In their most noteworthy decisions so far during NFL free agency, the Falcons have signed two players who are coming off injuries and didn’t play a single down last season (good news: Vince Manuwai and Lofa Tatupu should be well-rested), they’re seemingly allowing their leading tackler (Curtis Lofton) and sacker (John Abraham) to walk out the door, and they just gave a three-year, $9.15 million contract to a defensive end (Kroy Biermann) who is three years removed from his best season.
This probably isn’t the best time to launch the season-ticket marketing campaign.
Yes, it’s only March. No team has played a game yet. Granted, every significant NFL player seems to be holding signing ceremonies or meeting with owners and coaches in other cities. But we’ve experienced the hazards of assuming what big names on paper can mean. So it’s premature to assume the Falcons will be gum on the bottom of every team’s shoe next season, just as it is to believe the road to the Super Bowl suddenly runs though Buffalo. (The Bills gave Mario Williams $100 million and closed the deal with, “See that big waterfall over there? You can have that, too.)
But fans are concerned, and it’s easy to understand why. While it’s still possible the Falcons will sign a guy or two, cut a guy or two, maybe even pull off a trade or two, between now and next month’s draft, it is becoming apparent that there will be no major changes to a team that has been drop-kicked in three consecutive playoff games.
The Arthur Blank money train was prevalent in springs past. Now it’s parked, in part because the team is hitting its head on the salary-cap ceiling.
This doesn’t so much mean that general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith didn’t plan well (as in cap pacing) as it does that some plans just haven’t worked out (as in roster quality). For example: If cornerback Dunta Robinson had been as good as advertised and was living up to his original six-year, $57 million contract, the Falcons might not have felt so desperate to slap the franchise tag on cornerback Brent Grimes (a $10.281 million commitment).
If you’re wondering what this muted offseason means for the Falcons’ future, it’s just this: Dirk Koetter, the new offensive coordinator, had better be really good. Mike Nolan, the new defensive coordinator, had better be really good. Mike Smith, the head coach, needs to be better.
When there aren’t new players to work with, it means the old players have to be coached up. It means schemes have to be better. It means the Falcons can’t sell you on “new” so they have to sell you on the expectation of “improved.”
So far, no obvious help for the offense is on the way, either on the line — assume nothing with Manuwai — or in terms of weapons. That means Koetter has to find ways to get more out of quarterback Matt Ryan and make the offense less predictable. It’s possible. But it’s hard to give the benefit of the doubt when Koetter oversaw the NFL’s worst offense last season in Jacksonville.
With another pass rusher (and possibly minus Abraham), Nolan needs to find new ways to create pass pressure and take some of the onus off an error-prone secondary. It’s possible. Nolan is good. But his predecessor, Brian VanGorder, also was good and he worked for a head coach with a defensive background. (We may never know how much latitude Smith gave VanGorder in terms of scheme.)
Nolan has to make Dunta Robinson better. He has to make Ray Edwards, a huge disappointment in Year 1, a factor again on game day.
Overall, Smith, Koetter and Nolan need to find the reasons why this team keeps hitting a wall in its 17th game. If they determine there was a missing piece, that’s a problem because there’s no indication right now that help is on the way.
Think of this as trying to make a new soup with the same ingredients. If by next December we’ve determined that it tasted the same, it won’t be difficult to figure out why.
By Jeff Schultz