Tampa – The Falcons are too good to be playing this way. They’ve trailed by double figures in all three games. They look great when they finally get serious, but by then their margin for error has been reduced to the nub, and any more wobbles — a dropped pass, a sack that shouldn’t have been taken, a lurch offside with the game literally on the line — can result in a good-looking team taking a big ugly L.
Asked Sunday night if he has been seeing the team he thought he’d see, coach Mike Smith said: “No, I’m not seeing that team … We’re making way too many mistakes.”
The same question was posed to center Todd McClure, who said: “No. We’ve got a great group of players, but we haven’t put it all together.”
Then this: “I feel like we’re holding ourselves back. We’re not making the plays that are there to be made.”
The obvious next questions: Why not? Why is a team fancied as a Super Bowl winner darn fortunate to be 1-2? Why do the Falcons start so slowly? Why has their devotion to details — a Smith staple — gone missing? Why must the long-promised “explosive” plays be saved for the desperate hours?
Nobody seems to know. The Falcons spent three quarters letting an OK Tampa Bay team get ahead and stay there, and it wasn’t as if the Bucs seized every moment. They netted three points from two sacks-and-recovered-fumbles inside the Falcons’ 20. They had a chance to pull ahead by three scores but threw an interception on the first play of the fourth quarter, whereupon a mystery guest appeared.
A team wearing the Falcons’ uniforms drove inside the Tampa Bay 5, then got the ball back and scored in two plays, then got the ball again and surged to the 5 again. At that moment you’d have sworn this team would seize the lead and win the game and talent would have finally been served, but at the same time you wondered: Where had this team been for 2 1/2 hours?
Let’s not fault the defense. It held the Bucs under 300 yards. Let’s turn instead to the high-priced offense, which has in two road games managed one touchdown. Asked if the Falcons aren’t a better team when three wide receivers are deployed and the no-huddle offense is implemented, Matt Ryan said: “I think we’re a good football team regardless of our personnel.”
For the first time in the four years of their partnership, it’s possible to wonder if Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff are as like-minded as we’d come to believe. Dimitroff traded 21 spots upward to land the hugely gifted Julio Jones, and through three quarters Sunday the receiver had one catch. He had five — for 97 yards — in the fourth. How hard is it to pull a Keyshawn Johnson and say: “Get that guy the darn ball”?
But it cuts deeper than tactics. There’s a weird air about this team. On the one hand, the Falcons seem careless. (Three turnovers and five penalties in this first half.) On the other hand, they seem scared to cut loose until circumstances render cutting loose a last resort. Former Falcons punter Michael Koenen, now a Buc, told the Tampa Tribune: “Up there, it’s a lot tighter. There’s a lot more nervous energy.”
There’s pressure on this team, yes. Dimitroff didn’t make big moves for Jones and Ray Edwards because he thought the Falcons might win a Super Bowl sometime in the next 30 years, and Arthur Blank — he of the not-exactly-relaxing late-game sideline appearances — has made it clear his only goal is to win a ring. But is a 53-man roster that includes only two Super Bowl winners capable of knowing what it takes without having ever come close?
The Falcons’ stated position is a reasonable one: They have enough talent to do whatever needs doing and enough time to correct the errors. Said John Abraham, the defensive end: “We’ve got to be back to playing Falcons football.”
For three seasons we thought we knew what that entailed — power football, focused football, precision football. Today we see a team that can’t handle the small stuff and seems, big-picture-wise, not to know what it’s trying to do. It’s as if the Falcons keep falling behind because falling behind is the only way they get to play the way they play best. It’s as if this grand design has lost all coordination.
By Mark Bradley