They were seen in some local circles as Dumb and Dumber. The Braves went 9-18 in September, wasting an 8 1/2-game and losing the wild card in the 13th inning of the 162nd game. The Falcons went 10-6 but beat almost nobody of consequence and managed no offensive points in a 24-2 playoff loss to the 9-7 New York Giants.
The Braves’ response: Stay the course.
The Falcons’ response: Stay the course.
The response from large segments of their respective constituencies: Dissatisfaction, disbelief, disgust.
And yet … the Braves awoke Wednesday percentage points out of first place in the National League East, and the Falcons are set to open rookie camp this weekend with a spring in their collective step. Neither made an abundance of offseason noise, but both look to have improved themselves via tweaking. (Tweaking, as opposed to panicking.) The methodology involved:
1. Don’t overreact to one awful month or one wretched game. It’s human nature to be upset by failure. It’s good management to step back and analyze the failure. The Braves wilted in September because two starting pitchers got hurt and the offense was a non-starter all season. The Falcons couldn’t beat the big boys because their line couldn’t generate a push and because their offensive schemes were designed to bend but not break anything.
2. In the wake of systemic failure, find a new systems chief. The Braves fired one person — hitting coach Larry Parrish. The Falcons fired one person — offensive line coach Paul Boudreau. (Though the belief here is that they would have sacked offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey had Jacksonville not hired him.) Braves general manager Frank Wren took much heat for his stated belief that his lineup was good enough to hit, but under the tutelage of Greg Walker and Scott Fletcher it has. The Braves entered Wednesday’s game second in the National League in batting average and runs scored, fourth in on-base percentage. (OK, so they got shut out by the Cubs. Stuff happens.)
3. Trade at leisure, not in haste. The Braves’ only significant move from October through the final days of spring training was to dump Derek Lowe and some (but not all) of his salary on Cleveland. The Falcons’ only significant moves before the week of the NFL draft involved retaining their own free agents. Then GM Thomas Dimitroff landed cornerback Asante Samuel of Philadelphia, who came far cheaper than the free agent pass rusher Mario Williams would have.
4. Movement for the sake of movement can be counterproductive. The Red Sox and Braves will be forever paired as Choke Champs after September 2011, but only one team changed GMs and changed managers. Today that team occupies last place in the five-team American League East. Did it make sense to replace Terry Francona, twice a World Series champion, with Bobby Valentine, who has never presided over a first-place finish in North America? No, but a frothing Red Sox Nation demanded change! (Sometimes having to cater to less hysterical fans/media can be a blessing.)
5. Trust your players. There’s a reason you drafted/acquired them. There’s a reason they’ve won games for you. To give up on the 22-year-old Jason Heyward after one awful season would have been the height of folly. To cast aside Matt Ryan for not winning a playoff game would have been the single dumbest move in the history of a franchise that has made more than its share. Peyton Manning was likewise 0-3 in his first three playoff starts. He was 9-5 over the next 14.
6. In a business where fortunes change overnight, stability isn’t an outdated concept. The Phillies, who’ve won five consecutive division titles, have been without Ryan Howard and Chase Utley all season, and Cliff Lee has been on the disabled list and there are questions about Roy Halladay’s lost velocity. The Braves aren’t a lock to win the East — Washington has looked good, and Miami is steadying — but the end of Philadelphia’s reign is close at hand. The New Orleans Saints, who under Sean Payton are 10-2 against Atlanta, have seen Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma suspended for the season and GM Mickey Loomis for half the season. Somebody else is going to win the NFC South. Who’s better positioned than the Falcons?
This isn’t to suggest that Wren and Dimitroff haven’t made mistakes. (They have, and they’ll make more.) This is to note that each GM faced a clear choice — do I rip it up and start again, or do I continue to believe in what we’re doing? — and each reached a separate similar conclusion. As of Wednesday morning, only one team in baseball had won more games than Wren’s, which would seem a partial validation. It should also serve as an affirmation to the Falcons: Sometimes you don’t have to change much to get better.
By Mark Bradley