Archive for January, 2012

Those lucky Falcons: Mike Mularkey goes to Jacksonville

Double M leaves! Touchdown! (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

Double M leaves! Touchdown! (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

The Jacksonville Jaguars, for reasons unclear, have hired Mike Mularkey as head coach. That means the Atlanta Falcons lucked out. They’ve been spared having to fire him as offensive coordinator.

The belief here was that Double M, as he’s known, wasn’t going to be retained, but that’s not to say the decision would have been painless. The Falcons won a lot of (regular-season) games with Mularkey overseeing the offense, and it’s never easy to break a winning pattern even if you know the pattern needs breaking.

Moot point now, though. Mularkey is gone, same as defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. The Falcons have two key hires to make this offseason, and the offensive position is surely the more important. In the end, offensive failings undid this talented aggregation. The Falcons need to find a man who could make these glittering pieces more of a whole.

Mike Martz is a name that keeps surfacing, but I might look first to …

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College basketball insider: Georgia State, conference champ?

Georgia State's Ron Hunter: Setting his cap for a title? (AJC photo by Phil Skinner.)

Georgia State's Ron Hunter: Setting his cap for a title? (AJC photo by Phil Skinner.)

(A word of explanation: This feature was part of our first weekly college basketball package, which is scheduled to run every Tuesday in the print AJC. I offer it to you in the interest of full digital disclosure.)

Hoops hysterics

1. Who’s the third-best team (behind North Carolina and Duke) in the ACC? Right now it’s Virginia, but there’s some question as to how the deliberative Cavaliers have gotten to 14-1. Their only win over a ranked team came against Michigan, and their loss was to unranked TCU. Their next two games are on the road — at Duke and then at Georgia Tech. We’ll know more soon.

2. Who’s the second-best team (behind Kentucky) in the SEC? Florida lost its conference opener at Tennessee. Mississippi State lost its conference opener at Arkansas. The team to watch is Vanderbilt, which lost four times in pre-conference play (twice in overtime) but has won five in a row and …

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VanGorder leaves, with more Falcons changes to come?

"Five! That's how many yards we're going to gain on this play!" (AP photo)

"Five! Five! That's how many yards we're going to gain on this play!" (AP photo)

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 …

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The story of the Falcons’ season: One Giant step backward

Julio Jones was supposed to make a difference. He didn't Sunday. (AP photo)

Julio Jones was supposed to make a difference. He made none Sunday. (AP photo)

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 …

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Live from Falcons-Giants: We’re a lousy sports city, are we?

"If I give you two dimes and a nickel, will you give me a quarter back?" (AP photo)

"If I give you two dimes and a nickel, will you give me a quarter back?" (AP photo)

East Rutherford, N.J. – Here’s a fun little nugget that was posted on the New York Post’s web site yesterday: As of Friday night, the Giants-Falcons playoff game was not sold out.

If said game were being staged at the Georgia Dome, we Atlantans would be hearing yet again how lousy a sports town we are. But this is New York, where millions live and where sports are, we’re constantly reminded, a point of strutting metropolitan pride.

Let the record reflect that an attempt to find available tickets this morning via Ticketmaster was unavailing, so we can assume that the game finally has sold out. Still, the thought of a Giants’ home postseason game with available seats not 30 hours before kickoff would surely come as a revelation to those New Yorkers who love to poke fun at us dumb ol’ Southerners for our indifference/inattention.

But I digress. The Falcons arrive with a point to prove, and the …

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It’s time for the Falcons to win a playoff game, and they will

Will the rookie Julio Jones make a difference in January? (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

Will the rookie Julio Jones make a difference in January? (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

It’s time to do this. It’s time to win a playoff game before this “Mike Smith/Matt Ryan-can’t-win-a-playoff-game” takes real root. (And it hasn’t yet. Two examples do not a representative sample make.) It’s time for the Falcons to win a playoff game because there’s no reason they shouldn’t.

Who thinks so? Well, here was general manager Thomas Dimitroff, speaking after Thursday’s practice: “Our expectations going into this year were for more than just getting the playoffs. Does that answer you?”

The Falcons didn’t have quite the regular season we or they expected, but they’re here now, in essentially the same position as the Packers were a year ago. The Giants are favored, but only by a field goal, which is the standard home-field allotment. The Falcons had the better record. They’d also seem to have more good players — do you see a Michael Turner on the Giants? A Tony Gonzalez? Anything …

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In 2012, the biggest concerns for Tech and UGA will be …

"Got any players you'd like to trade?" (AJC photo by Brant Sanderlin)

Both teams made strides, but both still have issues. (AJC photo by Brant Sanderlin)

This time a year ago, both fan bases would have taken what each wound up getting — a substantial upgrade over 6-7 — and been happy. But Georgia’s season of re-emergence ended with two losses, and Georgia Tech’s 6-0 start became a 2-5 finish.

As 2012 begins, each side has cause for optimism. (Two-thirds of the starters on both Tech and Georgia are scheduled to return.) But there’s a bit of doubt that will nag at both programs, and it has nothing to do with special teams. In each case, it’s a broader-based concern.

For Georgia, it’s the issue of bona fides as yet unproven. Bulldog fans love to make light of the ACC, but this is one time when that jibe has a double edge. A case can be made that the best of Georgia’s 10 victories came over an ACC team. (Meaning the win at Tech, which finished 8-5.)

Here were Georgia’s seven victories over SEC opponents: Ole Miss, which finished 2-10; Mississippi …

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UGA’s Murray: ‘We could have pulled out a couple more wins’

A good Murray moment: Tavarres King catches a touchdown pass. (AP photo)

A Murray moment: Tavarres King snags a touchdown. (AP photo)

A note: This ran in today’s print AJC. I present it to you, our digital patrons, in the interest of full disclosure.

Tampa — Aaron Murray tried to put on a happy face, but it was a struggle. Georgia’s quarterback returned home for the Outback Bowl and will leave not as a conquering hero but as one of the causes of his team’s demise.

“I think the whole Dog Nation is very excited about this team,” Murray said afterward. “I know we’re very excited.”

The blare of a turnaround season was muted by the doings here Monday. Georgia led 16-0 but lost 33-30 in three overtimes, and the crazy game turned in the third quarter on two Murray interceptions. The first led to Michigan State’s first touchdown. The second became the Spartans’ second touchdown, and it marked the fourth time this season a Murray interception had been returned for a score.

On the first interception, Murray scrambled right and spotted Tavarres King open …

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It was an awful loss, but it wasn’t the end of UGA’s ascent

It wasn't the greatest homecoming for Aaron Murray, was it? (AP photo)

It wasn't the greatest homecoming for Georgia's Aaron Murray, was it? (AP photo)

Tampa — This was a bad loss, OK? This was a really bad loss by a team that had positioned itself to win by two touchdowns until its quarterback began throwing the ball to the wrong team. But in the grand scheme — and by “grand” I mean a distance of Grand Canyon dimensions — losing to Michigan State might be a good thing for the Georgia Bulldogs.

A year and two days ago, Georgia was wondering how how long it would take to rise from 6-7. To the Bulldogs’ credit, they rose to 10-2 and to the SEC East title in the span of 11 months. In its final two games, Georgia proved its transformation from underachiever to champion is not yet complete.

In the SEC championship game, Georgia led LSU 10-0 but lost 42-10. In the Outback Bowl here Monday, the Bulldogs led Michigan State 16-0 and had outgained the Spartans 217 yards to 81 when, four minutes into the third quarter, Aaron Murray scrambled to his right …

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Live from the Outback: UGA should win this bloomin’ bowl

The all-important press box food preparation table, shown after hungry scribes descended. (Photo by M. Bradley)

The press box food preparation table, shown after hungry scribes descended. (Photo by M. Bradley)

Tampa – The nice thing about covering the Outback Bowl is the sponsor. It’s the only bowl that serves steak and a bloomin’ onion as a pregame meal. I mention this so you’ll know not to expect much in the way of back-and-forth from this correspondent over the next half-hour.

As for the game … well, here’s what you need to know about Michigan State. The Spartans are 7-14 in bowls. They haven’t won won since Dec. 31, 2001. They’re 0-4 under Mark Dantonio. Even Nick Saban was 0-3 in bowls as MSU’s coach.

The Spartans are 0-3 in bowls against teams from Georgia. (Lost to the Bulldogs in Vince Dooley’s final game and in the Capital One in 2008, lost to Georgia Tech in the old Hall of Fame Bowl in Birmingham in 1985. Georgia fans will remember that as the game in which John Dewberry, who transferred from UGA and became Tech’s quarterback, did not partake — he’d been suspended for missing …

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