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Takeaways from Last Week – June 3

June 3rd, 2013

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

2013 Could be a Make or Break year for both Dent and Spoon

We’re entering the “dark time” of the NFL calendar where there isn’t a whole lot going on. Teams are conducting minicamps and OTAs and it’s the season of hype. Media members talk up this new free agent or rookie, or that new assistant coach or coordinator, and how it’s going to pay big dividends for their respective team. Sometimes it does, but most times it does not.

Teams have got to sell tickets, and it doesn’t feel right putting down hundreds of your hard-earned dollars for an inferior product. So they have to sell you on how your team’s product is going to be superior and merit that investment. For good teams like the Falcons, that means talking up Super Bowl possibilities. For mid-level teams like say the Panthers, it means talking up playoff potential. For cellar-dwelling teams that are rebuilding like the Raiders, it’s usually about how management has things moving in the right direction.

I apologize for my cynicism, but I can’t help it. For whatever reason, it’s always the month of June where I get the most skeptical, pessimistic, and negative about the upcoming season. Maybe it’s the freshness of the draft starts to wear off, and now we sit in this lull waiting for training camp to come around. Maybe it’s just my impatience making me bitter. No different than waiting in an overly long line to get into a store or venue, and beginning to wonder if the product or event is really worth all this fuss. This is why I don’t shop on Black Friday.

I think it’s also because I have a tendency to be contrarian. Not to extreme measures, but if you have a certain viewpoint, I enjoy exploring the opposite viewpoint. I was never on the debate team in high school, but I think I probably would have enjoyed it. You think Player A is going to have a breakout year for B and C reasons, well then I’ll start to think about D and E reasons why you’re wrong.

Speaking of breakout candidates, I’m actually not sure if I can think of many for the Falcons this year. At least no one I’m really confident is poised for a big 2013 season. I’m sure there is going to be a player a lot like Robert McClain, that sort of comes out of nowhere and becomes a key contributor for the team. But I can’t really wager a guess because it really comes from nowhere.

But there are a number of Falcon players that I hope have breakout years and really become big-time contributors in 2013.

Chief among those players is linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. Now you may be scratching your head at the suggestion that Spoon could “break out” since he already did so in 2011. And indeed he did, becoming arguably the league’s top 4-3 outside linebacker. But for lack of a better word, he regressed in 2012. Injuries were a factor, but he just never really seemed to mesh well with Mike Nolan’s scheme. I think the Falcons over-reliance on the nickel formation had him being more of a point of attack player, which has never really been Spoon’s strength. He’s more of a guy that you want to get out in space and makes plays on the edge or in pursuit. My hope is that in 2013, with a year in the system and hopefully staying healthy we’ll see him start to revert to the sort of playmaker he was in 2011. Next season will be a contract year for Spoon, and along with Julio Jones, he’ll be in prime position to get a big extension at market value. But he needs to have a rebound season. I don’t think Spoon should lose any sleep over not being in the team’s long-term plans, but how good a year he has in 2013 could impact how well he’s compensated.

Sticking on the defense, I also think Akeem Dent and Corey Peters really need to have strong seasons. I wasn’t a big fan of Dent’s drafting at the time. Frankly, the same could be said of Peters selection a year earlier. I thought Geno Atkins was a much better player at the time, but I’m not going to sit here and play the coulda-woulda-shoulda game. Peters is entering a contract year, and while he’s flashed ability to be a good starter from time to time, he hasn’t done so for a complete season. He needs to have one of those, otherwise I’m not going to be feel good about giving him a long-term contract next off-season. I don’t think Peters is ever going to be the type of defender that can take over a game, but playing second fiddle to another good defensive tackle (as he has over the past three years with Jonathan Babineaux), I think he’s more than capable in that role. I just haven’t seen it yet for more than a handful games. I’m willing to write off his subpar performance last year due to injury. But in 2011, he started the year strong but was a disappearing act over the latter half of the year.

As for Dent, I was highly critical of him last year, calling for his benching midway through the year in favor of Mike Peterson. But I do think some of his issues last year were due to his lack of experience. He wasn’t very good making plays against the inside run, struggling to get off blocks. When he did make plays, they almost always came outside the tackle box. That’s not a good trait in a middle linebacker. If that doesn’t change, the Falcons need to think long and hard about moving him to the strongside in 2014. Stephen Nicholas is probably playing his last year in Atlanta, as he carries a $4 million cap hit next year, and I don’t see the Falcons bringing him back unless he is willing to take a major paycut.

But part of Dent’s problem was that he wasn’t reading and reacting to plays as quickly as you want in a middle linebacker, which allowed blockers to easily get position against him and clear running lanes for the backs, a key ingredient in why the Falcons run defense was so poor in 2012. If he gets better and quicker at diagnosing, that shouldn’t be as big an issue. The other area I hope Dent can showcase some skill is in coverage. He seemed a bit lost at times there on his limited opportunities there last year, another sign of youth. Hopefully things start to click this year. Athletically speaking, he’s certainly a notch above Nicholas in terms of his ability to drop into coverage. Nicholas has some of the stiffest hips I’ve ever seen in a starting linebacker, which is a major reason why he struggles in man coverage. Dent shouldn’t have that problem, although he’s a far cry from Spoon in that regards. I don’t expect Dent to become a big-time player, but I am just looking for clear signs of improvement. How much improvement will determine whether Dent is a potential fixture at middle linebacker or should be making a positional change in the near future.

Switching to offense, I’m looking at the offensive line for breakout candidates. Several players really need to step up this year. Frankly, every single one of the starters needs to step up. I don’t expect Sam Baker to show much improvement coming off his best season as a Falcon, as he just needs to at least maintain the status quo. Justin Blalock is solid, but is being paid like he’s good and that needs to change. I need to see more impact performances from Blalock as a blocker, where he is a real difference maker in the trenches (more key blocks). Konz needs to bounce back from a very lackluster rookie season and solidify the center spot. I know Todd McClure wasn’t that popular among a significant portion of the fan base, and despite clearly being a diminished player in 2012, he still was largely effective. At the very least, that needs to be a starting point for Konz. He has the potential to be much more, and could be a real breakout candidate this year. Whoever lines up at right guard needs to be more than just effective, he actually has to be good. Simply put, the Falcons made a mistake by letting Harvey Dahl, and there’s been a black hole there ever since. The Falcons for years struggled to find a nickel back until McClain stepped up last year. They can’t let right guard become the same. Lamar Holmes has big shoes to fill by replacing Tyson Clabo. Clabo wasn’t always our best linemen, but generally speaking he was our most consistent. Prior to last year, you knew what you could expect from Clabo week in and week out. He wasn’t a dominator, but rarely a liability. Last year, the liability side emerged a bit too often and I believe ultimately lead to his release. I think the Falcons learned their lesson from the Michael Turner debacle, and opted to dump Clabo a year too early rather than a year too late. I like Holmes’ potential, and if Pat Hill can coach some nasty out of him he has the ability to be an immediate upgrade as a run blocker. I still like Johnson over Reynolds since the latter’s height can be a liability, and I believe Johnson also has better feet. But Reynolds is much more tested, and really with Johnson it’s all potential. But frankly, even if Reynolds wins the job initially, if 2013 is like the past two years, it won’t last.

My hope is that the presence of Steven Jackson will energize the line to a much greater degree than they appeared to be when blocking for Turner. My hope for Jackson is that he can help keep the Falcons on schedule offensively on early downs, but mainly is that he can be a finisher late in games which is what the Falcons really lacked in 2012. When they needed a yard, they almost never got it. I can’t really blame that all on Turner, because the facts are that the offensive line just wasn’t good enough to generate push. I hope that changes, and the team’s investment in players like Baker and Blalock bear fruit this year, and young guys like Holmes, Johnson, Reynolds, or Holmes can really start to add rather than take away up front.

***

The past two weeks, I’ve devoted a portion of this column to discuss division foes in the Buccaneers and Panthers, and was planning on discussing the Saints a bit this week. But I think I’ll save the rival Saints for next week, and devote the rest of this column to discuss Tim Tebow.

Yes, along with the click of your mouse scrolling down this page, I hear your audible eye roll. But I suspect this might be the last time I get to discuss Tebow at length for some time, and so I will do so. Not to mention the title of this column is takeaways from last week, where Tebow was a regular part of the football news cycle, while the Saints weren’t.

It appears that Tim Tebow’s career in the NFL is done, even if his dad doesn’t think so. I’ve opined on this in the past, but there is a good article for ESPN the Mag that talks about the demise of Tebow. It’s a good read, and a few things jumped out at me when I read it.

And while he appears to be a man of high character and principles, Tebow seems to have a blind spot for the steep level of humility required of a backup. He was fined repeatedly by the Broncos’ kangaroo court for refusing to publicly censure supporters who erected a pro-Tebow billboard early in the 2011 season. “Tim’s religion isn’t a factor at all,” Dungy says. “People don’t care about your lifestyle off the field as long as you’re performing every week. If he’s getting blackballed, it’s because backup quarterbacks are not supposed to be the focus, and if Tim’s on your team, he’s the sole focus. Nobody wants to be answering those questions all day long, every day, from the fans, media and teammates.”

That probably best summarizes why no teams are willing to touch Tebow even as a backup. I think back to our very own Luke McCown. The only time you heard or saw McCown, was after the Falcons scored a touchdown and television cameras would pan over to the sideline to see the team celebrating. McCown was typically the first and loudest cheerleader, congratulating teammates, especially Matt Ryan, as they came off the field. Teams don’t want backups that are going to overshadow their starters. And starters certainly don’t want backups that are going to overshadow them. Regardless of whether Tebow wants to or not, his presence does that.

More troubling for potential employers is that Tebow struggled badly with the mental side of the game, according to a league source. At age 7, he was diagnosed with dyslexia, a learning disability that affects how he reads and processes information, such as a playbook or game plan. Tebow won a Heisman Trophy and two BCS titles and graduated from Florida with a 3.7 GPA. But he scored a below-average (for QBs) 22 on his Wonderlic test. As a kinesthetic learner, Tebow absorbs information better through using flash cards and hands-on repetitive experience than the traditional method of memorizing diagrams, notes and Polaroids from a playbook. That doesn’t mean Tebow isn’t smart or that he couldn’t develop into a brilliant, quick-thinking quarterback. It just hasn’t happened yet.

That is quite the revelation. Reminds me of Michael Vick, who also has struggled with the “cerebral” aspects of playing the position, even to this day. Vick’s athleticism has more than made up for those issues, and one could also see similar things for Tebow. But it doesn’t lead to consistency. As we saw here in Atlanta and now in Philadelphia, the Eagles are highly inconsistent team with Vick at the helm. And when you have an inconsistent quarterback, if you can’t couple that with consistently good defensive play and a balanced ground attack, it’s hard to win week in and week out. Look at a team like the Seattle Seahawks. Russell Wilson is a good player, but particularly early in the 2012 season he was highly inconsistent passer. But with Marshawn Lynch and one of the league’s top defenses to lean on, the Seahwks had little issue navigating that. Unfortunately, the Jets probably had the ingredients more so than most teams to make a quarterback like Tebow work, with a good defense and a commitment to (albeit limited production from) the running game.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Flutie re-living his glory days in 2012

The next stop for Tebow might just be Canada, and former CFL great Doug Flutie apparently agrees.

In 1988, Flutie started 9 games with the New England Patriots, earning a 6-3 record with them. It prompted Dr. Z to write this article in November of that year, that opened with this line.

There has to be a place in Pro football for Doug Flutie. If there isn’t, then something is wrong with the sport. In the New England Patriots’ last five games, all of which he started, plus a sixth in which he relieved quarterback Tom Ramsey and led the team to victory, the Pats have gone 4-2. Before Flutie took over, they were 1-3.

Sound familiar? I know I’ve uttered a similar argument of why Tebow deserves a shot in the NFL.

Flutie would get another chance the following year, but after a poor performance against none other than the Falcons in Week 6 of that year, the plug would be pulled on his NFL prospects. He headed to Canada the following year.

After eight outstanding years in Canada, Flutie would make his return to the NFL with the Buffalo Bills in 1998, as a backup to Rob Johnson, who the Bills had given up a first round pick for (which ultimately turned into Fred Taylor). Flutie would post a 21-9 record over the next three seasons, using his trademark mobility to compensate for his lack of height and struggles to throw from within an NFL pocket. While the big, strong-armed, but slow-footed Johnson would bumble his way to a 8-10 record in that span. But the Bills continually tried to get a return on their investment in Johnson, committing to him in 2000 and running Flutie out of town. He eventually landed in San Diego in 2001, but after a losing year, he spent the next three years as the backup behind Drew Brees.

Now, I don’t think Tebow will go to Canada and eventually turn into Flutie. But if he was to spend several seasons there and become a more capable and accomplished passer. Tebow turns 26 in August, and say by the time he turns 30, if he has shown significant improvement, he might get another chance in the NFL. However, even upon a return to the NFL, similarly to Flutie, I doubt any team will go “all in” with him. But he could come in and compete with some young guy who may not be quite cutting it and give that team a boost.

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