Matt Ryan’s final pass had smacked off Roddy White’s hands and into the arms of Green Bay’s Jarrett Bush, and the galling game was finally gone. The man in the three-piece suit on the 40-yard-line, the man who foots the bills, stood with hands on hips and stared, and surely a part of Arthur Blank was thinking, “I’m paying for this?”
The 2011 Falcons have worked five games and lost as many as in the entire 2010 regular season. Matt Ryan, the quarterback, sought to brush this off by saying, “It’s early,” but the calendar insists that it’s October. This team should be playing well, or at least well enough to make us believe in its potential. Through five games, the Falcons have done their darnedest to foster doubt.
They have too much talent to be 2-3. The rule of thumb in all sports is: If you’ve got the players and you’re not winning, it must be the coaching. Yes, the mere notion arrives with a jolt. For three seasons Mike Smith and Co. wrung close to the maximum from their men, but now the talent is top-shelf and the results are substandard, and how else do you square this circle?
Sunday night showed us how good the Falcons can be when properly deployed. For two possessions this offense was strong and swift and crisp, all conspicuous resources being brought to bear by coordinator Mike Mularkey. Double M, as he’s known in-house, dialed up reverses and fake reverses and quick passes and body-slamming runs, and after two possessions this observer was saying, “This is the team I’ve waited to see.”
Then that team took a hike. The Falcons had 145 yards and 14 points on those first two drives; they managed 106 yards and zero points on the remaining seven possessions. And here we note: Green Bay entered ranked 28th in total defense, 31st in passing defense. The Falcons had their way for two possessions. Then, for reasons unclear, they lost the plot.
No, the coordinator didn’t instruct the high-priced tackle Tyson Clabo to kill two drives with penalties. Nor did the offense wither because Mularkey, as the convenient criticism goes, Got Too Conservative: Of those seven pointless drives, four began with pass plays. (And it didn’t help that Ryan, who usually has tepid first halves and flying finishes, did it the other way around this time.) It was stranger than that: Everything worked, and then nothing worked.
Asked afterward if he felt a need to re-evaluate the way his offense is being called, Mike Smith bristled and said: “No, I don’t think so. We’ve got to execute better. It’s my responsibility to see that the plays going in give our players the best chance to succeed — I take full responsibility for that, and no one else.”
That manful response tells us, not for the first time, that this head coach is a first-rate boss. But Smitty is a defensive man by trade, and he leaves it to Mularkey to run the offense. Sometimes Double M does it so well — again, those first two drives were objects of art — that you couldn’t imagine such a man running out of ideas, but seldom does even a pedestrian NFL offense go as bankrupt as the Falcons did Sunday.
Brian VanGorder, the defensive coordinator, moved heaven and earth to keep Aaron Rodgers on the back foot. Without John Abraham, BVG put lesser pass rushers in position to overrun the Packers’ pressed-into-service backup tackles, and if the offense had done anything after those first 18 minutes the Falcons would have won. As it was, VanGorder’s defenders held Green Bay without a touchdown for 41 minutes, which was stirring stuff. Just not enough on a night when his team swore off scoring after its second drive.
Speaking Monday, general manager Thomas Dimitroff mentioned the need to play fundamental football, never an issue before. (In the first three seasons under this regime, the Falcons ranked fourth, fourth and first in fewest penalties. They’re 18th now.) Late Sunday night, the owner had struck the same chord.
“We’re 2-3,” Blank said. “I’m not happy about being 2-3. We’ve had a lot more penalties.”
Then, smiling the slightest of smiles: “I have full confidence we’re going to get it figured it out.”
Smith uses that phrase after every loss, and the losses are coming faster. From Sept. 13, 2010, through the day after Christmas, the Falcons played 13 games and won 12. They’ve since lost five of eight. There’s still time to get this right, but with every false dawn the brave talk sounds thinner.
Figure faster, Falcons. A season is in peril.
By Mark Bradley