Over the past several weeks, the Falcons have dropped too many passed passes, committed too many penalties, missed too many blocks, allowed too many sacks, blown too many coverages, committed too many turnovers and, certainly in the case of quarterback Matt Ryan, overthrown too many receivers.
If they are not a mediocre team, they are at least playing like one.
Maybe few expected another 13-3 record this season, given a more difficult schedule. But to have largely the same core group of veterans in Year 4, possess this much talent and stand only 7-5 — which includes some relative hiccups for wins — should set off alarms.
The Falcons probably will play well at Carolina on Sunday. It’s what they do after bad losses, and last weekend’s loss to third-string quarterback T.J. Yates and the beat-up Houston Texans certainly qualifies as bad.
But any comfort level about the Falcons moving forward is long gone. So is any thought that they won’t be one-and-done in the postseason again.
There’s a focus problem. There’s a discipline problem. The aforementioned maladies – penalties, drops, turnovers – are physical mistakes that generally stem from mental lapses. Veteran teams should be past that by December. Thomas Dimitroff, the general manager, knows it. So does coach Mike Smith.
Early in the season, Smith reminded his players that they needed to play “with consistency, smart and with focus.”
Then a few weeks ago, he shuffled the order of those three things. “I said, ‘Guys, maybe I’m not coming across the right way. The first thing we have to do is have zoom focus.’”
Requiring that reminder is not a good sign.
Players love Smith. He and his coaching staff have had a lot of success in four seasons. But when players seem to drift into and out of consciousness, there are difficult questions that have to be asked. Like this one: Are they listening?
Smith doesn’t believe that’s a problem, but he agrees something is off.
“Physical and mental toughness, physical and mental preparation, they go hand in hand,” he said while sitting in office, which overlooks the Falcons’ practice fields at Flowery Branch. “The thing that we have going on right now is we have not played with focus. We have not played smart. When you don’t play with focus and you don’t play smart, you don’t play with consistency. It is a fine line between being 10-2 [the Falcons' record through 12 games last year] and being 7-5.”
Identifying the problems is the easy part. Smith can read from a sheet and go down a list of statistics that illustrate how his team has slipped in several areas this season. The most glaring: They have 74 penalties, which is tied for 13th best in the NFL. That’s already more than the 58 they had all of last season, when they were the NFL’s least-penalized team. Holding and personal fouls are way up.
Turnover differential has gone from a plus-14 in 2010 to minus-1 so far this season. There’s no official statistic on drops, but the Falcons had at least seven in Houston.
But this is kind of like going to a doctor and hearing him say, “You’re sneezing more this year.”
OK. But why?
“You can’t attribute it to the [lockout] and the offseason — everybody’s on the same playing field,” Smith said. “We’re not playing with focus and we’re not playing smart, but I can’t sit here and pinpoint why. We try to do that every week. … It’s very subjective. It’s not like you’re doing a mathematical formula where you can absolutely prove something.”
Veteran center Todd McClure said players are tuned in to Smith and his assistants. But he said the team’s mental lapses “definitely is a concern. The thing I keep thinking about though is the Green Bay Packers were in a similar situation last year, and then for some reason they started clicking. I know that’s saying a lot — Green Bay. But there’s that part that says we haven’t played our best football yet. If we do that, we can play with anybody.”
Maybe. But 7-5 doesn’t project greatness. And in the words of wide receiver Roddy White, “We better start clicking because it’s almost getting too late.”
By Jeff Schultz