More than just a giddy ride, the Falcons’ 2008 ascent from oblivion constituted a watershed: A franchise that had gotten a zillion things wrong got three major things right. In one offseason, the Falcons had found the right general manager, the right coach and the right quarterback. Could world domination be far behind?
Here it is 2012, and we’ve seen the Falcons fashion four consecutive winning seasons — this from an operation that had never known two in a row — and three playoff appearances. But there has been no Super Bowl surge, not even a postseason victory. And now we ask the chilling question: What if Thomas Dimitroff, Mike Smith and Matt Ryan weren’t the right guys after all?
Touting Thomas: The GM had a bravura beginning, landing Michael Turner in free agency and drafting a starting quarterback (Ryan), a starting left tackle (Sam Baker) and a starting middle linebacker (Curtis Lofton). Also included in that first class: Harry Douglas, the slot receiver; Kroy Biermann, who has started at defensive end, and Thomas DeCoud, now the free safety. In 2009 Dimitroff landed the All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez in a pre-draft trade. In 2010 he snagged linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who’s a rising star, with the 19th overall pick, and in 2011 he traded up 21 spots to land Julio Jones, who’ll be an All-Pro soon, in the draft.
Doubting Thomas: Baker’s effectiveness has waned, and defensive lineman Peria Jerry, taken in Round 1 in 2009, got hurt and has done nothing. The big free-agent signings of 2010 and 2011 — cornerback Dunta Robinson and defensive end Ray Edwards — haven’t yet panned out. Of the nine Falcons named to Pro Bowl rosters over the past four seasons, only three were Dimitroff acquisitions. The defense, which ranked 24th in the 32-team NFL in 2008 and was summarily gutted, still hasn’t cracked the top 10 (it was 12th last season); the offense, which ranked sixth in 2008, has since finished 16th, 16th and 10th.
Touting Smitty: This coach has won 67.2 percent of his regular-season games, which trumps the winning percentages of Bill Belichick, Sean Payton and Mike McCarthy. Only in 2009 have Smith’s Falcons lost consecutive games, and not once over four seasons have they lost three in a row. He’s the only coach in Falcons history to post four winning seasons. (Leeman Bennett had three, Dan Reeves two.) Over those four seasons, the Falcons are 34-7 against teams that didn’t qualify for the playoffs, which means that in an any-given-Sunday league they’re not given to lapses.
Doubting Smitty: He’s 0-3 in postseason games, and each time the Falcons entered with the better record. Over four regular seasons, Smith’s teams are 9-14 against eventual playoff qualifiers, which means they aren’t nearly as impressive when matched against teams of comparable worth. He’s 2-6 against New Orleans.
Touting Matty Ice: Ryan and Steve Bartkowski are the only quarterbacks to lead the Falcons to the playoffs three times. Over four seasons Ryan has thrown for 14,238 yards with 95 touchdown passes against 46 interceptions. He has presided over 11 fourth-quarter comebacks and led 16 game-winning drives, which beats Aaron Rodgers’ output (three and six) and is comparable to Drew Brees’ (12 and 17) over the past four years.
Doubting Matty Ice: He hasn’t finished higher than eighth in NFL in passer rating, and in yards per attempt — a key indicator — he ranked higher as a rookie (fifth) than as a fourth-year pro (15th). He made six turnovers in his first two playoff losses and couldn’t lead a scoring drive in the third. The Falcons are 3-12 in regular-season games when Ryan throws 40 or more passes, and he hasn’t had even a 200-yard game in the playoffs.
Conclusions (mine, anyway): I remain impressed with Dimitroff — the five-picks-for-Julio draft deal was a big risk that will yield a bigger reward — and see no reason why a coach capable of winning in the regular season won’t find playoff success. But Smith seemed stuck last season between his GM’s desire for a more “explosive” offense and coordinator Mike Mularkey’s more plodding scheme.
It’s the belief here that Mularkey, who left to become Jacksonville’s head coach, drummed the daring out of Ryan, and a championship quarterback cannot be timid. The hires of Dirk Koetter as offensive coordinator and Pat Hill as line coach — each of whom should better fit Dimitroff’s vision of “urgency” — offer the chance for a needed offensive reboot.
Dimitroff, Smith and Ryan have done great work to lift the Falcons to a place where it’s possible to be disappointed in a playoff season, and they remain bright and driven men. But the job isn’t finished, and it wouldn’t be wise to let Arthur Blank begin to wonder, as infamously happened with another Falcons owner, if his beloved club has reached a plateau.
By Mark Bradley