The Atlanta Falcons have told us what they think of themselves. They’ve told us they like their roster and have liked it all along. They’ve told us, tacitly if not flat-out, that they don’t believe a lack of manpower has stopped them short of the Super Bowl.
Otherwise they wouldn’t have spent the past three weeks re-upping nearly every free agent of consequence. John Abraham, Kroy Biermann, Thomas DeCoud, Harry Douglas, Todd McClure, Chris Redman, Jason Snelling: They’re all coming back. So is Brent Grimes, tagged as a franchise player. Yes, the Falcons did lose middle linebacker Curtis Lofton to New Orleans and kick returner Eric Weems to Chicago, but still …
If we’d known a month ago that the Falcons would keep eight of their 10 key FAs — and that Grimes and Abraham would be among the eight — wouldn’t we have said, “Job well done”?
Some of us would have. Others would have wondered, and are surely wondering still, why a team that hasn’t won a playoff game since January 2005 is so consumed with preserving the status quo. And the answer is:
Rightly or wrongly, the Falcons believe that they require no major roster-cutting-and-pasting. They believe the same players can, with different coaching, yield better results.
A caveat: Teams sometimes overrate themselves, and general managers are rarely heard to admit, “You know what? I really need to dump all these bums I’ve drafted.” But let’s remember:
Before Thomas Dimitroff was hired as GM in January 2008, the Falcons had never known consecutive winning seasons. Under Dimitroff, they’ve never had anything but a winning season. The man has earned the benefit of every doubt.
That said, something needed to change. The now-winning Falcons have fallen at the first postseason hurdle three times, and the past two losses weren’t even close. When that happens, an organization must ask itself: Is it the coaching or the playing? The Falcons’ answer has been resounding.
On the one hand, there’s a new offensive coordinator, a new defensive coordinator and a new line coach. On the other, there’s essentially the same roster. That’s not exactly a coded microdot of a message.
Heading into the playoff date with the Giants, the feeling in Flowery Branch was that the Falcons had the superior roster. (You’re free to argue. Wasn’t Eli Manning better than Matt Ryan? Wasn’t the Giants’ defensive front clearly stronger? I’m just telling you: That’s what the Falcons thought.) This presumed advantage resulted in a 24-2 loss on a day when the offense was, figuratively and literally, pointless.
This sorry showing was followed by an in-house sigh of relief when Jacksonville hired offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey as head coach, no real remorse when defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder left for Auburn, and the not-very-difficult decision to fire line coach Paul Boudreau. A hint dropped in January has been confirmed in March: The Falcons didn’t see playing as their biggest failing.
As much as fans clamor for their team to land big-ticket free agents, that’s not always the path to glory. (Michael Turner? Great signing. Dunta Robinson? Less great. Ray Edwards? Too soon to tell.) The Falcons are banking on continuity, with a twist. The players are the same, but the schemes won’t be.
We can’t yet know if that will be enough to push a team starved for a Round 1 victory into the game bearing Roman numerals, but this much we can know: The architect sounds happy. In a text message Wednesday, Dimitroff wrote:
“Our ability to re-sign the bulk of our own targeted [unrestricted free agents] was a creative group effort by many in our organization, players included. In a year with many of our own players up for free agency, it takes give and take from both sides of the table. I am pleased and encouraged that we were able to keep our core together.”
The belief in this space was that the Falcons entered the 2011 season with the most gifted roster in team history. That feeling soon gave way to consternation: Why weren’t such good players being put to better use? The belief now is that the three new coaches — Dirk Koetter, Mike Nolan and Pat Hill — will do more for the Falcons than any pricey import, be it Mario Williams or Carl Nicks, would have.
The Falcons had enough players, and to their credit they’ve kept most of them. The roster may have remained status quo, but this organization is no longer in stasis.
By Mark Bradley