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