Where This Meets That
I’ve officially stopped listening to sports radio the day after Atlanta Falcons losses.
It seems the team’s “Rise-Up-idemic” catch phrase for this season has backfired. Not only is it an attrociously bad marketing gimmick, but it’s also brought out the biggest idiots in Falcondom.
Talk is growing again about how Mike Smith can’t coach, Matt Ryan can’t throw, and the sun can’t rise again for the Falcons until owner Arthur Blank throws out the baby with the bathwater.
Naturally, sports radio producers – as do most mainstream media – shoot for shock value ratings with their bipolar hyperbole. When a team wins, they field the delusionally happy callers, but when a team loses, it’s all “Chicken Little” doom and gloom. Well, the Falcons have been losing a lot thus far this season. But, as a Falcons fan, I’m tired of hearing folks calling an overcast sky a falling one.
In Defense of Mike Smith
There is tremendous parity in the NFL from week to week, which is why you constantly hear coaches saying, “a win is a win”. Of the Falcons 13 regular season wins last year, seven came by a single score. So far this season, each of the three Falcons losses has been by a single score. The knee-jerk fan (i.e., the jerk fan) might point to this as proof that last year, the Falcons were just lucky to come within ten yards of the Super Bowl.
NFL games are hard to win. Close games are inevitable, and to be successful, you must be able to win them. Before this season, exactly half of Smith’s regular season games as Falcons head coach were determined by one score or less. His winning percentage in those games was 70% (matching, incidentally, his overall winning percentage).
There’s no single-season fluke here but a protracted pattern of success. In a nutshell, Mike Smith can flat coach football.
To those ready to oust Smith, just stop it. Smith is simply the best coach the Falcons have ever had. But more than that, since Smith became head coach in 2008, only future Hall of Fame Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has won more frequently.
The Hurting Birds
So, what’s going on with Smith’s team this year? The way I see it, there are a few things playing into the poor start this season.
First up are the injuries. Consider the following list of starters who have missed games thus far:
That’s four starters on offense who have missed significant playing time, but lost is that Mike Johnson’s injury left the offensive line replacing three of five starters up front (including C -Todd McClure, retirement, and T – Tyson Clabo, free agency). The line is the single most important component for an offense and requires both talent and chemistry to be successful. Weathering a 60% personnel turnover on the line signifies a reboot for unit chemistry and, temporarily at least, hinders the individual talent that might be there to begin with.
Miscalculating their needs here is the one glaring failure of the Falcons administration in preparing for this season. Falcons management, perhaps rightfully, doubled down on defense during the offseason, but it did so at the expense of the offensive line, where they failed to bring in sufficient new talent to bridge the shakeup in chemistry. The shortfall is made worse by the loss of a supplemental sixth starting blocker, FB Brady Ewing, and by the hit-or-miss availability of all-important left tackle Sam Baker.
All these disadvantages hinder the rushing game immeasurably. Meanwhile, they also deal the passing game a major blow, because protection is less reliable and forces offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to gameplan around it. To compensate, future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez too frequently must assist with blocking instead of receiving. Add ironman Roddy White’s nagging high ankle sprain, and the passing attack suffers the compound handicap of insufficient protection and insufficient receiving options.
No wonder they’ve had trouble converting touchdown opportunities.
Defensively, the Falcons have been without key starters at each level. Defensive end Kroy Biermann, who literally plays all over the field, might be the biggest loss on that side of the ball. Behind him, the Falcons are missing their best linebacker, Sean Weatherspoon, who isn’t scheduled to return until week 11, and their senior cornerback, Asante Samuel. Samuel is plagued with a thigh injury that he re-aggravates seemingly every time he takes the field, leaving the Falcons with the youngest defensive backfield in the league.
On top of all that, the combined record of the three teams who have beat them is 11-1 (with the “1” loss coming at the hands of one of the same three teams, when New Orleans beat Miami last weekend).
Excuses are Like . . .
Of course, coaches aren’t at liberty to make excuses. Smith has repeatedly held the line that the team has failed to convert key opportunities. True. But in the NFL, where it is truly a game of inches, it’s no wonder to see games that have typically gone the Falcons’ way under Smith go the other way this season.
There are things you can control and things you can’t. Injuries to well-conditioned athletes can’t be helped, only hoped to avoid.
Leaving No Doubt
Injuries or not, the Falcons consistently start games demonstrating solid game strategy and execution. It’s not unusual for them to quickly gain a healthy control of the game and scoreboard, only to watch it slip away in the second half. This is really nothing new for the Falcons, who have historically struggled to win games at all, much less win them emphatically. But it sure is growing old.
Why can’t the Atlanta Falcons simply break the opponents’ will when they have them down, like, say, Peyton Manning’s Broncos? Perhaps this is the last obstacle standing between Smith’s Falcons and greatness.
Looking ahead to the 2nd Quarter
I’ve always loved the way Smith breaks down elements of the game to help his teams maintain focus, so here’s a quick look ahead to the season’s “2nd quarter”.
The next four opponents (Jets, Bucs, Cards, and Panthers) boast only a 5-10 collective record thus far, but it all starts with the Jets this Monday night.
On the surface, the offensively inoffensive Jets (29th in NFL in scoring) are a great opponent for the Falcons right now. Unfortunately, today’s injury report adds starting MLB Akeem Dent to the casualities list. As Dave Choate, from TheFalcoholic.com writes, the Falcons now appear to be heading into Monday Night Football “down their….deep breath…starting running back, starting left tackle, one reserve right tackle, starting defensive end, three linebackers who have had starting roles at some point this young season, and a starting cornerback.”
In other words, the Jets might be thinking the Falcons are a welcome opponent for them this week, as well.
Goalo numero uno for the Falcons is simple: beat the Jets, and get to the week 6 bye on a winning note, preferably with no new injuries, then pray the bye week brings some serious healing.
Where do you see the Falcons heading from here? Add your Comments below.