(UPDATED: 2:20 p.m.)
Once you get past the problems on the offensive line and the secondary, the quarterback’s accuracy problems, the breakdown of the running back and players just generally looking at times like they would rather be somewhere else, this is what the current chapter of Falcons’ tumult comes down to: Mike Smith is on the clock.
When an NFL team blows out a coaching staff, it basically is eliminating scapegoats. Think of it as a restaurant owner changing chefs because the tables in his dining room are always empty.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank isn’t happy because he hasn’t a won a playoff game in seven years, and it’s not for lack of his willingness to spend money. General manager Thomas Dimitroff isn’t happy because the moves he has made to turn the Falcons into winners have nonetheless had limitations. Somebody had to take the hit. For now that’s Smith’s assistant coaches.
Regardless of the fact that Mike Mularkey left for a head coaching job (Jacksonville Jaguars) and Brian VanGorder left for a return to college (Auburn defensive coordinator) — and his career tendency to get restless after a few years — the backdrop of a third consecutive playoff loss screamed that one or both were going to get fired, anyway. Other staff changes also may follow.
The Falcons underachieved this season. They know that. Forget the regular-season drop from 13-3 to 10-6. The past two postseason belly-flops to Green Bay and New York were embarrassing. Dimitroff had already decided, to use his words Wednesday, that there was not “going to be a minor tweak, [like] changing the color of socks.”
When there’s failure in any business, it generally starts from the top down. Blank has done little wrong since making his ill-fated decision in 2007 to bring in Bobby Petrino. Dimitroff has made some high-profile personnel moves that have fizzled (Dunta Robinson, Ray Edwards and Sam Baker, being prime examples). But he largely has reshaped the organization and given order and respectability to the front office. (Critics of the Julio Jones trade remain. But Jones has proved to be a great player, a potential difference-maker. I thought it was the right move then and I still do.)
After owner and general manager, the next move down the ladder is head coach. Smith’s 43-21 (.672) regular-season record is impressive. But this organization is way past that now. The 0-3 playoff record is the massive mole on his resume’s forehead.
This is sports. The appropriate question isn’t: How many games did they win? The appropriate question is: Should they have done better?
The obvious answer is yes. That’s on Smith.
There were too many games this season where the Falcons didn’t seem focused. They were inconsistent. They were soft mentally and physically. They lacked an edge. Those maladies aren’t exposed against losing teams, against whom the Falcons won most of their games. They show up against premier opponents, and on the road, and in the postseason.
“I understand what my job is,” Smith said. “It’s to get people to perform. When guys don’t block, when guys miss tackles, ultimately one guy is responsible for that, and that’s me. I put more pressure on myself than anybody can possibly put on me.”
It’s commendable that Smith never has had a team go into a slide. Losses were followed by wins. But it shouldn’t take a loss to get everybody’s attention.
For now, everybody is blaming the coordinators. That’s fine. Mularkey never figured out a way to fully utilize the weapons on the team, and he became indignant any time somebody suggested his play-calling was flawed. The Falcons don’t need to be a bombs-away offense — just far less predictable.
Dimitroff on the offense: “In this league, as you know, matchups are very important, and there’s the Sun Tzu approach of the art of surprise, the art of deception. That’s very important. Looking forward with a new coordinator, how we utilize our talent is going to be very important.”
VanGorder was viewed by some as too rah-rah and college-like for the NFL. Sorry, I’m not buying it. The guy knows defense. Maybe some of his players just don’t take direction well.
Regardless, it often seemed Smith wasn’t on the same page as his coordinators. For as much heat as Mularkey took, Smith is the one more likely to order vanilla in an ice-cream shop. VanGorder’s defensive resume is all about attacking and blitzing. But the Falcons were conservative.
Coordinators call plays, but the head coach sets the agenda. If Mularkey and VanGorder failed, it’s at least in part because Smith failed. Going into next season, this much is certain: There will be nobody else to blame.
By Jeff Schultz