The Falcons had to change to move forward, and they have

The man in the white shirt has had a busy New Year. (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

The man in the white shirt has had a busy New Year. (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

Flowery Branch – Even as we grouse about recent results, we need to step back and admire the broader view. If, in the dark days of January 2008 — Michael Vick in jail, Bobby Petrino in Arkansas, the franchise in tatters — someone had said, “The Falcons’ next staff will win 67.2 percent of its games over the next four years and make the playoffs three times,” we’d have taken it in a Meadowlands minute.

But that was then, and now is rather different. And now is why the doings of January 2012 have been essential to the continued growth of a team described by Mike Nolan, its new defensive coordinator, as “very close” to its “ultimate goal.”

The staff Mike Smith assembled in 2008 served the Falcons well, but it had reached the point of diminishing returns. The 10-6 season just completed was the first of past four that could be construed as a reversal. Had Mike Mularkey and Brian VanGorder and Paul Boudreau done slipshod work all along, the Falcons wouldn’t have spent the last week seeking new coordinators — they’d have been searching for a new head coach. But there comes a time where better is required.

Over those four seasons, the Falcons got good enough for us to feel disappointed that they weren’t even better, and the 2011 season told us that better wasn’t apt to be forthcoming if this staff remained intact. The offense was out of plumb. The defense couldn’t pressure the passer. The O-line didn’t push the opponent backward on three galling fourth-and-1’s (once against New Orleans, twice against the Giants).

Some of that has to do with personnel, sure, but the Falcons happen to like their personnel. (Most of it, anyway.) The in-house belief entering the playoffs was that this team had enough talent to play beyond Round 1 and even Round 2, and one awful Sunday in New Jersey made it clear that talent was no longer being maximized.

The Falcons got lucky in that they didn’t have to fire Mularkey, the offensive coordinator, or VanGorder, the defensive man. We’ll never know now, but the belief here is that Mularkey would have been fired had he not become Jacksonville’s head coach but that VanGorder, who left for Auburn, wouldn’t have. Boudreau, the line coach, was fired Tuesday. Thus were the Falcons positioned to build Staff of Smitty 2.0.

We cannot pretend to know how this will play out, but early impressions are that the Falcons have upgraded: Dirk Koetter, whose addition has been locally lampooned, should be able to find uses for these offensive players that Mularkey, who was stubborn to excess, could or would not, and Nolan has a better history as an NFL coordinator than VanGorder. (The Falcons haven’t hired Boudreau’s replacement, but whoever takes the job will surely be tasked with rendering a finesse-type line more forceful.)

There was cause to believe the old staff had peaked; there’s no cause to believe this team has. Speaking with Atlanta reporters on a conference call Wednesday, Nolan said of his new employer: “The big picture looks very good.”

Nolan has recently espoused the 3-4 defense, but he noted that half his 14 seasons as an NFL coordinator were spent coaching the 4-3. During his interview, Nolan was asked by Smith to view tape and relate his “vision” for these defenders. Nolan’s verdict: “The track they’ve been on [meaning the 4-3] is a good one.”

Of even greater importance than scheme is the importation of new voices, new methods. Through three seasons there was no crying need for Smith to shuffle staff because the team was winning at what was, by Falcons’ standards, a dizzying rate. The only dizzying part of 2011 was how ordinary this gifted team looked when matched against comparable opposition.

It’s not easy to change when you’re winning — ask Mark Richt — but the Falcons’ underperformance of 2011 proved that status quo would no longer suffice. They could and should have done better. They needed a jolt. Two new coordinators and a different O-line coach should do the trick.

Next season won’t be business as usual, and it couldn’t have been if the Falcons expected to reap more than another one-and-done postseason. This hasn’t been the easiest January of Smith’s tenure — on the contrary, it has been the trickiest — but there’s no easy way to win a Super Bowl. Over the past few days, he has nudged his team a bit closer to that ultimate goal.

By Mark Bradley

129 comments Add your comment

jjm

January 18th, 2012
1:45 pm

Mark Bradley

January 18th, 2012
1:46 pm

JipWiz

January 18th, 2012
1:52 pm

Willie Coyote

January 18th, 2012
1:53 pm

Player decisions are going to be interesting.

Norm Van Brocklin

January 18th, 2012
1:58 pm

Just slap em around a little horse collar!

rollo lawson

January 18th, 2012
1:59 pm

What do you think about the Falcons targeting Carl Nicks are their #1 priority in free agency. Also, I say snag the best running back available in the 3rd round to share carries with Rodgers and Turner. Out of all our free agents, we should focus on Abraham and Lofton, along with Harry Douglas. Everyone else is expendable.

hand solo

January 18th, 2012
1:59 pm

To hell with em, I’ve given up after peeing away 4yrs of season tix

Sid

January 18th, 2012
2:00 pm

What is a Meadowlands minute you ask. It’s 4 quarters of football where all you can do is score 2 lousy points.

Paul

January 18th, 2012
2:01 pm

Nolan’s 4-3 will be interesting. Agree w/ Willie Coyote on player decisions.

Kelvin

January 18th, 2012
2:01 pm

I like the new hire’s. We’ll see what happens, but it was obvious we needed a change.

The Mighty Quinn

January 18th, 2012
2:03 pm

Just the fact that the new OC made it abundantly clear he intends to throw screen passes may be enough by itself to rate as an improvement.

Walker, Texas Ranger

January 18th, 2012
2:05 pm

Mark, The Falcons are going through coaches like if you have Scarlet Johansson but there is Sofia Vergara, you will do what ever to get Sofia even if it means dropping all the way down to Phyllis Diller if it doesnt work out.

SawThat1nce

January 18th, 2012
2:05 pm

Well, IMhumbleO, IF the GM and coaches can somehow assemble an effective OLine, an effective defensive front, and aquire an additional RB, that is fleet of foot and can do more than run left, right, and up the middle, I think that they have a very very good chance, of making a long run into the playoffs in the next season.

Like It

January 18th, 2012
2:07 pm

Let’s hope Nolan gets some new faces on defense to work with. We shifted the head folk, now with 17 unrestricted FAs, let’s shake up the faces on this team, for the better.

SawThat1nce

January 18th, 2012
2:08 pm

Walker 2:05pm……I would be thrilled to have Scarlet. Most people would, IMO.

ChopAttack

January 18th, 2012
2:08 pm

If the Panthers improve on defense next season they’ll pass the Falcons. Cam Newton improved the worst offense in the NFL to 7th. That was with injuries on the offensive line. It will be tough for the Falcons to make the playoffs if the Brees and Newton are healthy.

Seen (Sean Payton) This (cross picket lines and play as a scab) B4

January 18th, 2012
2:13 pm

The Panthers will improve but beware of a sophomore slump for Mr. Newton. Regarding the Koettner hire, it would help if every article didn’t tout his work under Dan Henning as a positive.

JTH

January 18th, 2012
2:16 pm

I hope you’re right Mr.Bradley. We fans are So hungry for a Championship that we’re disappointed in a 10-6 season now.

@LukeDixonATL

January 18th, 2012
2:23 pm

Once again Mark, right on point. It’s good to know this franchise isn’t settling at just making the playoffs.

Sid

January 18th, 2012
2:25 pm

It’s the coaches job to get players to play with passion, give 110% every play. Players like Spoon, Grimes, Bierman, Lofton…..they do it already. Smith has to get that same level out of his coaches. My guess would be that Smith’s tenure with the Falcons is on a precipice should the Falcons not reach the playoffs in 2012. He won’t be fired for not winning the South, nor in the playoffs as a one and done, nor failing to bring home the Lombardi (God how sweet that would be). But even with the numerous coaching changes Arthur would probably not wait to drop the hammer on Smith for anything less than a 1-6 seeding in the playoffs. Lots of personnel moves to come, I’m looking forward to seeing the 53 man roster.

Media conference call interview with Coach Nolan.
http://www.atlantafalcons.com/

abby normal

January 18th, 2012
2:26 pm

The first order of business must be upgrading the offensive line. Second, find a way to generate a pass rush. Third, figure out how to get Julio Jones and Rogers more involved in the offense. Fourth, find a running back who can spell (or replace) Turner.

GTT

January 18th, 2012
2:36 pm

How long before JSS trolls in with his gloom and doom?

david

January 18th, 2012
2:39 pm

so, other than O line, D line, offensive play calling and Rb we are set– right? jeez, we are in trouble with a capitol T

dtanner

January 18th, 2012
2:42 pm

thomas the twerp is the one who should have been fired, just look what the little man has done,traded awawy the futere for one guy,signed a bunch of bust’s as free agents,edwards, robinson et:al,drafted a bunch of busts

falCANS

January 18th, 2012
2:43 pm

WOW SOOOO BRENT GRIMES IS EXPENDABLE???? DO YALL WATCH DA GAMES??? HE LET ABOUT 10 catches on him ALL SEASON!!! Priority #1 Curtis Lofton #2 BRENT GRIMES!! ReleaseD.Robinson now

PLEASE

Kramer

January 18th, 2012
2:44 pm

Hand solo, time to go spend sometime by yourself and live up to your name. You had season tickets like I have million dollars. I like both hires and what their exepreience has been. The player moves will be fun to watch and F/A could be real interesting.

Hey SeenThisB4...you there?

January 18th, 2012
2:49 pm

Everything okay little buddy? You wanna talk about it? I know, I know–the whole “two dat” theme gets tougher the farther you get from that one championship…it’s okay…I’m sure the Saints got an extra dose of painkillers from Coach Payton after that loss!

Marcus

January 18th, 2012
2:53 pm

MB,
any line on new QB coach or OL coach?

along those same lines, would one consider Jim Caldwell a dud candidate for QB coach, given that being Payton Mannnig’s position coach probably doesn’t involve a lot of heavy lifting …

dan

January 18th, 2012
2:54 pm

I’m not going to excuse the Falcons for scoring zero points in their loss to the Giants. Nor will I excuse them for that horrible loss to Green Bay last year. But if the Giants win the Super Bowl or make it but lose( like the Cardinals who beat us back in 2008), then you have to say that the Falcons are just snakebit in the playoffs; kind of like how the Colts were in the mid-2000’s losing to eventual champs New England, Pittsburgh etc. And like the Colts( who replaced Jim Mora with Tony Dungy) , the Falcons may need a change at head coach to get them over the hump.

Unlike UGA, who NEVER MAKES A CHANGE UNTIL ITS FAR TOO LATE, the Falcons at least trying to make changes for the positive. Koetter is a question mark, but then again so was Gene Chizik when he took the job at Auburn, and that turned out OK. I think the key for the new OC is whether or not he can get the ball in the hands of his playmakers and use them interchangeably. I think that’s the biggest knock against Mularky, he didn’t know which weapons to use based on the situation. Vs. some teams you run it, some you pass, some you strive for balance. I don’t think the Falcons have the kind of offense like Green Bay or the Patriots where they can score on you in a hurry. But they DO have a very versatile offense, and with the right coordinator, you can win with this bunch. We shall see.

George Stein

January 18th, 2012
2:56 pm

Go on YouTube and watch the “America’s Game” story of the 2006 Colts. The parallels are remarkable, up to a bunch of whiny, spoiled fans complaining because they haven’t won a Super Bowl every single season.

The Falcons are fine. Exhibit a bit of patience and you may find yourself rewarded.

George Stein

January 18th, 2012
2:57 pm

Seems dan and I were on the same page.

Lumpkin

January 18th, 2012
3:01 pm

Well, as Atlanta fans have muttered since 1966, we’ll see…………

Just saying..

January 18th, 2012
3:01 pm

Guess I’m easy, but I like both hires. Let’s give Koetter his shot – just ANYTHING more imaginative that runs over guard on EVERY 4th and 1.

Dontavius Supremo

January 18th, 2012
3:02 pm

Atlanta fans are long suffering, patient, and by and large are grateful for small measures. It just gets tedious at times, doesn’t it?

North Avenue Ned

January 18th, 2012
3:04 pm

I’ll reserve judgment until January 2013, if you don’t mind.

KBP

January 18th, 2012
3:06 pm

Agree that player decisions are going to be interesting. Wish we could somehow hoodwink Chicago into taking Turner and Snelling for Forte.

I like him and he’s a definite HOF’er but should not have resigned Gonzalez. He can no longer beat those backers and run 15-20 yd routes like he did when he first got here. Just sayin.

Dirtybirdsin12

January 18th, 2012
3:16 pm

I say we do what it takes to sign Nicks. Obviously gotta bring back Lofton and Grimes. Then in the 2nd and 3rd rounds snag the best TE and DE or OLB available. Then play a lot of 2 WR, 2 TE sets and copy the Patriots success with 2 stud TE’s, but we’ll also have 2 stud WR’s and better RB’s than New England.

Dirtybirdsin12

January 18th, 2012
3:17 pm

That’s assuming we can get a legit TE in round 2 or 3. I don’t know much about this draft class.

rollo lawson

January 18th, 2012
3:22 pm

We don’t have a second round pick. Also, we fix the pass rush by drafting a DE/OLB tweener that can get after the passer on passing downs. There is one out there every year. Our Scouting Department needs to find him. A more athletic Kroy Biermann is what I’m talking about.

1eyedJack

January 18th, 2012
3:29 pm

Perception is a funny thing, especially when viewed over time. Before this regime, as you say, we would be ecstatic with these results. It seems that now these results are contemptuous.

The same is true at Georgia. During the Goff/Donnan years we would have given the proverbial left nut to have the results that Coach Richt has given us over his tenure. Now he’s perceived as an average to slightly below average coach.

It seems that early success breeds later contempt. And to those that say that neither team is capable of winning a championship I place my thumb to my nose and wave my fingers. Phhfffttthhht! ;)

slydog

January 18th, 2012
3:35 pm

If Dre Kirkpatrick falls to the Falcons, there is truly a God in Heaven

slydog

January 18th, 2012
3:36 pm

That will be the best weed ever smoked

Dirtybirdsin12

January 18th, 2012
3:37 pm

We have a second round pick. We don’t have a 1st or 4th.

J-Man

January 18th, 2012
3:38 pm

We need to go after Wisconsin’s O Line coach. Because every year they produce 1st round talent and seem to be better than our pro talents.

Great Falconi

January 18th, 2012
3:39 pm

We have a second-round pick this year. We do not have our first and fourth-rounders.

Great Falconi

January 18th, 2012
3:39 pm

Thanks, Dirtybirdsin12.

eastbound and down

January 18th, 2012
3:43 pm

Mark, I always find it interesting that you agree with moves after they are made, Falcons or Braves, but rarely call for moves to be made immediately after the team fails to meet expectations. of course, this way you will never be wrong or write anything with the least bit of controversy.

Gordon

January 18th, 2012
3:44 pm

Who hires and fires coordinators? Does Dimitroff or Blank have to sign off?

Bobo is Not the Problem

January 18th, 2012
3:45 pm

“out of plumb”?

Anyhoo, if we had been told four years ago that we would make the playoff three times and lose all three times, we would have puked.

And if you think 2009 was not a step back, I don’t know what you’re smoking.

slydog

January 18th, 2012
3:46 pm

“…It’s not easy to change when you’re winning — ask Mark Richt — but the Falcons’ underperformance of 2011 proved that status quo would no longer suffice…”

So why is BoBo still the OC and why hasn’t his offense changed since 1993? It doesn’t contain even “one” tweak except a direct snap to a defensive back playing offense.