The Seattle Seahawks finish the 2013 NFL season as the Super Bowl Champions. All Falcons fans could do was wonder how the Seahawks made it look so darn easy. Many also probably didn’t actually believe that it was the Falcons who beat the Seahawks in last year’s playoffs. Yes, it did happen, even though it’s impossible to believe after Seattle’s team hoist the prized Lombardi. On the most obvious level, the two teams couldn’t be farther apart. One just won the Super Bowl in one of the biggest lopsided blowouts in recent memory. The Falcons struggled to win 4 games and were absolutely the biggest disappointment of the 2013 season.
To be fair, the Seahawks were and are superior to most teams in the NFL. However, when looking deeper, it’s mind-blowing how the two teams arrived at their 2013 final destination, particularly in how the teams were built, how they play, and how they’re coached, among other things. The Seahawks coaching staff has done an amazing job developing and coaching players and the front office has done a superior job to reach the Lombardi. The Falcons, obviously, haven’t done a very good job in those areas. A look at the stark contrasts between two teams that met a little over a year ago in the 2012/13 playoffs:
Mindsets and work ethics of teams are impossible for fans without firsthand knowledge to know gauge, but picking up what players say, how they act, and certainly how they play. It’s easy to use 20/20 hindsight now that the season is over, but it seems that the Seahawks were bound and determined to will themselves to the Super Bowl at all costs (which they did), and the Falcons got lazy and bought the hype that they were “only 10 yards away,” and if Navorro Bowman hadn’t broken up the 4th down pass then maybe the Falcons would’ve hoisted the Lombardi last year. Essentially, nothing was wrong and only a few tweaks were needed. Not only that, but they cut key veterans and thought 3 new starters on the offensive line would be enough. Some veterans were good moves (Dunta Robinson, Michael Turner, Chris Owens), others were in gray territory (Brent Grimes, Tyson Clabo), but the releases of John Abraham had to be one of the dumbest moves ever by Dimitroff. In fact, Abraham made the Pro Bowl as an outside linebacker. Wasn’t Mike Nolan known for his stellar 3-4 defenses?
The Seahawks were only a minute away from the NFC Championship. Should that have been their mantra? Well, it wasn’t anywhere close. As will be discussed throughout the post, the Seahawks took the exact opposite approach. They were aggressive in free agency, did a great job of developing players, and coached up their players to be fundamentally sound in the basics of football: blocking and tackling. Russell Wilson famously tweeted #ChampionshipOffseason after their flurry of moves in the off-season. Fans obviously don’t know how hard their respective teams worked or what went on in the locker room, but one steamrolled to a #1 NFC Seed, ran through the playoffs, and dominated the Super Bowl. The other team’s season was over by week 8. The Falcons hung their hat on groveling for a tight end to come back and even made concessions for him to miss most all of preseason (as will be discussed earlier). Legendary college coach Nick Saban said that “there is no continuum of success. It starts over every year. History doesn’t help us win the next game.” One team understood that well. The other one not so much.
The Seahawks front office and coaching staff didn’t simply rest on the great run they made in the 2012 football season. They were as aggressive and active as any team in the NFL. With a strong young core of players, they could have easily just chalked up the loss to the Falcons as bad luck, and sat on their idle hands as the Falcons did. But they didn’t. Instead they did the opposite. Already possessing one of the league’s best defenses, they went out and signed not one, but TWO free agent defensive ends. They signed one of the best in Cliff Avril to a manageable contract and then they turned around and signed one of the other best free agents in Michael Bennett. Here’s the best part: their ages were 27 and 28, respectively, when they signed with Seattle.
The Falcons answer was to cut John Abraham and replace him with Osi Umenyiora. Umenyiora was 32 when the Falcons signed him. Throw in a running back that’s 30 years old and has over 10,000 yards on his tires. The pattern of Thomas Dimitroff has been that any player under the age of 30 is automatically cut from the list of possible signings. They must be past their primes and over the hill to come play for the Falcons. Being strapped in terms of the salary cap wasn’t an excuse either. In fact, Dimitroff sat on close to $10 million in cap space all year, evidently never even crossing his mind to spend it. Could the Falcons have not looked in pretty much every area to improve via free agency, especially on the offensive and defensive lines? The Falcons malaise permeated throughout the entire organization, from the owner and front office, all the way down to the coaches and players. The Falcons could roll their helmet out and be right back in the Super Bowl chase.
Perhaps the Seahawks most aggressive move was to trade away a 1st, 3rd, and 7th round pick for Percy Harvin. Here’s the worst part for Falcons fans: they didn’t even need him to reach the Super Bowl. When Julio Jones was lost for the year, the Falcons could only win 3 out of their next 11 games (one in OT and another by a missed Redskins 2 pt conversion). Harvin was essentially lost for the entire year, but the aggressive move for Harvin paid off in the end as Harvin was a game-changer and slam the door shut on any Broncos comeback with his kick return for a TD. The aggressive philosophy engulfed the Seahawks coaching and play on the field. Up by 29 in the Super Bowl in the second half, did Pete Carroll take his foot off the gas on either side of the ball? Absolutely not. His defense kept hitting and rushing the passer and the offense kept the foot on the gas pedal. Contrast that with Smith and his Falcons 2nd half meltdowns (scored 3 points or less in 63% of all games he’s coached) and going to Smittyball trying to milk a 1 point lead and it’s easy to see the two teams final destinations.
This point was hit on earlier regarding the Seahawks and Falcons collective moves, but Seattle went out and improved not just their weaknesses, but also their strengths. It would be completely understandable for them to stay pat with one of the league’s best defenses, but they went out and added not one, but two stud defensive ends. They obviously improved one of their main weaknesses, which was their receiving corps, with the Percy Harvin trade. And interesting enough, they didn’t have Harvin or their other starting receiver Sidney Rice for the entire year. Even looking at the Super Bowl losing Broncos, they did something similar. Already possessing one of the best young WR duos in the league, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, they went and added Wes Welker in free agency. It clearly didn’t help them win the Lombardi, but they did make it to the Super Bowl and set almost every offensive record along the way. Every year is a new year, and the best organizations look at each little detail and find ways to improve them. No area is beyond reproach for improvement.
Even before the surprising parting gift statements made about Matt Ryan, this was the story that helped shape and define the season. First of all, this is in no way an attack on Gonzalez. The greatest tight end to ever play the game. An instant Hall of Famer. A true class act every part of the way. The Falcons and their fans were proud and honored to have him a part of the franchise for 5 years. This is more about the Falcons organization as it is Gonzalez.
Almost as soon as the Falcons walked off the field in defeat in the NFC Title Game, talk immediately turned to “will he or won’t he” in terms of Gonzalez retiring as he said he was likely to and the public begging and pleading by Dimitroff and Co. began in earnest. The Falcons would have been crazy to not want him back, but wanting someone back is entirely different from groveling and chasing a player. They could have simply said that the door was always open, but they were moving forward for 2013. And this too was for Gonzalez at the last stage of his career, 38 years old, not his prime. Again, this isn’t a slight to Gonzalez at all, he only took advantage of the situation that was presented, as well as cashing in on $7 million.
The point is the underlying mindset and belief that the Gonzalez saga created. There are endless cliches about teamwork, such as “there’s no I in team” or “no one player is bigger than the team,” but they are cliches for a reason. The Falcons decided to make an exception for Gonzalez and even let him skip pretty much everything until the start of the season. Players, coaches, and the GM all said that it didn’t matter because of his greatness and it wouldn’t have an effect. You can say you’re not putting one player above all the rest, but actions say that you are when you don’t require them to fully participate in all team activities. The Minnesota Vikings did something similar with Brett Favre, got no Super Bowl, and still haven’t found a franchise quarterback. Furthermore, it reinforced even more that “Super Bowl or Bust” crap that started as soon as the season was over. Clearly, this is not to say that getting Gonzalez to come back was the main reason behind the trainwreck season, but the actions displayed showed an arrogant belief of entitlement that the Falcons deserved to be right back in the Super Bowl hunt just because. They got that one pretty wrong.
Talk about a Grand Canyon-sized chasm between the two teams. The Seahawks won the Super Bowl due in large part of the basics of football: running, hitting, tackling, and blocking. The lovefest that ensued on Seattle’s defense on the postgame shows kept asking the players how they were so good, and almost every time they mentioned fundamentals. They practice tackling every Tuesday and would have a Turnover Thursday competition between the first team offense and defense that Richard Sherman describes as “intense. We go very hard at practice.” Which belies yet another point: competition. Constant competition between all players fighting to get better and keeping each other’s skills honed.
Contrast that with how Smith runs his practices and it’s no wonder the Seahawks fans are still partying and Falcons fans felt obligated to watch the rest of the season out of pure loyalty or having to finish a really bad movie. Intense and tough would be the last two things to describe anything about the Falcons. Smith’s practices are more similar to birthday parties than a tough and spirited competition. The results are obvious. The Falcons are one of least fundamentally sound teams in the NFL. They can’t tackle. They don’t hit hard. They can’t block. They can’t force turnovers and often give them away. And they don’t even fight for each other. When a Falcon, such as Matt Ryan, gets cheap-shotted, they never take up for them. This is not to say that being a hothead equals championships, but playing with fire and passion does and the Falcons absolutely don’t do that at all. Another staple of Smith is his fear of injuries in his practices. Ironically, Smith going out of his way to keep players from getting injured with soft practices led to the most injuries since he’s been head coach.
With the Seahawks winning the Super Bowl, and making it pretty easy to boot, every move that GM John Schneider has made will be looked at in a positive light, for good reason. Every team usually has some lower round draft picks that pan out, but Seattle has done a masterful job developing most of their picks. Their first round picks (Russell Okung, Earl Thomas, James Carpenter) and second round picks (Bobby Wagner, John Moffit, Golden Tate, Max Unger) definitely played a huge role in them winning the Super Bowl. But what put them over the top is their development of lower round picks. Russell Wilson (3rd rd), Kam Chancellor (5th rd), Richard Sherman (5th rd), Luke Willson (5th rd), Byron Maxwell (6th rd), Malcolm Smith (7th rd), and JR Sweezy (7th rd) were a huge part of the Seahawks going all the way.
Seattle didn’t just play these guys, they actually have developed them to being great contributors, Pro Bowlers, and All-Pros. Much of that has to go to coaching, specifically fundamentals and competition. Compare that with the Falcons and their inability to develop much of anything on their roster in 6 years and their record in that department, which is mostly deplorable. They haven’t developed one tight end, even knowing Gonzalez was at the end of his career. They don’t have on offensive they can hang their hat on going forward, despite using a 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th draft pick. They don’t have a running back to carry the load, even though seeing Michael Turner was going downhill fast. Some of their seeming good areas of development have either gotten worse (Sean Weatherspoon, Thomas DeCoud among others), weren’t resigned (Vance Walker, Michael Palmer, Lawrence Sidbury to name a few), or never see the field despite glimpses of ability (Antone Smith, Darius Johnson, Chase Coffman, Harland Gunn, Josh Vaughan). Smith and Dimitroff can claim victories with UDFA’s Paul Worrilow, Joplo Bartu, and Ryan Schraeder, but they would’ve never seen the field if not for injuries.
Of all the differences, this might be the biggest of all. It’s really easy to look at the Seahawks (even from last year) and know exactly what they’re all about: great defense, hard hitting, toughness, running the football, opportunistic passing game. The vision and mission is clear from the general manager and the entire front office to all the coaches and players on the team. Everyone in that organization knows what their team hangs their hat on. They draft, acquire free agents, and build their roster accordingly.
What defines the Falcons? Not only can most hardcore fans not tell you what the Falcons are about, but even the people in the Falcons organization don’t seem to know what they even want to do. Smith was all about running the football and stopping the run. Truth is, even in the early years, they were never really that good at either save a year or two “near” the top, but not dominant. Instead of drafting accordingly getting big burly offensive linemen and beef-eating defensive linemen, they’ve done the opposite. They also had no replacement for Michael Turner ready to go. Then the massive trade for Julio Jones wanted the team to be more explosive, which they accomplished for one year, but they didn’t draft or sign any offensive linemen worth a dang (see above) to protect Matt Ryan and his ability to pass. In fact, he let arguably his best and toughest linemen Harvey Dahl walk to St. Louis. Now they’re back to being tough on the lines (this year’s term is “gritty”). One of the most maddening things for fans is Smith’s refusal to address what this defense is. Mike Nolan is one of the best 3-4 minds in the game, yet they run the 4-3 when he gets to Atlanta, to terribly weak effect.
The easiest and best model for the Falcons to follow would be that of the 2009 Saints and 2010 Packers: an up-tempo, aggressive passing game that puts up points quickly, allowing the pass to set up the run and a tough defense that can create turnovers, get after the QB, be fundamentally sound, and not pretend to be a shutdown defense.