East Rutherford, N.J. – In April they traded five draft picks to grab one wide receiver because they felt they needed to be more “explosive” to reach the Super Bowl. On Sunday the Atlanta Falcons saw that grand design blow up in their corporate face.
Their sleek offense ran into the NFL’s 27th-ranked defense and managed nary a point. Think about that. In a league where nobody can stop anybody, the Falcons’ offense was outscored by its own defense.
A year ago it was possible to write off the Green Bay loss as a case of the No. 1 seed being undone by a hot quarterback. These Falcons lost to a 9-7 opponent that didn’t do much itself until it was clear the visiting team could do nothing.
Said Mike Smith, 0-3 as a playoff coach: “I don’t know that there’s anything you can take from this game and say, ‘Gosh, they did this well.’ ”
How does that happen? How does a team with Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White and the almost-as-good-as-advertised rookie Julio Jones play a postseason game to so little effect? In his first two playoff losses, it was possible to cite Ryan’s turnovers as the determinant. He made no turnovers this day … and his team lost by 22 points.
It was hard to tell what sort of game Ryan had. The Falcons’ offense wobbled so violently that the quarterback, who the in NFL is supposed to be a difference-maker, made no difference. The Falcons’ longest gain from scrimmage was 21 yards. They managed 247 yards. They failed twice on fourth-and-inches — should have gone for it the first time, shouldn’t have the second — and breached the New York 20 only in the game’s final two minutes.
We ask again: In a league that hinges on quarterback play, how was Ryan marginalized? Smith tried to say that his line couldn’t protect long enough for Ryan to throw any deeper, but he was sacked only twice — once on the Falcons’ final snap. In a game that demanded bold measures, the meek Falcons undid themselves.
Perhaps you see it otherwise. Perhaps you believe this game is proof that Smith is an affable dunce and Ryan an untalented plod who will never win a big game. I don’t believe either is true, but it’s hard to mount a passionate rebuttal after this one. The Falcons were so unassuming — they couldn’t even bring themselves to call timeout near the end of the first half — they made you wonder why they bothered to come.
“We did not play consistent football,” said Smith, speaking of the season, but he had it backward. The 2011 Falcons were very consistent: They beat teams of lesser talent but wilted against those of comparable resources. They were, in a sum, a bully. And when the playoffs commence there are no 90-pound weaklings.
Said Arthur Blank, the owner who hasn’t celebrated a playoff victory since January 2005: “I don’t think we took a step back [this season]. Obviously 0-3 in the playoffs [under this regime] is not where anybody wants to be.”
Then this: “It was disappointing not scoring any points … They made a couple of explosive plays.”
Those were the plays the Julio-boosted Falcons were supposed to make this time. None were forthcoming. Nobody made any plays. Nobody, at least on offense, did anything. When that happens yet again on the big stage, we must ask if the failure goes beyond the guys wearing the helmets.
Asked if he was confident in his franchise’s leadership, Blank said: “I think we have the right people in position because they’ll challenge themselves and ask the right questions. We’ve got to do a thorough diagnostic on why we didn’t perform to our capability. The beauty of Thomas [Dimitroff, the general manager] and Smitty is that they’ll ask the right questions. Where that takes us, I can’t tell you.”
Said Dimitroff: “Anytime you’re unable to get first downs when it’s less than a yard, you’re disappointed.”
Contrary to popular belief, not every team loses because of its offensive coordinator. (Or defensive coordinator, depending on the setting.) It is clear, however, that Mike Mularkey isn’t the man to maximize this personnel in the video arcade of neo-football. There’s a chance he’ll be hired away as someone else’s head coach. If he isn’t, it’s time for the Falcons to try somebody new.
For three years under Smith/Dimitroff the Falcons made clear and consistent progress: From the stunning playoff appearance of 2008 to the strong finish of 2009 to the 13-3 of 2010. There was no ground gained this season. There was only a glaring case of diminishing returns.
Even the man who works hard never to say anything spicy conceded the point. Asked if the Falcons had taken a step backward, Matt Ryan said: “We certainly didn’t take a step forward.”
By Mark Bradley