FLOWERY BRANCH – When Falcons coach Mike Smith was asked this week whether he could sense when a team was ready to take the next step, he gave a long, winding answer that never really arrived at “yes” or “no,” even if he spoke in well-crafted sentences.
It reminded me of middle school when I was faced with an essay question that I didn’t know the answer to, which led to something like, “The Taft-Hartley Act is considered one of the most important documents in history, written half by Taft and half by Hartley, both of whom were fine, distinguished gentlemen who liked to wear suits, and this had a big impact on the United States of America! You’re my favorite teacher! Oh, look at the birdies …”
This was Smith, on whether he knows when a team is ready to take the next step, or possibly the Taft-Hartley Act: “We feel very good about what we’ve accomplished thus far this year. We have expectations. We set our goals, and we’ve been clicking along pretty well this season. I like the way that we’ve played through the first season. The second season is getting ready to start, and I know that we respect everybody that’s in this tournament because they’ve fought very hard to get in it.”
I’ll answer for him: No.
I’ll also answer for general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who, in trying to avoid anything close to state-of-the-Falcons questions this week, has decided to make himself unavailable to the media: No.
In the NFL playoffs, there’s a tendency to handicap teams not by records, statistics or talent, but by resume. New England and Green Bay are feared. They’ve won Super Bowls. The Falcons are not. They scored two points in the Meadowlands.
In their past three playoff seasons, the Falcons went 11-5, 13-3 and 10-6. They lost their first playoff game each year, in stunning, increasingly humiliating fashion: 30-24 (Arizona), 48-21 (Green Bay) and 24-2 (New York Giants). In all three years, they were confident. In all three years, they thought, “We can do this.” They didn’t.
So now we watch again. A talented, confident, 13-3 Falcons team, following the luxury of a week off that’s afforded a No. 1 seed, faces Seattle at the Georgia Dome on Sunday. There’s a public concern because the Seahawks are hot.
But really, that’s not what this is about. This game is not about what the Seahawks are, but rather what the Falcons have been.
This is a one-game pass-fail test. It’s important to Dimitroff, the architect of this otherwise wonderful, five-year franchise makeover, who made the decision to make few roster changes from last season’s team until the late trade for cornerback Asante Samuel (a familiar face from their New England days).
It’s important to quarterback Ryan, who could be excused for getting outplayed in the postseason by three Super Bowl quarterbacks (Kurt Warner, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning), but probably not so quickly if he loses to a rookie (Russell Wilson).
It’s important to Smith, who likely will catch more heat than anybody — yes, even more than Ryan — if the Falcons lose this game.
The people who claim Mike Smith absolutely gets fired if the Falcons lose this game are wrong. So are the people who say Mike Smith absolutely would not get fired. Fact is, we don’t know. That’s one man’s decision, and regardless of what that one man, owner Arthur Blank, might say now, even he can’t imagine the difficulty of processing another defeat and where that would lead him. We’re talking about one of the more emotionally invested owners in sports.
But there are several good signs for the Falcons (notwithstanding the season-ending stink bomb against Tampa Bay). They seemed hardened by the criticism. There was less celebrating this season after victories. There’s a swagger on defense — certainly in the secondary with Samuel, Dunta Robinson, William Moore and Thomas DeCoud — that wasn’t evident before.
This has been Ryan’s best season. His completion percentage (68.6), touchdown total (32) and rating (99.1) all were career bests.
But the Falcons’ biggest step forward this season probably came in game-planning and decision-making by the coordinators. Mike Nolan (defense) and Dirk Koetter (offense) have been superior to their predecessors (Brian VanGorder and Mike Mularkey), in terms of motivating players and putting them in positions to succeed.
Smith said, “We’re a much more mature team because of our experiences. I think you learn from your previous experiences in the playoffs.”
We’ll soon find out. Because if they lose again, there’s a very good chance the changes would not be small.
By Jeff Schultz