The Falcons aren’t what we — and they — hoped they’d be, but they’re where they belong. They’re 7-7. They haven’t beaten a team that holds a winning record. They’ve lost only once to a team that carries a losing record. (Carolina is 6-8, and the losing in Charlotte on Nov. 15 stands as the day the season went from promising to disappointing.)
They haven’t been beaten by repeated bad bounces. They’re 3-2 in games decided by seven or fewer points. Of the two close losses — the Giants in overtime and the Saints here — they surged from two touchdowns behind to tie. They haven’t had a single game that they dominated snatched from them at the end. Sorry to say, they dominated only one game since early October.
Even with a more arduous schedule, we — and maybe they — figured this would be a better team than it was a year ago. (A better team with perhaps a worse record, but better still.) It was not. It was worse. Even before the injuries arrived in clusters, it was clear the 2009 Falcons lacked a separation gear. A year ago they could move the ball and score and compensate for an unassuming defense. This year everything, even the placekicking, was unassuming.
The offense ranks 18th in yardage, 16th in scoring, 15th in passing and 20th in rushing. That’s the definition of mediocrity, and there was no reason for this offense to be that feeble. Tony Gonzalez was as good as advertised. (On his two trips to East Rutherford, N.J., he caught the touchdown pass to force overtime and the winning touchdown against the Jets.) Matt Ryan wasn’t as good as he was as a rookie. Michael Turner started slowly, got going and then got hurt.
The hope was that a redone defense would get better as it went. It never got good at all. The Falcons rank 20th in points against, 28th in total yardage, 20th in rushing yards, 28th in passing yards. That’s not even mediocre — that’s bad. Losing Peria Jerry and Brian Williams to injury hurt, but the greater loss was John Abraham. He just vanished. His sack against the Jets brought him to 4 1/2 on the season; two came in the opener against Miami.
A team with a shaky secondary needs a pass rush in the worst way, and that’s what these Falcons had — the worst pass rush ever seen. That failing might well change the emphasis of the 2010 draft. Rather than seek a cornerback, which for months has seemed the greatest need, Thomas Dimitroff might first pursue another pass rusher. (And that would make sense, given that there are more first-round defensive linemen in this draft than DB’s.)
The hope was that by season’s end the new defense would have shown enough to get the Falcons into the postseason but, more important, augur even better for 2010. But we cannot look at this defense and say with certainty, “Given time, these guys will be great.” Curtis Lofton is a keeper. Jerry has potential. (So, believe it or not, does Chris Houston.) Lawrence Sidbury and William Moore are intriguing. But there’s still need up front, at the corner linebacker spots and in the secondary.
As hard as Dimitroff tried, he couldn’t fix everything in one draft, and the 2010 edition can’t be solely devoted to defense. The offensive line tailed off. Assuming Harry Douglas recovers from the injury suffered in training camp, there’s still the issue of Michael Jenkins: Is he a bona fide No. 2 receiver?
The optimists among us — hey, I was first among equals — believed the playoff run of 2008 was evidence of a team rebuilt overnight. Alas, teams are never rebuilt overnight. The Falcons weren’t 4-12 in 2007 because they had a roster of All-Pros, and two Dimitroff drafts weren’t going to flesh out everything at every position. Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but this is a process. And if the Falcons aren’t as far along as we and they hoped, that doesn’t mean they’re about to get lousy again. They have a framework.
They’re 7-7. They should finish 9-7. They should have that second consecutive winning season. And if, on the day Dimitroff was hired in January 2008, someone would have said, “In two seasons the jinx will be broken” … well, we’d have taken that, wouldn’t we?