Today the Falcons begin their joint practice sessions with the Cincinnati Bengals as they prepare for their preseason opener against them on Thursday night. Two days of practice, which all of the players look forward to because it’s nice to hit someone that is not your teammate. One of the more interesting developments that could come from this session will be if any fights occur. I could be mistaken but generally speaking it seems like the number of training camp fights is a lot lower with Mike Smith than previous regimes.
One of the drawbacks for these two days of joint practices will be the absence of Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green. Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford have both taken their fair share of lumps from Roddy White and Julio Jones through the first week-plus of training camp, and it would be nice to see them go against another top wideout. Green injured his knee last week, and is expected to be held out by the Bengals for this first week of preseason if not the next week. He is by far their primary offensive weapon, and they don’t want to risk further injury to him.
If there was another matchup that I’d be curious to see is how right tackles Mike Johnson and Lamar Holmes handle standout Bengals left defensive end Carlos Dunlap. Dunlap is one of the premier situational pass rushers in the league. So much so that he just earned a $40 million contract, despite the fact that he’s only technically started two games in three seasons in Cincinnati. We won’t know how much work either party will see in Thursday’s game, so how they fare in practice against a premier pass rusher like Dunlap could determine a lot about how much confidence the team has in either player. It’s probably too late for the Falcons to try and make a move in free agency to bolster the position if they don’t like what they see this week. But it could go a long way to determining just how the Falcons handle their protections this year. Most NFL teams tend to roll their protections to the left side in order to protect the blindside of the quarterback, with the Falcons being among those teams. But given all the question marks that the Falcons could have on the right side with a pair of unproven starters in Garrett Reynolds at right guard, and either Johnson or Holmes at tackle, the Falcons might have to do the opposite. Given the Falcons have invested nearly $80 million in the left side of their offensive line, it would only make sense then that they should feel comfortable enough with them to put them more on an island.
Another fascinating development will be getting to see these joint practices and the upcoming preseason game portrayed on HBO’s series Hard Knocks. The cameras are enveloping Bengals training camp for the second time in the series’ history. The Falcons have indicated that they are interested in the show in the past, but have said that the timing wasn’t right. Personally, I believe the Falcons want to be on Hard Knocks. Arthur Blank very much strikes me as the type of owner that would be very open to the idea of millions of viewers seeing the greatness that is the organization he’s built in Atlanta. But they also don’t want to deal with the potential for distractions it creates. I think they are waiting until after they win a title before we’ll see the NFL Films crew descend upon Flowery Branch. But until then, we’ll just have to settle for the taste we’ll likely receive in the second episode, which will air next Tuesday.
Thomas Dimitroff talked to ESPN Radio’s Colin Cowherd last week, discussing team chemistry, Matt Ryan’s contract extension, and at least for my ears, most importantly about Mike Smith’s job security.
Dimitroff backed his coach firmly, suggesting that Smith would not be on the hot seat if the Falcons should suffer another first-round playoff exit. I liked hearing that because I’m a firm believer that good organizations are built on three key components, a “holy trinity” of sorts at the general manager, head coach, and quarterback positions. Dimitroff spoke of stability at quarterback in that interview, but I also believe having stability at those other two spots is very important for organizational success. I don’t think it’s a secret that continuity and stability at the head coaching position helps teams a lot, but perhaps people don’t realize how much it matters at the GM spot. Just look at the recent Super Bowl winners…
Ozzie Newsome basically began running the Baltimore Ravens front office in 1996, although he wasn’t officially named GM until 2002. The Ravens won their first title in 2000 and then again in 2012. Jerry Reese took over from Ernie Accorsi in 2007 as the New York Giants GM. But both guys joined the organization and were tutored under George Young back in 1994. Accorsi took over officially for Young in 1998, and then handed the team off to Reese after the 2006 season. Reese has basically been an extension of the continuity established by Young initially. Ted Thompson took over the Green Bay Packers in 2005, ultimately culminating in the Super Bowl title five years later. Mickey Loomis joined the New Orleans Saints organization in 2000, and became GM in 2002. Kevin Colbert left Detroit to go to Pittsburgh in 2000 and was able to help build two separate Super Bowl winners under two different head coaches. The Steelers had never used the title of GM until 2010, when Colbert’s decade-long success earned him the right to be the first in team history. Bill Polian was hired by the Indianapolis Colts in 1997 before ultimately winning a title in 2006. Scott Pioli served as the New England Patriots’ de facto GM beginning in 2000. He split the role with head coach Bill Belichick to build three Super Bowl winners over the next five seasons. Even Rich McKay was the GM of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers starting in 1994 before that ultimately culminated in a title eight years later under head coach Jon Gruden.
I like the idea that Dimitroff is willing to back his coach. I believe that while Mike Smith hasn’t had great success thus far in the postseason in his five years in Atlanta, that won’t preclude him from having further success down the road. In fact, I think if anybody is lacking in the triumvirate between Smith, Ryan, and Dimitroff, it is the GM himself. Not to say that Dimitroff has done a poor job. I just think he can do better. It’s a point I was hinting at when I wrote earlier about getting Matt Ryan more help.
Mike Smith essentially is what he is. The same goes for Matt Ryan. The expectation that either entity will be drastically better over the next five years as they have been over the past five is unrealistic, if not downright foolish. Can both improve? Of course, but not by huge stretches. It’s not like Mike Smith is going to invent a new offensive or defensive scheme suddenly out of thin air. This team is one of the most disciplined teams in the league, which I believe is the primary reason behind their success in close games, and little to do with an intangible quality such as “killer instinct.” Smith already has an excellent rapport with his players. Honestly, what areas is he going to make significant improvements in that is going to make him a significantly better coach?
The same applies to Matt Ryan. Is his arm going to get significantly stronger, or will he become suddenly more mobile? He can make some improvements in those areas, but he’s not going to wake up tomorrow and be Aaron Rodgers or Cam Newton. He’s not going to wake up five years from now and be either of those guys. Ryan is already one of the more accurate and smartest quarterbacks in the league. Few operate from the neck up at a level beyond where Ryan is to date. And he’s already pacing the league as far as clutch performances when it comes to fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. What more should he be expected to do?
But the same rules don’t quite apply to Dimitroff and the front office. They could do a better job drafting. Misses like Peria Jerry, Chevis Jackson, etc. stick out. Picks on Sam Baker and Corey Peters look a little less lustrous in hindsight due to the fact that Duane Brown and Geno Atkins were taken shortly after them, two players that are arguably the best in the league at their respective positions. The Falcons really haven’t knocked one out of the park with their later round picks. Kroy Biermann is their best pick after the third round, and the rhetoric surrounding him is that he’s a really good backup rather than a solid starter.
The Falcons have had prominent free agent misses such as Dunta Robinson and Ray Edwards, neither of whom lived up to their price tags here in Atlanta.
Again, my goal is not meant to trash Dimitroff’s record, just to illustrate that it is far from perfect and unlike the head coach and quarterback, there’s every reason to believe that the personnel moves he makes can improve. There can be better decisions in free agency and the draft that lead to greater success moving forward. Especially given the sheer amount of turnover that is expected to hit this team in the coming years. And if Smith and Ryan can maintain the status quo in regards to their own excellence, and the Falcons front office takes another stride or two forward, then I believe that they have what it takes to win Super Bowls. Whether that is six months from now or six years from now remains to be seen. But the Falcons certainly have the stability in place to get there. And it seems like Dimitroff at least agrees.
But it certainly makes one wonder if Blank is on the same page as his general manager, given the rumors that were raised last January along with statements made by our illustrious owner a year before.