It was easy to forget, amid the defensive ruin and Charles Dimry flashbacks, that the Falcons actually won an exhibition game the other night against San Diego.
Thomas Dimitroff barely noticed.
“The third preseason game is very important in terms of setting a tone,” the Falcons’ general manager said. “That’s what was unfortunate about that game.”
Game 4 wasn’t much better. The Falcons lost to Baltimore on Thursday night, 20-3. The preseason reaffirmed what we already knew: This team will go as far as Matt Ryan and the offense carry them, because it won’t be the defense.
It’s easy to get drunk off one great season. The Falcons went 11-5 last season. Unexpected 11-win seasons lead to meteoric expectation levels. Some now believe 11 wins is the standard, rather than partly the residue of overachievement and a soft schedule.
But there was a lesson learned the other night. Several players didn’t perform to the levels that Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith had hoped. And by perform, we’re not referring to talent, but focus and effort. Those are two things the Falcons never lacked last season.
Want to see how quickly 11-5 turns into 5-11? This is the NFL. Start to think you’re better than you really are and watch how quickly the bottom falls out. That won’t play with Smith, who coached tough and physical defenses in Jacksonville. It certainly won’t play with Dimitroff, who came from an organization, New England, where the sum almost always exceeded the seeming value of the parts.
Asked what he was looking for in the team’s final dress rehearsal, Dimitroff didn’t hesitate: “I really want to see the second- and third-team players rise up. I want them to go into this with an element of poise. I want them to show that no matter where they are on the depth chart, they need to produce and they need to play with a sense of urgency. I’m speaking more of the defense.”
He also could have been speaking of the No. 1 defense. There are problems. Ten of the 11 starters were on the field in the first quarter — John Abraham being the notable exception — when the defense was schooled by the Ravens’ third-string quarterback, John Beck. Five days after San Diego backup Billy Volek (7-for-9, 102 yards, one touchdown) had a 150.9 quarterback rating against them, Beck engineered a 14-play, eight-minute, 91-yard touchdown drive on the Ravens’ first possession. That set the tone for the night.
Beck went 5-for-5 for 50 yards and a touchdown. (Rating: 147.9) I’m sure it was a very proud moment for Mr. and Mrs. Beck.
Dimitroff wants what he saw in New England — tough, physical, smart defensive players. The Falcons may get there eventually, but that’s not the team they have now.
Drawing conclusions from exhibitions always is risky. Certainly, two national publications look at the Falcons’ offense and expect that to translate to wins. Sporting News, the same outlet that projected a 1-15 record last season, this year predicts a run to the NFC title game. Sports Illustrated just put Ryan on the cover of its NFL preview issue, and picks Atlanta to win the NFC South (but lose in the first round to Green Bay).
A year ago at this time, most tabbed Atlanta to finish any where from last place to possibly having a chance to win six games (only if everything went right and Smith didn’t suddenly decide in Week 3 that he wanted to coach Arkansas). We got so much more than that.
Now expectations might be out of balance in the other direction. But if things go terribly wrong, at least we’ll know why.