In losing a nothing game, the Falcons risked losing far more

The scariest sight of a mostly splendid season. (AJC photo by Johnny Crawford)

Presenting the scariest sight of a mostly sublime regular season. (AJC photo by Johnny Crawford)

For the coach of a team that cannot improve its playoff positioning, there’s no right way to approach a game that doesn’t matter. If you rest your starters, you chance an edge being lost. If you play them, you leave yourself open to the vagaries of football. Mike Smith stated his intentions — the Falcons would play to win — and stuck to his word. Give him that, if nothing else.

With 11:42 remaining in the regular season, the Falcons’ only real pass rusher was helped from the field after getting tangled with teammate Peria Jerry. John Abraham exited with a bad ankle, and right about here folks stopped seeing Smith as the coach who can’t get it right on fourth-and-1 and started castigating him as the guy who’d sacrificed a key asset in a game of no value.

Already cornerback Dunta Robinson had been taken the locker room with an injury — he’d led with his head yet again — and Asante Samuel, the other corner, had done his weekly limp-off-and-return. Matt Ryan, on whom everything depends, had absorbed a series of frightful hits. And all this for what? To finish 14-2, as opposed to 13-3? To win a game whose result would be forgotten 10 seconds after the final whistle?

“It’s up to the coach,” tight end Tony Gonzalez said, speaking of the approach to such a negligible game. “He told us what his plans were. It was no secret. We just got beat.”

The Falcons played to win and lost anyway. No big deal. What could be a huge deal is if the availability of Abraham and/or Robinson for the playoff opener is compromised by the injuries sustained in Game 16.

Of Abraham, Smith said: “The early report is that it’s minor. We’re not overly concerned … Tomorrow we’ll know a whole lot more.”

Of Robinson: “Dunta, I think, will be fine.”

Then this: “We’ve got two weeks. That’s why we play these 16 games, to get that bye. There’s a big advantage not having to line up in six or seven days and go play in the second season.”

Since the Falcons convened in July, they’ve known that nothing they accomplished in this regular season — even if they wound up with the NFL’s best record, which is what happened — would register if they can’t win a playoff game. That’s what made Sunday’s doings so weird: With the precious playoffs almost at hand, they got caught up in the meaningless.

The good news was that neither injury appears as bad as it might have been. “I’m fine,” Robinson said in the locker room. “But they’ve (meaning publicists, citing a team rule about injured players giving interviews) gagged me.”

Privately, Falcons officials were relieved that Abraham’s ankle left ankle didn’t swell. But the left ankle is rather essential for a right defensive end, and the Falcons will need Abraham at full gallop if they’re to win the Super Bowl.

Said free safety Thomas DeCoud: “That’s one guy you definitely don’t want getting hurt.”

Asked about the insistence on playing the starters the entire game, DeCoud said: “It’s a Catch-22. If you play them and somebody gets hurt, everyone points the finger.”

The belief here is that Smith dared too greatly, that he assumed way too much risk for very little reward. In his defense, history offers little guidance on the issue of regular-season momentum vis-a-vis postseason success.

The past two Super Bowl champs (Packers and Giants) had to win Games 15 and 16 just to reach the postseason, and neither had a Round 1 bye. The 2009 Saints lost their final three regular-season games and still won the Super Bowl. The 2007 Patriots went flat-out in their regular-season finale against the Giants to get to 16-0 but were beaten in the Super Bowl by the same Giants. The 2005 Colts were 14-0 but chose to play Peyton Manning sparingly in Games 15 and 16 (losing both) and were ousted in their first playoff game.

To no great surprise, the Falcons appeared caught between Sunday. They weren’t quite sure how hard to try, so they wound up falling 13 points behind a Tampa Bay team that hadn’t won since Nov. 18. The inevitable — inevitable when you consider that Ryan took every offensive snap — rally fell a touchdown short.

Again, no big deal. And it’s possible that Sunday’s injuries won’t amount to much and the Flowery Branch Birds will be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy five weeks hence. Still, a game of no consequence needn’t have spawned such drama.

“I didn’t even see John,” Jerry said, speaking of his collision with Abraham. “I heard him make an unusual noise and turned to see him holding his ankle.”

It isn’t known whether Mike Smith, seeing the same image, likewise made a noise. We can, however, guess what his words might have been.

Further reading: As for the game itself, it was pretty crummy, too.

By Mark Bradley




321 comments Add your comment

dean

December 30th, 2012
6:12 pm

First? No way.

See you in 2 weeks!

Mark Bradley

December 30th, 2012
6:16 pm

Dean takes the kudos

D in ATL

December 30th, 2012
6:20 pm

Two weeks from now the new season begins. That’s when the verdict will be read.

Chris

December 30th, 2012
6:20 pm

Not a good idea at all to play the starters just for momentum…then lose players and the game on top of that.

James

December 30th, 2012
6:23 pm

Last year when we destroyed TB, people were saying we showed our hand and should have rested, and lost in the 1st round. This year when we wanted to build up momentum going into the postseason, it was that we should have rested. You can never find a happy medium.

Stinger 2

December 30th, 2012
6:24 pm

Smith made a decision that was his to make. It was risky but give him credit for not backing off after he said we are going to try to win this game. Second guessing is much easier. So I am guessing that there will be many negative comments about
Smitty`s decision on this blog.

Connie Lingous

December 30th, 2012
6:25 pm

Nice article, Mark; not following DeCoud’s comparison of the decision to a Catch-22, but whatever.

Smitty is coaching very tight, the players are feeling it; that’s what it comes down to, I’m afraid. He’s doing it this way because it’s the opposite of what he did in 2010; word is the practice schedule this week is constructed as the opposite of 2010. Really? We lost in 2010 because we didn’t have explosive offense, which I thought we fixed.

Reads to me he wants to have a pre-baked CYA when he asks Art to pass the salt over dinner two weeks from tomorrow.

Hope I’m wrong.

Your Facebook Friend

December 30th, 2012
6:26 pm

Same ol’ Falcons. Look for a one and done in the Playoffs. LOL.

ghoicov

December 30th, 2012
6:27 pm

Play calling on both sides of the ball was vanilla. Looked like a 3rd preseason game. Were they trying to win? Of course. But how hard? I doubt much game planning went into this and certainly no offensive or defensive wrinkles were shown.

Interesting

December 30th, 2012
6:27 pm

Let your 2nd and 3rd stringers run around while the starters sit. A teams win column doesn’t mean squat unless they win it all. 16-0 Patriots during the regular season? The only thing people remember is them losing the Super Bowl, not their record.

Skeezix

December 30th, 2012
6:29 pm

Uh oh…and lost anyway. Lost to the lowly Bucs. I don’t have a good feeling about this.

MTSeats

December 30th, 2012
6:29 pm

MB, of little interest, but, how does the NFL union review calls? If Julio Jones ‘blocked in the back’ then I’m the Pope.

QB/DB

December 30th, 2012
6:30 pm

Plain Stupid!!!!!!!!!! What is the priority???? I thought it was the Playoff’s and the Super Bowl? Smith and some fans wanted to keep the Falcons sharp are you kidding me!!! We were just lucky Ryan didn’t get hurt, he took some shots! If those guys can’t go full speed and we lose Smith has set himselve up to make one of the dumbest decisions of all time! I pray I’m WRONG!

JSS

December 30th, 2012
6:35 pm

I told you were going to need “good luck” with this bunch this weekend! Geez, the crass is out for blood!!!

Peria Jerry is the defensive player of the game!!!

TOM

December 30th, 2012
6:35 pm

Did not even read your comments but what a bunch of idiots. I have supported the falcons from out of town since 1978 and spend the money to fly in for games but could not believe they left the starters in that long. Momentom my ass. They have a week off. We need to grow up. Abraham, Spoon and Dunta better be ready to go or Mike Smith will be hearing from me. This is a different team than ever before with Nolan and Dirk coaching. I hold Smith accountable

Eric C.

December 30th, 2012
6:37 pm

“Of Abraham, Smith said: ‘The early report is that it’s minor. We’re not overly concerned … Tomorrow we’ll know a whole lot more.’”

Isn’t that what they said about Weatherspoon early this season…we know how long he was out. Let’s really hope it’s “minor.”

Mr. Mustard

December 30th, 2012
6:38 pm

Well, it is hard to get angry with Mike Smith, the Falcons’ coach who has been part of the best records in franchise history. However, there are concerns and we have mentioned them long before today, about Mr. Smith.

I say, if not for Mr. Blank and Mr. Dimitroff we probably would not have changed coordinators this season, because coach Smith is a loyal leader. That is good up to a point.

Smith seems to want to stay in one mode, as in ground and pound, and stay with what got you here, so to speak.

His lack of adjustments in previous seasons are well known on this board and to Falcons’ faithful.

Sometimes, Mike Smith seems over his head and unsure of himself, on camera and with game plans.

Seriously, the defense we fielded in previous playoffs were laughable, where they seemed constantly surprised that the Cardinals, Giants and Packers + (Saints) threw the ball on third downs.

Now we have Smith, commit to win yet make conservative calls during the game. He seemed to not take the game as seriously as he said it would be, thus playing our starters in total for this meaningless game.

I don’t oppose his decision, I suspect his weakness is taking chances, except when he lurches into an emotional outburst to prove a point like in the Saints game last year.

I think we have a journeyman coach in Mike Smith. A great person, a good football man but not a visionary. Without the demands of his superiors we would have few changes, and a predictable team.

I hope I am wrong, but frankly I am beginning to think the weak link in our otherwise excellent organization, on the rise and making long term franchise decisions – is Mike Smith.

The tentative, conservative approach does not win championships. You must adjust, you must adapt during the game, as well as each week.

Today was puzzling. Either go out there and play to win, or give them a few reps and then bring in the second string.

With all that said, I hope the Falcons have a creative and aggressive plan for their next opponent. I bet the opponent will not be surprised that we go for it on third down and long, or fake a punt.

Go Falcons, I am a fan – but it is time to realize that you are worthy – you belong and once in the playoffs, you must change when required.

Bradley Curse

December 30th, 2012
6:38 pm

“Of Abraham, Smith said: “The early report is that it’s minor. We’re not overly concerned … Tomorrow we’ll know a whole lot more.”

Of Robinson: “Dunta, I think, will be fine.”

If Smithy thinks they’ll be fine, that means they won’t be playing when the Falcons open at home in a few weeks. Based on previous comments he’s made about injuries, his injury guesses …. are crap!

GB's Hamburgers

December 30th, 2012
6:41 pm

Some players were playing …. some were not. The offensive was definitely not. TB had the worst pass defense in the NFL but our recievers couldn’t shake them today. With them covered and the O line not blocking, it was a hazzardous day at the office for Ryan.

Hillbilly D

December 30th, 2012
6:46 pm

I said back during the week that I thought they should play the starters, to avoid a 2 week layoff and coming out flat in Round 1 of the playoffs. I’ll stand by that, I still think it was the right thing to do.

Eric C.

December 30th, 2012
6:47 pm

@Mr. Mustard, good points

JSS

December 30th, 2012
6:48 pm

When I made a fuss about not trusting Jeff Fish and the Falcons training staff, people pooh-poohed me… Good luck with trusting that bunch

Big Crimson 75

December 30th, 2012
6:52 pm

Mr mustard — one can get angry with Smitty.
Yes, he owns the best record in franchise history.
Yes, he has 5 straight winning seasons.

However, Smith has the benefit of more talent than any falcon coach in history — by miles!!
…and, we’re still waiting on a playoff Win.

Big Crimson 75

December 30th, 2012
6:56 pm

…..and you’re correct, he is clearly the weak link of this Football Team.

ATLtodolavida

December 30th, 2012
6:57 pm

Abraham has had injury problems throughout his career and is a seasoned vet. Should have been rested!!!! BIGGER FISH TO FRY. Reminds me of when he injured his thumb against Carolina in a meaningless last play of a game against Carolina. Give Sidbury a chance.

ATLtodolavida

December 30th, 2012
6:58 pm

Jim Mora was Coach in that Carolina game.

Michael M.

December 30th, 2012
7:00 pm

I think Mike Smith knows he has to get wins in the playoffs now or he will be like poor Andy Reid out there in no mans land looking for a new start or looking for something………I wish we had Andy in Atlanta………..maybe I am nuts but that is one heck of a good Coach, he just had a Coach killer QB so it is what it is

Saints R.E.A.M.

December 30th, 2012
7:03 pm

Mike Smith is laughable. Too stubborn and not smart. He is more cheerleader/motivator than elite coach. You better hope the birds can win in spite of his shenanigans.

Hillbilly D

December 30th, 2012
7:03 pm

Smith has the benefit of more talent than any falcon coach in history — by miles!!

That’s an arguable point but he doesn’t have Jeff Van Note, Mike Kenn, Warren Bryant and R C Theilemann or anything comparable to them.

DeepDiver

December 30th, 2012
7:07 pm

Smith is a great leader of man and a fine football coach.

A tactician — and this criticism extends to game management, in-game decisions, strategy, etc — he is not. Many, many errors in clock management, 1pt/2pt decisions and 4th down decisions over the years, and now Startergate 2012 along with the Challenge Gaffe against Arizona.

The odd thing is that TD is such a sharp thinker — seems he would have someone of a similar pedigree for his head coach.

All I'm Saying Is....

December 30th, 2012
7:11 pm

This was not a tough decision. This was not a Catch-22. This was an easy call and Coach Smith blew it. All he had to do SINCE IT WAS A MEANINGLESS GAME was play his key folks for the first half to keep them sharp and then rest them. If he had told all his players this beforehand, then they would have known to play hard and then they were done. The key players are easy to spot and should be well known by our coach. I would say they are Ryan, Turner, Julio, Roddy, and Tony G. on offense and Abraham and at least your two starting cornerbacks on defense. Dumb decision all the way around by Smith and somebody at the AJ/C, or FOX or ESPN ought to have the nerve to call him out. When the Falcons win in 2 weeks, none of this will matter.

LET’S GO FALCONS!

Dawgdad (The Original)

December 30th, 2012
7:12 pm

Terrible choice for Smith, but he wound up with the worst of the bad outcomes. If he wins his first playoff game, all will be right in his world. If he loses, whether he played the starters and tried to win or just went through the motions and lost, he is going to be severely criticized.

Losing the playoff game will make whatever he did today seem to be at fault. There was no solution available to him to avoid this scenario, assuming he loses. To avoid criticism for today, he has to win the playoff game.

JSS

December 30th, 2012
7:13 pm

Andy Reid for all his great attributes has a big albatross around his neck, never built great offensive lines or took advantage of great running backs Westbrook and McCoy… No excuse for that…

Big Crimson 75

December 30th, 2012
7:13 pm

Good to see Michael Jenkins hasn’t lost his “touch”!

techmule

December 30th, 2012
7:13 pm

Mark bradley,they (FALCONs) have nothing to risk.You have no clue whats going on.YOU sports writers in ATLANATA have no class in nothing but speaking about what you thats right you THINK whats going on. AS long as AJC keeps ya”ll around, all the TEAMS in THE little ATLANATA are going to be losers all the time.NOW that being said,Abraham,Dunta robinson,Asante samuel are a blissing in deguish.TO start with.if ABRAHAM is the best player on deffence we are in big time trouble .show me just one time just one time where he has made a tackle of any kind werther one for a lose are a qb.sack. on (HIS) own.MAYBE one and thats it.THE rest has landing in his lap a give me.FOR you all writers and team mates and espn and all the media tell us that he is a big time lost if he dosen:t make it back show how much respect you have for the ticket buyers which is NONE. THESE 3 players are no where the players yall say they are.NEVER was with ATLANTA. MIGHT use to be ,but not now.NOW if DUMb_ a$$ will play the second stringers we will win.

Michael M.

December 30th, 2012
7:14 pm

Falcons may have lost today and upset some of us fans but they hold the best record in the entire NFL at 13-3 so it speaks volumes on who they are this year………………….Time to rise up !

Hillbilly D

December 30th, 2012
7:14 pm

If he had told all his players this beforehand, then they would have known to play hard and then they were done.

Shouldn’t they play hard any time they’re on the field?

MTSeats

December 30th, 2012
7:15 pm

There is no limit for the team, buy your psl now!

phil

December 30th, 2012
7:15 pm

Of Abraham, Smith said: “The early report is that it’s minor. We’re not overly concerned … Tomorrow we’ll know a whole lot more.”
*********

Here’s phil’s take….

He couldn’t walk at all. Smith thinks we’re all idiots. I hope he’s somehow right, not that it will matter since we can’t rush the passer, can’t stop the run and can’t run it ourselves.

Requiem Queen

December 30th, 2012
7:15 pm

Wow. Falcons played starters all game and tried to win and got beat by the putrid Bucs who had lost 5 straight games previously. The Falcons will be one and done in playoffs. This IS the same team that lost to Giants last year & Packers 2 years ago in playoffs. No offensive line pass protection. Ryan was running every play ! Then on defense they get zero pressure on Josh Johnson. Did anyone else nothing that ? With or without Abraham they get no pressure on qbs and Rodgers,R.Wilson,Kaepernick,R.Wilson,etc. will pick Falcons secondary apart. And we all know it.
Falcons should have signed Cliff Avril in off season.

Big Crimson 75

December 30th, 2012
7:16 pm

Haha — right on que MJ

NtheNo

December 30th, 2012
7:17 pm

Folks – this is the Falcons, they had a great regular season but are at the end of the run. Falcons finish 13-4.

Eric C.

December 30th, 2012
7:17 pm

Techmule, I haven’t called anyone an idiot in a long time, but you are pushing my limits.

Kugs

December 30th, 2012
7:19 pm

Lots of Monday morning quarterbacking going on in the comments above. Who, in their right mind, would be calling for the head of Mike Smith as Falcons coach? The man has brought us a winning program! Out of all of the shoulda-coulda-woulda comments, how many of you were on the field today? That’s what I thought.

Have you ever considered that maybe the reason the Falcons have never won a Super Bowl is the fact that their fan base is so weak? It’s time to “Rise Up” and get behind the Falcons! Let’s show the world we’re a first class city, proud of our team and grateful for our top notch players and coaches!

78dawg

December 30th, 2012
7:19 pm

There is DUMB and there is STUPID. Playing the starters today was plain STUPID. On top of that they played like crap and LOST to a lowly ranked defense. Who is the one player we couldn’t afford to lose besides Ryan? Yes..you guessed it..JOHN ABRAHAM ! Smith should be praying he gets healthy quick. Everybody praises Smith for what he is and has done. Well today he deserved to be gone…SO for the next 2 weeks..Smith should study hard…..the O-line should learn how to block..and DeCoud should learn how to tackle…Miserable day all around.

Kugs

December 30th, 2012
7:22 pm

One other thing, Mark Bradley. Did you pay for your ticket to the game today, or were you there on a complimentary press pass?

All I'm Saying Is....

December 30th, 2012
7:23 pm

Hillbilly D, don’t be naive as I know you are smarter than that. NFL players, contrary to popular opinion, are not stupid. They knew that this game was meaningless, that the next game is what matters (i.e. getting a playoff win and more playoff money), and they also want to avoid injury. What they don’t know is whether their coach really means it when he says publicly that he wants to win the game and if he says he does, then they can’t help but wonder why would he believe such a thing. So my point is say whatever you want to the media but be straight with your players using words like “Guys, we all know this game doesn’t matter at all but we need to get some game speed reps in to keep our edge so I want you all to bust it for the first half and then we’ll rest our key folks so that we are ready when the tournament starts.”

LET’S GO FALCONS!

phil

December 30th, 2012
7:23 pm

TOM
December 30th, 2012
6:35 pm

Did not even read your comments but what a bunch of idiots. I have supported the falcons from out of town since 1978 and spend the money to fly in for games but could not believe they left the starters in that long. Momentom my ass. They have a week off. We need to grow up. Abraham, Spoon and Dunta better be ready to go or Mike Smith will be hearing from me. This is a different team than ever before with Nolan and Dirk coaching. I hold Smith accountable

*******
uh oh….

Smith might be hearing from TOM. I’m sure he’ll be sweating hearing from big, bad Tom.

Tom, take your meds, ok? Then your fantasy world will seem less real.

Michael M.

December 30th, 2012
7:24 pm

Anytime you play rivals in your division you can be beaten, it just wasn’t a win today……………………………………..

DeepDiver

December 30th, 2012
7:24 pm

Way to go Mike! Great coaching out there today!!!!!!! Had the Super Bowl right in front of us, but couldn’t come up with enough plays there at the end. I guess there’s always next year!!

***checks schedule***

You mean we can still get to the Super Bowl even though we LOST today??!!!!!!!!!!