State of the Falcons: Assessing the new regime a year later

Sure, Peria Jerry would have helped. But he got hurt. (AJC photo by Kent D. Johnson)

Sure, Peria Jerry would have helped. But he got hurt. (AJC photo by Kent D. Johnson)

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.

398 comments Add your comment

Sonny Clusters

December 14th, 2009
11:15 am

blazerdawg

December 14th, 2009
11:15 am

Despite the past few weeks (injuries), this is the best course the Falcons have been on since Leeman Benett.

Mike Jay

December 14th, 2009
11:17 am

Agree, patience in order here. Though first impression is that this last draft was not very impressive :) .

FALCONS SORRY

December 14th, 2009
11:19 am

PEARL HARBOR FALCONS! PEARL HARBOR! A NEW HOLLYWOOD FEATURE STARING THE GREAT MIKE VICK AS JAPAN! LOOK! IT AUTHUR BLANK FLOATING FACE DOWN IN THE WATER! A DAY THAT WILL LIVE IN ENFEMY! PEARL HARBOR FALCONS! PEARL HARBOR!

rob

December 14th, 2009
11:23 am

The Falcons may be cursed, but at least this regime gets how to win. There was not quit in the team after last weeks humiliation. The only glaring shortfall this year was in Carolina. Ryan has not been special this year, but he has still been pretty good. If he played well against Carolina and protected the ball against the Saints a month ago; they may already have 8 wins. Yesterday was disappointing, but I believe this team can win out without Turner and Ryan because of the coaching staff.

Sonny Clusters

December 14th, 2009
11:23 am

“…Mike Smith and Dimitroff believe the core of a defense is its tackles, and they addressed that position first.” When we was playing ball we always said the core of a defense is its tackles. That’s why we had Stinky Wintes playing one tackle and Stump Stewart the other. Stinky and Stump was good together and we was eventually state championship. Stump went on to play some college and pro ball and Stinky was big in the hardware business when we last talked. That might be something Arthur Blank will want to consider with them both being Marston’s.

EW

December 14th, 2009
11:27 am

GOod assessment MB. Not time to panic…We played the best team in the league (ok so maybe they’re tied for first with Indy) down to the wire. We are right on the brink. Jerry was a big loss. I think that you can see the shallowness of the depth chart on D show through due to injuries but that’s a short term problem. We will get better and deeper with experience. Falcons fans have a lot to be excited about. Stay on the bandwagon!

Billy

December 14th, 2009
11:27 am

Wishing death on Arthur Blank is low even for you, FALCONS SORRY.

EW

December 14th, 2009
11:28 am

Sonny, you crack me up man.

Michael Scharff

December 14th, 2009
11:30 am

Mark, as Greenberg likes to say on the “Mike and Mike Show,” are you back and better than ever?

rod

December 14th, 2009
11:31 am

Death threats for an owner that does everything in his power to win? AJC, child please.

Larry

December 14th, 2009
11:32 am

This is an administrative failure of epic proportions. This team is poorly led, poorly coached, and the draft picks, other than Ryan, are total busts.

Don’t tell me the Falcons were only thinking the “process” or rebuilding when they traded their second round pick in 2010 for the guy, Tony Gonzales, they thought would take this team deeper into the playoffs!

rod

December 14th, 2009
11:35 am

1st, it’s Gonzalez. 2nd, it takes a few years to call them busts. 3rd, Epic? You’re thinking of the Raiders.

4th, who the he!! asked you?

dagnabit

December 14th, 2009
11:37 am

The falcons are competitive. That’s so much better now.

heywood

December 14th, 2009
11:37 am

every team in every sport are in “a process”.

they all share the one common goal to win.

unfortunately only a few succeed.

there always has to be losers.

unfortunately, that is what the falcons are.

Rev. James

December 14th, 2009
11:38 am

Arthur Blank will burn in Hell for his adultery, just like Tiger Woods & Bill Clinton do will do and Martin Luther King is already doing for betraying their marital vows.

Oh, the 2009 Falcons Season won’t fare much better, either.

Dawgs2009

December 14th, 2009
11:40 am

Nobody ever mentions the wasted draft pick on that guy from Furman that never made it out of training camp. The 2009 draft was a complete waste and 21010 will not be much better considering we have lost our second round pick.

You build through the draft and EVERY player must at least make it out of training camp. I thought the GM was a scouting expert and the bonehead picks were over.

Ron Roberts

December 14th, 2009
11:41 am

No, Larry; the Falcons were thinking they’d have better luck w/injuries than they did.

I don’t GET some of you myopic fans. Take ANY NFL team and remove their Pro-Bowl starting RB for basically a quarter of the season, their starting QB for at least three games, their backup RB for, what about six games, a starting corner for the season and let’s go all the way back to losing Harry Douglas in the preseason; tell me how ANY NFL team would fare with those key losses.

if the Saints went w/out Brees for three games, they’d have at least three losses; you already SEE how poor THEIR defense is without some key starters playing.

The team’s headed in the right direction, period.

agreed

December 14th, 2009
11:41 am

We are used to disappointing seasons after excellent ones, but this feels different. It especially feels different from 1999. That was like a window closing. This seems more like a temporary setback.

NC Braves Fan

December 14th, 2009
11:42 am

Good points, Mark. I think another element to this is that the schedule was quite a bit more difficult this year. The Falcs were probably not quite as good as their record last year, and not quite as bad as their record this year.

RobbE33

December 14th, 2009
11:43 am

As disappointing as this season has been, it doesn’t come close the any of the previous ones. I like Smitty’s staff and the players we have but some questions arise– Will Gonzalez stay? Was he worth gutting our defense for? I’m confident that Thomas will address our needs in the draft and hopeful that Tony renews his commitment to Atlanta. For now, let’s rid ourselves of the curse and take pride in the spoiler role we have left.

Denver Bird

December 14th, 2009
11:46 am

Patience is all well and good, but as a Falcon fan living in Denver, I am SO ready for them to get back-to-back winning seasons and get that huge monkey off our back. Tired of hearing about it from ESPN and my arrogant Donkey-fan neighbors.

And, a quick check back at the record books (the years after the Super Bowl, the playoff win in Green Bay, etc, etc) show that EVERY TIME this team starts to play well consitently, some calamity happens and we regress. A FRANCHISE CANNOT BE BUILT LIKE A HOUSE OF CARDS – ONE OR TWO INJURIES SHOULDN’T CAUSE THE WHOLE THING TO COLLAPSE!

Stockpile good players and be ready for injuries, they happen to everyone! Why do they just kill US?????

PMC

December 14th, 2009
11:47 am

He’s fine, He missed big time this year… but considering he’s coming of the abomination that was (and is) Rich Mckay he should be afforded some leeway. The team is still headed in a good direction he just failed to make enough moves to improve the secondary this season, probably within the plan.

It’s not Dimitroff’s fault that Patrick Willis and Darelle Revis were on the board when that bum Anderson was taken at 8.

It is his fault he gambled on William “Walking Wounded” Moore when Steve Smith was ripe for the taking…. but you’re going to miss some as GM.

Chris Houston is a bust, not his pick, but they need to pick up two starters at CB in the off season. They also need to find a world class Left Tackle and move Baker over to the right where he would be more suited.

RobbE33

December 14th, 2009
11:48 am

Mark, can you tell us if any other team has been more decimated by injuries this year than the Falcons? Also, has any team had to play a more whack-out schedule that was handed to us this year?

F-105 Thunderchief

December 14th, 2009
11:49 am

If the Falcons record last season was what everyone expected, then 6-7 would seem like a dramatic improvement. I think the “process” is still loving forward. Sure would like to win out and burst the curse, though.

F-105 Thunderchief

December 14th, 2009
11:49 am

moving forward, must have been thinking about tiger.

falcon

December 14th, 2009
11:53 am

Interesting comment regarding Clabo. Seems like a reliable player to me. You gotta have a 1st round pick at RT?

Sonny Clusters

December 14th, 2009
11:54 am

A GM or a coach never knows when an injury is going to occur. Turning turf toe is one of the most painful of injuries for a football player and a big green toe is nothing you want pictured in the newspaper. We can understand Matt Ryan’s modesty about not showing that ugly big toe and not wanting to come back until that toe heals. We was wondering if a player can fly with turf toe or if the pressurized cabin would make that toe pop? Of course, if you was the spokesperson for the airline it seems they could provide a special little cabin to stick your toe in so you could fly comfortably. Sportswriters do that all the time.

PMC

December 14th, 2009
11:54 am

If you give D an incomplete on the year the overall is an F… but much of that blame belongs on Mckay because of how poorly his crew drafted.

Dimitroff was left with virtually nothing of value to work with.

Mark Bradley

December 14th, 2009
11:55 am

The schedule has been much harder. But we knew that going in. And it’s worth noting that the Falcons have beaten only one team that has a winning record. (Miami, 7-6.)

WILLTOWIN2

December 14th, 2009
11:57 am

Its a sad day when CRY BABY Smith rants the way he did yesterday. The league should be fining him. Some example he sets. The only thing worse, is an owner hugging the dog killer and letting Smokey Babineau play.

DawgNDallas

December 14th, 2009
12:00 pm

Mark – You make a good point about injuries, though. Dimitroff may need to be more mindful of that, Baker’s always hurt, too.

Ron Roberts

December 14th, 2009
12:00 pm

It IS worth mentioning the schedule this year vs. last, as well. Having to face all the squads we did, coming off their bye weeks, was stacking the deck against the Falcons. Couple that WITH the injuries and I have to say that a (probable) 8-8 or 9-7 finish should be deemed a good outcome.

FalconBlackCW

December 14th, 2009
12:01 pm

The falcons are 3 straight win from the playoffs. That’s if the cowboys loose the next 3 or the gaints 2 of 3. They played fairly this year but they need more PLAYMAKERS on defense & offense. Why haven’t anyone screamed for van gorder & emmitt thomas heads. Because neither knows how to coach defensive players. Can anyone tell me why falcons corner never get their heads around to play the ball.

Greg

December 14th, 2009
12:02 pm

You’re being nice and generous toward TD, but it is the Christmas season, and all that. I agree TD ungraded the team, but it would have been hard not to. His picks were ok, nothing sizzling. Ryan looks to be a bit above average. (Flacco’s ahead of him…in fact Schaub looks like a much better QB right now.) We don’t know about Jerry & Moore. Owens hasn’t shown (or even played) much. The LBs we have playing are NFL-average. TD didn’t provably upgrade the D-line, and even though we looked pretty good yesterday, and even though Anderson and Babs are looking better, taking the season as a whole the unit is a bit below average. Foxworth is better than any corner we’ve put on the field. If you really mean “assessing the (whole) regime,” then I give it a “C.”

falcon

December 14th, 2009
12:04 pm

Baker seemed to do just fine Sunday at LT against Will Smith. 0 sacks and 1 tackle. I think the OLine played a solid game. Allowed only 1 sack and had 1 call (76) for holding.

Ginger

December 14th, 2009
12:05 pm

Got some work to do….but do think that we have the right GM and right HC in place….need more playmakers on both sides of ball…..defense ranks 28 and 30th in yards allowed per game and passing yards per game….but the 2 unbeaten teams Saints & Colts are better–but need in the top 10 in these categories…Saints and Colts are around 21 and 17 in these areas—so that stat surprised me….we should have at least a couple of more wins if our Field Goal kicker had made some important kicks.

Mark Bradley

December 14th, 2009
12:07 pm

Here’s the weird part: Houston wasn’t Dimitroff’s pick, but the new regime really likes Houston. (That doesn’t happen all that much unless the guy’s an All-Pro.)

gerald perry's yoga routine

December 14th, 2009
12:07 pm

Success in the NFL is a fickle thing. So many things need to go in your direction. The health and well being of key players is one of them. See 1999 Falcons.

Just Being Real

December 14th, 2009
12:09 pm

TD needs to cut Michael “I can’t catch” Jenkins ASAP and we need to find some quality corners and real #2 receiver to go opposite of Roddie White.

FalconBlackCW

December 14th, 2009
12:10 pm

We need playmakers on both sides of the ball. This team are a few boneheaded calls from the offensive & defensive co-ordinator call away for being 9-4. So tell where do we need to start in the off season with new personnel.

GaLiberal

December 14th, 2009
12:11 pm

Bring back Michael Vick.

Mick "No" Luckhurst

December 14th, 2009
12:12 pm

Esteemed Columnist,

How often do teams trade second-round draft picks after one season? Think a team like Denver, which is so loaded in the secondary already, would trade ACC career INT leader A. Smith at a discount?

Dawgs2009

December 14th, 2009
12:14 pm

Just Being Real: I agree. I think I have seen enough of Mr. “Butterfingers” Jenkins.

George Holman

December 14th, 2009
12:17 pm

No one can help the injuries that the team has suffered, but I believe, without question, that this is the first time in the history of the franchise that it is in good hands professionally managed and coached. We will be all right!

DawgInDC

December 14th, 2009
12:17 pm

sorry mark, this franchise is dreadful no matter who’s running things. Let’s face it, the falcons won’t ever be and elite franchise.

Peter

December 14th, 2009
12:17 pm

Well there is no doubt the glaring weakness is the defense, that said the line is the big problem, with corners being the next problem.

I have no idea why we cannot find the kind of size the rest of the league seems to have on the D line.

The other thought is why are we drafting guys that already have a history of injury….it seems it would be about “When” they will get hurt again……Not If they will get hurt again ?

Our drafts have been iffy at best it seems.

anastasia beaverhausen

December 14th, 2009
12:17 pm

can we PLUUUZE find a way top pressure the opposing teams quarterback??? we simply have no pass rush and I dont care how good ro bad the corners are – if you give any quarterback time – he should be able to find an open reciever!

Khao$

December 14th, 2009
12:18 pm

I’m sorry, but I cannot let Dimitroff off the hook. I know we have “process” in place. However, this is the NFL and you can’t start a bunch of kids in a grown man’s league. I had no problem with us drafting all defense. That said, I thought we should have signed some vets that they could play behind to learn the game. Then, after a few years, they could assume their roles as viable contributors. That’s the Eagles and Steelers model. Even New England (Dimitroff’s old team) never stuck a bunch of rookies and 2nd year players in the fire. The defense was off balance. I think people gave him the genius role based off his year one moves on offense. Well, in year one, not only did he go and get a rookie QB, but he also got a running back (Turner) with some experience in the league. It was a more balanced offseason.
I’ll be terribly upset if Dimitroff follows the same model next year that he did this year. We need a good blend of veterens and rookies. I’m not saying we need a big splash. However, we need guys who know the game. As long as I’ve watched NFL football, there’s never been anything wrong with having a roster with good/knowledgable/talented veterens. Evidently, Dimitroff didn’t see it that way.

Maybe Next Year!

December 14th, 2009
12:19 pm

Every since I moved to Atlanta, it’s always the same thing: “Maybe Next Year”. There’s always an excuse, one year they are good and the next year they stink. Oh well, there’s always Next Year!!