The Falcons open training camp this week. They play their first regular-season game in seven weeks. They will be judged in six months.
This is their new reality.
The question with this franchise used to be, “Can they walk straight?” The answer generally was no.
Things improved. The question became, “Can they compete?” The answer over the past four seasons mostly has been yes, at least through December.
But after raising the bar with three playoff appearances in four seasons following mostly decades of infamy, the question now is a more difficult one to answer: Have they have hit a wall?
Some within the organization believe the criticism for postseason failures has been a bit too harsh. After all, two of the team’s three playoff losses have come against eventual Super Bowl winners (Green Bay and New York). The other came in quarterback Matt Ryan’s rookie season and against a team that went to the Super Bowl (Arizona). But for those believing too much is being expected for a franchise that now is fielding a respectable product, these contrasting numbers might explain the dissatisfaction.
•The Good: The Falcons’ regular-season record the past four years is 43-21. That’s an impressive .672 won-loss percentage for a franchise that entered the Thomas Dimitroff-Mike Smith-Matt Ryan regime in 2008 with a won-loss percentage of .405 (256-378-6). The 43-21 record also ranks fifth best, behind only New England (48-16), Pittsburgh (45-19), New Orleans (45-19) and Baltimore (44-20). However …
• The Bad: Among the 11 teams with the best records since 2008, the Falcons (0-3) are the only one that has failed to win a playoff game. Six of the 11 have gone to Super Bowls. Four others have won at least one postseason game: Baltimore (5-4), Philadelphia (2-3), San Diego (1-2) and the New York Jets (2-1). The Falcons are among six of the NFC’s 16 teams not to win a playoff game in that span (the others: Carolina, Detroit, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Washington).
So yes, this little run of infamy is gaining significance.
It follows that grand projections shouldn’t be made after the team’s season opener at Kansas City on Sept. 9. Or after games against Philadelphia and Dallas. Or following the two meetings with New Orleans. We saw double-digit win totals and home-field advantage and a bye fail to equate to playoff success. The Falcons were body-slammed by Green Bay two years ago at home and, after vowing this time things would be different, went into New York last January and was shut out (save a safety, 24-2).
Smith understands the team will be graded on the playoffs, as will he. With five assistants from 2011 staff gone — either by their choice or fired – the focus is on him more than ever.
“I think [the playoffs] is how everybody measures themselves,” he said. “We didn’t talk about expectations in the first year. We talked about milestones. One of them we wanted to reach was to participate in the second season. Where we are now and how we’ve developed in our first four years, we’re going to judged on the playoffs.”
When asked if he has picked up on something that the team has been missing in the postseason, Smith said: “It’s been a group effort. We haven’t played well in all three phases. We’ve turned the ball over. We haven’t protected well. We’ve given up big plays. We haven’t coached well. We made some coaching decisions that, when we took a second look at it, didn’t turn out well.”
There is some reason for optimism. The acquisition of cornerback Asante Samuel from Philadelphia should help the defense. Dunta Robinson’s likely move inside in the nickel will play to his strengths. If we assume that most of Ray Edwards’ problems in his first season with the Falcons were injury related, then the defensive front and the pass rush also should be improved.
But there also is reason to wonder. The offensive line remains a work in progress (theoretically). It would help if either draft pick, Peter Konz (guard) or Lamar Holmes (tackle), can contribute. But the possible return of Sam Baker at left tackle again doesn’t provide much comfort. The website ProFootballFocus.com ranked Baker 74th out of 75 offensive tackles in the NFL in “pass blocking efficiency” last season (after allowing 28 “pressures” in 242 snaps).
We’ll find out something in Kansas City, and in the 15 games that follow. But it won’t be determined until the playoffs whether they’ve hit a wall.
By Jeff Schultz
NFL won-loss records and cumulative playoff results since 2008:
TEAM SEASON PLAYOFFS
New England 48-16 2-3 (lost Super Bowl)
Pittsburgh 45-19 5-2 (won, lost Super Bowls)
New Orleans 45-19 4-2 (won Super Bowl)
Baltimore 44-20 5-4
Falcons 43-21 0-3
Green Bay 42-22 4-2 (won Super Bowl)
NY Giants 39-25 4-1 (won Super Bowl)
Philadelphia 39-25 2-3
Indianapolis 38-26 2-3 (lost Super Bowl)
San Diego 38-26 1-2
NY Jets 37-27 2-1