Falcons’ line improvement needs to start with Sam Baker

With it's injuries or inadequacies, Sam Baker has struggled at left tackle for Falcons.

Sam Baker, whether because of injuries or inadequacies, has struggled for Falcons. (Getty Images)

There are a lot of words that can make one feel comfortable about a football team. These two shouldn’t be considered among them: open competition. Because more often than not, open competition is a euphemism for uncertainty and involves unproven or unspectacular players — and words like uncertainty, unproven and unspectacular don’t play well in season-ticket brochures.

Which brings us to the Falcons. They have just completed their mandatory minicamp. There is a lot of optimism around the team, mostly centered on a made-over coaching staff (two new coordinators and a new offensive coach) and the addition of Asante Samuel. But if you’re not optimistic in June, there’s a problem.

There’s still vagueness (or doubt) concerning the offensive line, particularly at left tackle, where Sam Baker is entering the fifth and final year of his rookie contract. When asked about Baker on Thursday, Falcons coach Mike Smith said, “There is open competition on the offensive line. There’s going to be some battles for the starting five, and there’s going to be battles for the nine or 10 that make the 53-man roster. As for Sam, right now he’s our starting left tackle.”

If you read any uncertainty into those remarks, it speaks volumes about arguably the second-most important position on the team. The Falcons traded up to get Baker late in the first round in 2008 because he was projected as a solid 10-year starter to protect Matt Ryan’s blind side. But he hasn’t been solid, and there was some question whether the team would even bring him back for a fifth season.

We’ll never really know how much Baker’s struggles can be attributed to injuries or just that he’s not that good. But an NFL team goes only as far as its offensive line, and an offensive line goes only as far as its left tackle.

Baker says he has been aware of the criticism, but he’s doing his best to shut it out.

“All I can do is look forward and keep working,” he said. “I have a family, and I have everything else outside of here [at Flowery Branch], so I focus on that when I’m not playing. All I can do is focus on the future, not on what’s already happened.”

He had back surgery in his rookie season. He suffered an elbow injury in his second. A running back, in an attempt to help Baker and “chip” a defender, inadvertently ran into Baker’s extended arm. The result: Baker couldn’t get his arms out to block as well as he used to. Then Baker had a second back surgery early last season and was relatively useless when he came back, losing his starting job to Will Svitek.

“I think [the disc problem] was just one of those things that happened over time,” he said. “Each day your leg is a little more numb, and then one day you find you can’t lift your leg up to get into the car. That’s when I knew something was wrong. I had pulled my groin because my leg wasn’t working. I didn’t know what was going on.”

He says offseason conditioning and therapy have gone well, and he feels like he’s in good health now.

Don’t get too excited. It’s June.

Here’s the issue: The Falcons don’t seem to have a great backup plan right now. Svitek was a nice fill-in, and he’s a cool story: Czech refugee makes good. But he’s viewed as a depth guy. There are high hopes for third-round pick Lamar Holmes, but he has missed OTAs and minicamps with a broken toe and won’t be ready for a while. That’s if we even assume he is suited for left tackle over right.

Baker likes new line coach Pat Hill. (”He wants everything to be perfect, down to the most minor detail. Where your eyes should be, where is the guy lined up.”) He likes having had a full offseason to rehab at the team facility after last year’s lockout.

But we grade players on games. Neither Baker nor the line graded out well in the last one (a one-sided playoff loss to the New York Giants) or many others last season.

Smith said of Baker: “At times he played very efficiently. It’s unfortunate he has had to deal with injuries.”

The uncertainty isn’t comforting.

By Jeff Schultz

93 comments Add your comment

DayOneFan

June 22nd, 2012
5:17 pm

DayOneFan

June 22nd, 2012
5:20 pm

I can present no proof for the statement I am about to make, just call it intuition. I believe that Svitek willbe the starter in game one and that, by midseason, Holmes will step in and excel. I believe the o-line will be very solid this year.

DayOneFan

June 22nd, 2012
5:22 pm

I also believe that, barring a outstanding training camp, Baker will gone in the final cuts.

Tix Holder 1966

June 22nd, 2012
6:01 pm

I concur DOF! Last year was brutal. Reminds me of years ago “Holding # 66, offense” Remember those days?

Tix Holder 1966

June 22nd, 2012
6:08 pm

#66= Warren Bryant.

SawThat1nce

June 22nd, 2012
6:22 pm

If the OLine don’t go, the O don’t go.
I hope that Baker can step up and do his job this season.

Atlanta Stadium

June 22nd, 2012
6:29 pm

I remember Bart sending the ball down field for a great completion, only for it to come back for Holding # 66 and I have never liked Baker…

BC

June 22nd, 2012
6:35 pm

Baker is a wash.

BC

June 22nd, 2012
6:35 pm

Just a bad pick.

BC

June 22nd, 2012
6:43 pm

To pick, players that have a history of injuries, is a gamble, that should only be taken in the later rounds. Ref: P J, on the bench, nose tackle.

1eyedJack

June 22nd, 2012
6:47 pm

Baker looks more suitable to wearing flannel and cutting down trees.

Dr. Don

June 22nd, 2012
6:54 pm

I rhink BC has it right on the money. Baker had a history of injury in college and that has followed him to the present. If the S/C staff hasn’t re-built his body by now, it’s not likely to happen. One rap on him coming out of USC was that he had short arms. Have they grown any?

ernisTbass

June 22nd, 2012
7:04 pm

Baker seems like a nice enough guy who has tried every year, he was offered the money and he took it. That he was offered too much at too high a pick isn’t his fault just as Jerry who can’t stay on the field and was paid too much and picked too high isn’t his fault. But there does seem to be a pattern there.

Paddy

June 22nd, 2012
7:09 pm

I am all for Baker making it back!! I won’t bash him. Just let it play out and be a good Falcon fan. It will be what it will be. I say good luck Sam!

Mike Smith

June 22nd, 2012
7:11 pm

“Sam Baker is a very good player. We like him alot. We were very happy with Ray Edwards last year. He’s very good against the run. Matt Ryan has a strong arm. We’re excited to use that more this year with our new Offensive Coordinator”.

Reporter: Mike, if the Matt Ryans arm is so strong in practice, and the Falcons were unhappy with the conservative game plan, why didn’t you or Thomas Dimitroff ever mention anything to Mularky? You’re his bosses, correct?

“Hummana, hummana, hummana…….next question”!

oldbird

June 22nd, 2012
7:26 pm

Very funny Tix Holder 1966. Even my mom still talks about “holding, number 66, offense”. Do they keep stats on that? If so, Warren Bryant has got to be the record holder. Pun intended.

Tix Holder 1966

June 22nd, 2012
7:37 pm

Saw #66 in a liqour store about 2 yt’s ago “and trust me nothing wrong with that’. However he did look well off and waying about 400+ I was kidding about the quoute and he had a good time with it. Let me just say, he is a very nice guy.

Tix Holder 1966

June 22nd, 2012
7:41 pm

Not to be a basher, I love the “Birds” and now depend on Direct T.V. to get my weekly fix. Go Falc’s!!

oldbird

June 22nd, 2012
7:42 pm

Ole #66 was a beast, but he did seem to hold a lot. He sure plowed the road for the running game.

Greg

June 22nd, 2012
7:48 pm

Jeff, thanks. One of your most insightful articles. It’s the time of year for all of us to be excited, even optimistic; but when we look at the facts about the O-line—about who’s still there and how they didn’t work out very well last year—there is good reason for all of us to be deeply concerned. I can’t see how we can say that Dimitroff sufficiently addressed this problem in the off-season. He talks like a master salesman promoting his product, but then you look at the players and say, “Wait a minute; my memory isn’t that short!” Where are the big changes that have to occur to make our O-line sufficiently dominant? I don’t see them.

Tix Holder 1966

June 22nd, 2012
7:53 pm

Oldbird, I am afraid there are not many of us left. Long live the old outdoor stadium. Pitty the others will never enjoy the old Ful-Co Stadiums My hope is they build OSP an open air beauty,the way football was meant to be.

oldbird

June 22nd, 2012
8:04 pm

Tix, we had season tickets in 1973, when I was in the 4th grade. I will never forget having to take a nap so I could go to the Monday Night Football game against Minnesota. Amazing that two of my favorite games ever, came against the Vikes. They were my second favorite team back then because of Fran Tarkenton.

Don Waddell

June 22nd, 2012
8:15 pm

This reporter is a genius! I could have used this guy when I still had a hockey club to ruin, er, I mean run.

Firsttimer

June 22nd, 2012
8:41 pm

Kudos Paddy-Baker is a Falcon and as long as he is I am rooting for him to succeed. We trash him for one year, where was the praise for him in our 13-3 season? Fickle fans and fickle reporters. Support your team and the players who make it up.

el Falcon Gigante

June 22nd, 2012
8:44 pm

Problem numero uno with Sam Baker: he does not like playing football. Watch him play. Watch him in the Green Bay playoff game. Turner scored that first touchdown after bouncing off and running through people, the rest of the team is fired up and Baker doesn’t even care, he just turns back around for the PAT. It’s just a job for him. Cut the losses and get someone who wants to play football.

DayOneFan

June 22nd, 2012
9:28 pm

i grew up during the Mike Kenn, JVN era. Those were some OLs. I do think this years line will be special.

buckhead benny

June 22nd, 2012
11:33 pm

I just hate the fact these coaches allow Sam Baker to use the injury crutch to make up for his poor performance- He wasn’t too hurt otherwise the doctors wouldn’t allow him on the field- they act like he was in a wheel chair or something when he was on the field-

Jeff- I would like you to pose the question to Smitty if Baker was that injured how did he make into the field with the doctor’s and trainers consent and why was he starting for your team if he was so injured?

I don’t buy the bs- The dude was litterally getting jacked up 8 yards into the backfield- I find it hard to believe that any credible doctor or trainer would allow him to see the field and jeopardize your starting qb Matt Ryan if the guy was truly in that much pain and that hurt-

No player makes up this much excuse for their horrible play and I have never seen a coach make up more excuses for a player- he shouldn’t have been on the field if he was that hurt…

Jeff you guys need to call the coaches out for that…. That’s their stupidity for endangering Matt Ryan putting a dude in the game and starting that has a severe back injury? That just sounds crazy and something doesn’t add up- I would quit making excuses- Next thing you know your going to have everyone on the team making up excuses that their “injured” when the play poorly instead of owning up to their poor play- Already seeing it the DE from Minnesota- never heard about an injury from that dude until he didn’t have any sacks then next thing you know he has a horrible knee injury…..

N

June 23rd, 2012
12:30 am

@Benny. Come on. He gets paid millions of dollars to PLAY. If he can walk, the team docs are going to green light him. His salary each year is a sunk cost they’re trying to recover (in playing time). The team self interest is why there’s the new requirement for an independent consult for concussions. It’s pretty clear your health is “less than ideal” when you’re having surgeries in the middle of the season. That he made it back from surgeries in the middle of seasons to return to playing professional football indicates he’s not some punk clown with no mental toughness. And I wouldn’t be so quick to call the coaches stupid, if they think he’s best, even when injured, the problem’s not with him, it’s with the depth (or their trust in the depth). Given, Svitek did fine stepping in last year, and I like him — but Baker playing that much even when injured tells you a lot … if you read between the lines instead of believing that you’re the only one that can see the “truth” and the coaches paid millions of dollars, who represent probably the top 0.1% of their field, don’t see what you think you see. Child please. Oh, and Ray Edwards knee injury? Yah, great idea, advertise to the entire league in the middle of competition that he has a bum knee, identify it for them, and then watch how much better he does. Do you pay attention to the Falcons injury reports, or way of doing business — at all? They disclose nothing. That’s why you didn’t hear about it. If you heard about it, the entire league would have known about it … and well, there’s your “stupidity” that you kept trying to pin on professionals that have given us the only back to back winning seasons in franchise history. /end rant.

N

June 23rd, 2012
12:32 am

Jeff, can I get an amen?

FalconJim

June 23rd, 2012
1:00 am

The Falcons organization is NOT stupid (contrary to popular belief). They know what they have in Sam Baker…..they just don’t want to admit it. They’re just gonna let him “limp” through this season, and get what they can out of him, and simply not re-new his contract…..that’s my belief.
As for our LT position, Svitek is our man, like it or not. Besides, I think he did admirably last season, under the circumstances. However, he isn’t our long-term solution. We’ll go after a LT, hot-and-heavy, in next year’s draft, in my opinion, and there’s some pretty good ones out there. So, until then, “Matty Ice” better keep his eyes open for our opponents’ right DE…

GO, YOU DIRTY BIRDS!!!

Jeff

June 23rd, 2012
1:04 am

Whopper Dawg

June 23rd, 2012
1:19 am

Jeff, you are right on the mark, open competition means you don’t know who your starters are. TD has whiffed on the OLine, Baker, Hawley, Johnson, Reynolds, not one has stepped up and kicked some rear end. You should be able to find one quality Olineman out of four picks just by the law of averages. And then he tops it off with a supposedly LT pick in the third this year that is a project and the 2nd round pick is a center they are going to try to convert to guard and sign a free agent guard that was OUT of football last year.

I mean you can’t hardly make this stuff up. You bet there is open competition, bunches of it.

Coach

June 23rd, 2012
1:45 am

That conservative draft will hurt them. But they can correct it with careful FA pickups

Nativebird

June 23rd, 2012
7:57 am

One of a few swings and misses by the boy genius Tom Dimitroff. “injury-prone” doesn’t seem to be a factor in DT’s overall player selection strategy?..either in draft or free agency. We can go down the list…Baker, Jerry, Lofa, the new guard from jaxville….etc. etc.
Big big blind spot in the GMs thInking…it appears he just doesn’t believe in the syndrome….but it IS true. Some people just are less durable than others under physical stress, period. It IS a factor…and our GM appears to disregard it.

Ed Pilcher

June 23rd, 2012
8:13 am

Amen, Schultz. Sam Baker blows. A wasted draft pick. This o-line has been going downhill since the FAlcons let Harvey Dahl get away. Not only was he their leader, he was also one of the meanest SOBs I ever saw for a lineman.

zbulldawg

June 23rd, 2012
8:59 am

Mike Smith needs to tuffen his appoach. Quit this bull of It’s okay Be good boys & just have fun ! BS you do your job at the highest level or YOU ARE OUT of HERE ! GOT IT ? PERIOD. Baker is not a left tackle Never will be. And what happened to Mike Johnson Mister play any where O lineman. He can’t even break into this low level OL. Who scouts these guys FIRE HIS BUTT !! This bull of it’s okay Baby NO IT’s NOT. 5 Years we have heard Sam’s is our man at LT. But he just got hurt. LET’s TRY AGAIN. Please don’t tell me that that 1 position is going stop this team from growing into what they could be. We keep drafting these OL & DL players & aren’t getting any results. The only No. 1 pick that this bunch has drafted that has done anything is Ryan. And he won’t get his Butt in the weight room. Teams don’t respect the Falcons. They need to get pissed ,down dirty & mean. It’s easy to sack Ryan Just touch him He’ll go down or fumble. Next he’ll throw a pick 6. Game over ! Maybe Nolan can put some fire in the defense. If Smith will stay away from the defense & let him coach. They had one of the BEST D coordinators in the NFL & let him go. He just didn’t want to be a head coach. So what ! Then turned right around & hired another D coordinator to be the head coach. But to be fair I think it starts with scouts. Then quit acting like it’s okay baby. The Falcons act as if they are at THE SPA for the day with the boys. It’s time to get some grit back in them GRITS & quit being a stepping stone for others suscess ! Get angry MEAN !!! Get a big case of the WANTS & quit making excuses.

Falcon Jim

June 23rd, 2012
9:13 am

DayOneFan……………………….yup, and Obankruptbama has been a wonderful Pres. ((((harumpt))))

Sid

June 23rd, 2012
9:19 am

“words like uncertainty, unproven and unspectacular don’t play well in season-ticket brochures”, those words are in BOLD in the Aints promulgation.

Chris Murphy

June 23rd, 2012
9:21 am

Baker might not be good enough to play, but I wouldn’t say it was a matter of character. Only those who have never had a back injury would question his character. 2 back surgeries? Heck, the guy is lucky to be walking, much less play professional football. And yeah, back injuries would weaken his arms and legs- so render him ineffective. I’d say the guy has committed above and beyond, trying to live up to his contract. Good luck to him, and Go Falcons!

Sid

June 23rd, 2012
9:34 am

“All I can do is look forward and keep working,” he said. “I have a family, and I have everything else outside of here [at Flowery Branch], so I focus on that when I’m not playing. All I can do is focus on the future, not on what’s already happened.”

Sam, that’s fine. I sometimes feel the same way about my job. Sure, I’ll show up and put in my day but I’m still looking forward to 5pm and getting home to my wife and kids leaving the job behind. I mean, at the end of the day you are not being paid to think about being an important cog in the Falcons fans Super Bowl dreams. You go home, relax, bounce your kids on your lap and forget all about your effort, I mean, after all, you are giving it your all, aren’t you?

Sid

June 23rd, 2012
9:41 am

“Here’s the issue: The Falcons don’t seem to have a great backup plan right now.”

Back up plan: roll Ryan right……….and run Forrest run……!!!

Sid

June 23rd, 2012
9:46 am

@Chris Murphy

June 23rd, 2012
9:21 am

Live up to his contract sounds earnest and forthright but maybe if his body is not in a position to give 110% maybe the best thing he could do for the organization is retire. We know he is going down at some point in the season, I guess I would want that last paycheck too.

Don Waddell

June 23rd, 2012
9:56 am

Baker looks like a starting LT in those hot pink high heels. Lock him up long-term, TD!!

chuck

June 23rd, 2012
10:06 am

Baker won’t make the 53 man roster. I think Baker does the best he can but the fact is he just isn’t physically equipped to play in the NFL. Most teams knew of his bad back and short arms when Dimitroff wasted draft picks once again to trade up and draft him. I hope he has saved his money and lives a happy life as this isn’t his fault.

I think we need a new GM. The Falcon offensive line continues to be one of the worst in the league. The top teams destroy the Falcon’s offense. Look what NYG did to them in the playoffs. Matt Ryan and Turner were lucky to walk out of that game alive. The Falcon’s GM thinks he is playing fantasy football and has for years ignored the offensive and defensive lines. Dimitroff needs to go at the end of this next season and be replaced by someone that understands that 9/22 of a football team are the lineman.

Gritz

June 23rd, 2012
10:09 am

I didn’t particularly get the feeling that Baker is all that jacked up to prove his critics wrong or is all that dedicated to becoming a better football player. This line bothered me:

“I have a family, and I have everything else outside of here [at Flowery Branch], so I focus on that when I’m not playing.”

Satisfied. The bust is satisfied.

What I would have liked to have heard might have been along the lines of:

“Whether it’s due to injuries or other factors I haven’t been able to give this team what they thought they were going to get when they drafted me. I’m going to give everything I have to reward and restore the faith in me that this organization has shown. You can bank on that.”

I think I know how this story is going to end.

biscuit

June 23rd, 2012
10:11 am

Best of luck to Sam. Professional football is unforgiving. You have to make the grade everyday or you’re gone. Just the way it is.

Wet Willie...keep on smiling

June 23rd, 2012
10:32 am

No doubt old Jeff called out Sam Baker.

Gamer

June 23rd, 2012
11:24 am

Baker, whatever you do, don’t give back the money, don’t take a pay cut to stay on the team, it won’t happen.

If they won’t keep you at your current salary then they won’t keep you at a lower salary….You have failed at your position…You can compete for it but if you lose that competition don’t lose your paycheck because you got a family to feed and finance.

Unless something miraculous happen for you healthwise, I don’t see you making the team all injury prone….

As a matter of fact, I can’t remember you playing so well when you were not injured…So I think you should take the paycheck and book.

Gamer

June 23rd, 2012
11:28 am

Where is my comment??? It was good financial advice for Baker as head of household.

Don’t with hold that information from Baker..

Norm Van Brocklin

June 23rd, 2012
11:43 am

There is NOTHING like a back injury. It will scare the ever-luving $h!+ out of you.