It is that time of year when two leagues are close to determining new champions and every sports fan in Atlanta thinks, “There goes another parade.”
A potential NBA title in Oklahoma City? A possible Stanley Cup in Los Angeles (only slightly better than if Ilya Kovalchuk led New Jersey)? Are the sporting gods planning any more shots to the groin area? Is Mike Mularkey destined to lead Jacksonville to a Super Bowl? (On second thought, we’re probably safe.)
Not counting minor leagues or sports teams that would make you pause and think, “Wait, do they count?” Atlanta has celebrated only one pro championship since the Braves and Falcons theoretically lifted the city out of amateur status in 1966.
Depending on how generous you want to be with the math, Atlanta is 1-for-46 years, which equates to an annual parade percentage of .022, or 1-for-155 seasons (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL), which is a batting/completion/shooting percentage of .007. Even Josh Smith is shooting 27.8 percent from 3-point range.
So the question: What will it take for the Braves, Falcons or Hawks to win a championship? What follows is how I would rank the three, and what potentially could push them over the top:
1. Braves (46-plus seasons: 3799-3564, 17 playoffs, 1 title).
Biggest need: leadership.
Parade odds: 15-1.
They have been really good (25-15) and really bad (eight-game losing streak). The issue is not talent but chemistry. We’ve seen that they’re a different team when Chipper Jones is out of the lineup. That speaks not only to Jones’ impact in the lineup, but the otherwise lack of leadership in the clubhouse.
I know the baseball vs. football emotion thing can be debated. But the Braves haven’t consistently played with a sense of urgency and fight. They don’t scrap. They don’t always seem confident. That’s what allows teams to endure when pitching, defense or offense falls off. That falls on the manager, Fredi Gonzalez, who needs to prove he can pull this bunch out of a tailspin, which he didn’t a year ago.
2. Falcons (46 seasons: 299-399-6, 11 playoffs, 0 titles).
Biggest needs: offensive line, play-calling.
Parade odds: 25-1.
They’re evolving into that Braves argument of the 1990s. The Braves won 14 division titles but only one World Series. The Falcons have made the playoffs three out of four years under Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith but have yet to win a postseason game (losing the past two by scores of 48-21 and 24-2).
Dimitroff bristled at suggestions in the offseason that he wasn’t doing enough to improve the team, but he should recognize that re-signing players and adding talent are two different things. It follows that the trade for cornerback Asante Samuel was significant.
But there are significant questions on offense. The line excels at neither pass nor run blocking, and Sam Baker returns at left tackle. Mularkey’s predictability at play-calling was an issue, but we’ll never know how much was dictated by coach Mike Smith. Perceptions that the Falcons’ need more of a bombs-away offense are off base. They just need to find ways to utilize all of their weapons and keep defenses off balance. That’s on new coordinator Dirk Koetter. Then real judgments on Matt Ryan (seven points in past six playoff quarters) can be made.
3. Hawks (44 seasons: 1762-1798, 28 playoffs, 0 titles).
Biggest need: a plan.
Parade odds: 100-1.
Of the three franchises, the Hawks are the only ones who seem to make it up as they go. Is Al Horford ideal at center? No. Does Jeff Teague have shortcomings at point guard? Yes. But the biggest problem was giving Joe Johnson an elite player’s contract, the issue being he’s not an elite player, and he has hamstrung them financially.
There is no easy way out of this mess. But the most significant move they could make would be trading Josh Smith (who wants out and likely will leave next year in free agency) for a starting point guard, a center or a second scoring option. But plans only come about when an organization shows some semblance of stability, and the Hawks are anything but stable. From the pratfalls of ownership to the uncertain future of general manager Rick Sund, it’s difficult to get a handle on where this team is going.
This bunch has probably hit their ceiling as a first- or second-round playoff team, unless significant changes are made. But what do the Hawks generally do? Tweak and play it safe.
By Jeff Schultz