aging, expensive star, an injury-prone upstart, and an inconsistent veteran. Depth is suspect due to limited playing time and lack of integration into the overall “scheme”.
Do not get Cocoa wrong. Roddy White still has some shelf life left in his game. As a matter of fact, I think he would benefit by a move to the slot while we breaking in youth on the outer perimeter. This move would also allow us to bring along the tight end position as it rises from a position of weakness to one of strength. Julio Jones has been plagued by injuries since his debut in Atlanta so depth is critical. And while solid in 2014, Harry Douglas is too erratic to be relied on long term. All other just do not show the consistency, reliability, and upside we need at this time.
FREE AGENCY MOVES: None. This is too expensive of a proposition given the depth in the draft class.
SUGGESTED DRAFT MOVES: Jordan Matthews, Jared Abbrederis, and Donte Moncrief.
Each of these young men represents a key component of need in an upgrade Falcons passing attack. Abbrederis is a Wes Welker clone; smart, effective in the slot, and crafty after the catch. Matthews is a perfect clone of his more famous cousin, Hall of Famer Jerry Rice. And Moncrief is the total package; fluid in his routes, great hands, and an astute down field blocker. .
Like wide receiver, tight end is a troubling area due to inadequate depth at the position as well as relative inexperience. Relying on a “breakout” from Levine Toilolo is a very risky move. And there is no other depth on the roster. And free agency does not offer a hell of a lot in 2014.
FREE AGENCY MOVES: None. The value is just not there.
SUGGESTED DRAFT MOVE. Arthur Lynch.
At tight end, Georgia’s Arthur Lynch is a silent assassin in the eyes of Cocoa and his team. His main addition to the Falcon’s tight end corps would be his blocking skills. But make no mistake. The tools are there for the evolution of a very fine receiver as well. There is some Alge Crumpler in Lynch.
Rating: FIVE (CRITICAL Concern)
The offensive line of the Atlanta Falcons is the most CRITICAL area of concern for this team as we prepare to enter the heart of the 2014 off season. The unit is simply, a travesty. It lacks size, it lacks tenacity, it lacks presence. Depth is non-existing and has to be addressed by ALL available means. The ENTIRE right side of the offensive line (Johnson, Reynolds, Konz, Trueblood, etc.) has to be replaced immediately. They are proven liabilities in both rush and pass offense. And the best way to do so is via free agency.
FREE AGENCY MOVES: Geoff Schwartz AND Jon Asamoah. The Pioli factor comes in HUGE here. A veteran presence and IMMEDIATE return are needed on the Falcons offensive line. These two men anchored a very solid offensive line for the Chiefs. Their strengths lie in the rushing game yet they both are very solid pass protectors as well. This would be a tremendous upgrade that would significantly enhance the protection of the $105 million dollar franchise investment. But there is one more move to be made.
SUGGESTED DRAFT MOVES: None. This is the final curtain call for the experiments known as Baker and/or Holmes. Schrader is young and has upside. Acquire a UDFA from the likes of Boston College or Wisconsin and develop. Yes, Mike Tice has to develop some OL talent.
Ideas have now been floated and you have a small insight into the mindset of Cocoa as well as his Tee Pee Sports staff. By no means have we finalized our big board for the draft or secured our complete list of free agency moves. But what is clear to us and Falcons fans all over the world is that a serious focus in needed in 2014. Again, we will adopt the Operation Missouri approach; show me (us). In the mean time, assess the following:
With only one playoff win and no title game or Super Bowl appearances to show for five years worth of work, did this regime deserve the chance to come back in 2014?
Has Mike Smith reached his ceiling as a head coach?
If the Falcons finish below .500, should they have a new HC in 2015? General Manager?
Given the lack of fundamentals, poor technique, and poor pass rush efficiency, did the Falcons do the right thing in retaining Mike Nolan while terminating Ray Hamilton?
Was the REAL eye for draft evaluation Dimitroff or was it Les Snead?
Why has this organization had such horrid success with its free agent signings?
How really has control over the player evaluation and development process in Atlanta and why does it seem to have been sub-standard in comparison to other organizations?
What will YOU consider a successful season in 2014?