Flowery Branch — For 35 months, the Falcons were an operation that ran smoothly and thought alike. Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith had been handed a broken team in January 2008 , and by January 2011 they’d presided over three winning seasons and seen their latest product claim the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
Then the Falcons lost to Green Bay in the playoffs, and suddenly it was possible to wonder if this aggregation had, as constituted, gone as far as it could. That 13-3 regular season was nice, but losing 48-21 at home indicated that certain other teams — the Packers and Saints and Steelers and Patriots — had something the Falcons still lacked.
Three months later, Dimitroff moved up 21 spots to draft Julio Jones, and that ineffable “something” was given a name: The Falcons’ general manager dared to risk five precious draft picks for one wide receiver in the hope of making his team more “explosive.” But there were times last season when Dimitroff’s vision wasn’t being realized.
In a wretched Week 3 loss at Tampa Bay, Jones caught one pass in the first three quarters. With the Falcons playing from behind, he caught five balls in the fourth period. It was as if Mike Mularkey, then the offensive coordinator, had just realized the rookie was on the roster. The next week the Falcons scored 30 points at Seattle; Jones caught 11 passes for 127 yards.
But the moment didn’t last. Jones hurt his foot and missed some games, and for every bravura performance (131 yards and two touchdowns at Indianapolis), there was a day where you wondered how this massive talent could be marginalized. Come the playoffs, the Falcons were eliminated by the Giants with the offense scoring no points and Jones catching seven dinky passes to no effect.
On that bleak day in the Meadowlands, the coordinators who had served this franchise so well — chiefly Mularkey, but also defensive man Brian VanGorder — appeared to run out of ideas. That spawned a key question: Would Smith, the head coach, move to fire either?
As it turned out, Mularkey and VanGorder left of their choosing — the former to Jacksonville as head coach, the latter to Auburn as defensive coordinator — and Smith never had to declare. But their absences created an opportunity for this head coach to remake the Falcons in a fashion more suited to the players he had in 2012, which is a far cry from the roster of 2008.
Back then, the Falcons were thrust in the hands of a rookie quarterback working behind a rookie left tackle and handing off to a free agent who’d never been a feature back. Full credit goes to Mularkey for nurturing and developing Matt Ryan, but by 2011 the Falcons were more seasoned and much more gifted. They were fully capable of being “explosive,” but too often they came across as ponderous.
Asked Monday if there was a time last season when he felt the Falcons’ vision of themselves wasn’t being implemented on the field, Smith said: “Absolutely never.” But that could be a loyal and grateful head coach protecting his former employees. Smith also said this: “Those guys [meaning Mularkey, VanGorder and line coach Paul Boudreau, who was fired] were an integral part of the success we’ve had.”
But then: “There’s always change in the NFL. You strive to have continuity, but your roster is always changing. And even if you have the same 53 guys as last year, you’re never the same team. Because they’re a year older.”
And that’s the point: In 2008 the Falcons were a fledgling crew trying to string a few wins together; by 2011 they should have been capable of all manner of flourishes and improvisation. They should have been fully grown. But Mularkey and VanGorder, while good football men, are good in a rigid way. This team needed new eyes, new voices. This team needed to acknowledge what it could become, not what it had been.
On Sunday in Kansas City, we saw what this GM and this head coach had in mind: An offense breathtaking in its skill and precision, a defense capable of making game-changing plays. You can argue that it was just one game, but it won’t be just one game if the Falcons have anything to do with it. They regard this as the new normal.
Over the offseason, some wondered if new coordinators — Dirk Koetter on offense, Mike Nolan for the defense — could make a real difference in a team that hadn’t much changed. We already have our answer. In their last game under Mularkey, the Falcons didn’t seek to wrong-foot a ravenous Giants’ front four with screen passes. In Week 1 under Koetter, the Falcons scored their second touchdown on a screen. To Julio Jones.
By Mark Bradley