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