For the first time under Thomas Dimitroff, the Falcons are a sub-.500 team. But does being 6-7 in Year 2 mean the general manager was a one-year wonder? Uh, no.
When a GM imports players at the three key offensive positions in Year 1 — quarterback Matt Ryan, tailback Michael Turner, left tackle Sam Baker — and the reconfigured team rises from 4-12 to 11-5, the personal bar has been set impossibly high. Yes, Dimitroff’s first year was one for the ages. But Year 2, no matter how it winds up, won’t be a “fail.” Due to injuries, it’s more an “incomplete.”
The goal in Year 2 was to rebuild the defense, which was both aging and not very good. Dimitroff didn’t do his redo in drips and drabs. He changed five starters and spent seven of eight draft picks on defenders. The expectation was that the defense might get worse in the short term but would be better down the road. The new D, or at least the healthy part thereof, ranks 29th in total yardage — the 2008 Falcons were 24th — but has worked only 13 games. Meaning: We’re still in the short term.
And it isn’t as if keeping any of the five starters would have changed much. Michael Boley is a finesse player who didn’t mesh with these coaches. Lawyer Milloy is a Seattle reserve. Keith Brooking might have helped as a rotational player, but he’s no longer an every-down linebacker. (See: Third-and-16 in Phoenix.) Domonique Foxworth got $17 million guaranteed to sign with Baltimore, where he has since proved he’s not a cornerback of the first rank. And the absence of Grady Jackson would have been less an issue were Peria Jerry playing.
If we fault TD the GM for anything, it isn’t philosophy but practicality. His two top draft picks — Jerry and William Moore — had a history of injury as collegians. Lo and behold, they got hurt as NFL rookies. That could just be bad luck. But for a defense counting so heavily on rookies, it was the worst possible luck.
Either of the defenders taken after Jerry — cornerback Vontae Davis or linebacker Clay Matthews — would have provided more immediate oomph. (Davis has three interceptions, Matthews eight sacks.) But Mike Smith and Dimitroff believe the core of a defense is its tackles, and they addressed that position first. And Dimitroff is choosy about cornerbacks: If he doesn’t think a guy is a true No. 1 corner, he’s not going to draft him in Round 1 (or pay him Foxworth-type money).
After cornerback Brian Williams — a good Dimitroff find, by the way — was lost to injury, some Bird-watchers wondered why the Falcons didn’t pursue free agents Chris McAlister and Mike McKenzie, who were hired by the Saints in midseason. Well, McAlister played in only two games before being waived, and he’s not really a Falcons-type guy. (Feel free to insert Jonathan Babineaux joke here.) McKenzie had been a Saint and knew the system. And the Falcons’ secondary, shaky as it has been, is more symptom than ailment.
See, the Falcons have no pass rush. John Abraham had two sacks in the season opener; he has had 1 1/2 since. Jerry would have helped offer an inside push, but you don’t expect your sacks to come from a tackle. The way of the NFL: If you can’t rush the passer, you can’t stop anybody.
And for all the movement on defense, the product hasn’t been grossly devalued. The Falcons have yielded 35 defensive touchdowns in 13 games; last season they yielded 37 in 16. It’s the offense, which figured to be even better with Tony Gonzalez, that has disappointed more. (The Falcons have slipped from sixth in total offense to 16th.) Yes, injuries to Ryan and Turner have hurt, but the Falcons weren’t scoring big even with all hands on deck.
Bottom line: The 2010 offseason needs to be more balanced. The Falcons must upgrade on offense — right tackle Tyson Clabo will surely be replaced, and Michael Jenkins’ touchdown Sunday was his first of the season — but must also target defensive backs and a pass rusher. (Let’s not discount end Lawrence Sidbury, drafted in Round 4 in April, just yet.) This has been a disappointing season, but 6-7 in a year that began in self-inflicted flux and has devolved largely because of injury shouldn’t be deemed a total retreat.
This was, after all, only Year 2 for the new regime. And this is, as we’re constantly being reminded, a process.