Updated to reflect the news that defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is leaving for Auburn.
After the Falcons thrashed Tampa Bay to close the regular season, a buoyant Michael Turner cast an eye toward the postseason and told reporters, “We just have to go out and play Falcons football.”
Question: What now constitutes “Falcons football”?
Power running? (Sometimes, but not all the time.) The hurry-up offense? (Sometimes, but not all the time.) Strict attention to detail? (In previous seasons, but not this.) The capacity to extract the best from a cadre of gifted players? (Not even close.)
The 2011 Falcons got caught in between — they weren’t the grind-it-out bunch of old, but they weren’t the squadron of turbojets Thomas Dimitroff envisioned when he made his bold move to draft Julio Jones. The rookie receiver did his bit, but it was as if the Falcons never knew what to make of him. Sometimes they’d put him to work, but the Julio graft seemed forced. (Fun fact: Of the five plays that gained the most yardage in Sunday’s playoff game, all were made by the Giants.)
For the Falcons, the change has already begun. It was announced Monday that defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is leaving for Auburn, which pays nearly as well as Arthur Blank. (Sorry. Cam Newton joke.) The bigger move stands to be the ouster of Mike Mularkey, whose middle name isn’t Malleable. I can’t see him returning to coordinate an offense that lost all coordination against teams of comparable worth.
Mularkey did fine work with a rookie quarterback and modest resources back in 2008, but the Falcons are no longer that team. Used properly, Matt Ryan is among the NFL’s 10 best at his position, but he needs a better offensive line, and he needs a system that can actually allow the offense to hurry, as opposed to standing at the line for 30 seconds with everybody making amusing hand gestures. (The Falcons ran the only no-huddle offense capable of dulling the senses.)
For all Dimitroff’s good work, the general manager hasn’t built up his O-line. Drafting Sam Baker in Round 1 was a pick made from the need to give the rookie Ryan a chance, but after four seasons Baker still isn’t a left tackle of the first rank, and the rest of the line is no longer forceful enough to sustain a power attack. Like Mularkey, Paul Boudreau’s best work came three seasons ago, and Dimitroff’s incredulity at his team’s failures on fourth-and-inches mightn’t augur well for the line coach.
Besides, who cares about running the ball? Maybe the pendulum will swing back, but for now the best teams are those who throw it best. The Falcons have to stop babying Ryan, who’s tough enough to stand on his own. They have to let him take chances, to throw deep. To watch him this season was to see a good quarterback who’d been overcoached. That bizarre “drive” — 25 yards gained in 1:08 with two timeouts left unused — at the first half’s end Sunday was painful.
The defense, on the other hand, got better as it went. VanGorder didn’t manage to sustain a pass rush — the pricey free agent Ray Edwards was credited with two tackles against the Giants — but the D actually scored in the Meadowlands, which is more than we can say for the men of Mularkey. Linebackers Sean Weatherspoon and Curtis Lofton had big seasons. (Lineman Peria Jerry, alas, did not.)
If you’re a fan, the temptation after a blowout loss to close a disappointing season is say, “Fire everybody.” And do what? Start over yet again? Isn’t that what undid the Falcons for a decade after Rankin Smith Sr. determined that Leeman Bennett had reached his plateau?
Said Dimitroff, speaking Sunday in the locker room: “There’s no question that after a game like this, you definitely need to take a deep breath and let your emotions subside before you analyze the whole operation.”
From the first, Dimitroff has insisted he and coach Mike Smith are “simpatico” in their approach. This was the first season in which in-house agendas seemed to diverge. Dimitroff drafted Jones because he envisioned his team being able to win games 35-31, but the Falcons rarely played that way. They were caught in a transition.
It’s time now to become what they were supposed to be. (It’s time to find a high-tech offensive mind — Mike Martz springs to mind, though his ego grates — to make this offense, as Roddy White boldly suggested over the summer, the Greatest Show on Turf.
As deflating as Sunday was, the greater truth remains: The Falcons don’t need to junk a design that has churned out four winning seasons and three postseason appearances, but some rebooting is warranted. A year ago the egregious loss to Green Bay made it clear the Falcons weren’t quite as good as 13-3. This playoff defeat proved the Falcons were exactly what 10-6 suggested — a team too talented not to make the playoffs but too disjointed to do more.
By Mark Bradley