It was less than a month ago that I was discussing the still remaining holes on the Atlanta Falcons’ roster which included the left guard position. It took little more than two weeks after posting that takeaways column before the team addressed that position by signing free agent guard Chris Chester shortly after his release from the Washington Redskins.
It’s worth mentioning again as I noted last week, why that simple move is a huge step in the right direction for the Falcons organization. While Chester’s addition alone probably won’t pay huge dividends on the field, it at the very least indicates that the team is much less complacent under new head coach Dan Quinn than they were previously under Mike Smith.
I noted following the Super Bowl, that an indicator of why the New England Patriots have been one of the better teams in the league over the past decade-plus is due to their unwillingness to settle. I noted the mid-season trades for linebackers Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas as indicators of this lack of complacency. The Patriots needed to supplement their linebacker depth after a season-ending injury to Jerod Mayo and within a week were able to land both Ayers and Casillas.
While no one would argue that Ayers and Casillas were critical difference-makers as to why the Patriots ultimately won the Super Bowl, their additions are at least symptomatic of why the Patriots have been one of the better-run organizations since Bill Belichick took over the team in 2000. That team is able to identify needs and for the most part, adequately address them in a relative short period of time.
I could of course contrast that with the Falcons inability to properly address a litany of needs over the course of Smith’s tenure. I outlined many of them in a recent column illustrating the ineptitude of general manager Thomas Dimitroff, but to summarize, one has to look no further than how long the team has taken to adequately replace running back Michael Turner, tight end Tony Gonzalez, right guard Harvey Dahl, among several other positions.
This is why the Chester move is a good one even if his on-field production is average. The Falcons were playing with fire, expecting a player with limited experience (and ability) in Mike Person to step up at left guard and adequately replace one of the team’s most reliable and consistent blockers over the past eight years in Justin Blalock.
Chester is merely a stopgap, but an adequate one that should allow the Falcons to at least tread water at the left guard position for the 2015 season while they try and find a more permanent upgrade next spring. It’s no different than the Patriots did with Ayers and Casillas, both of whom are now with new teams.
It’s all symptomatic of the Falcons moving in the right direction, even though the Chester signing itself might hardly move the needle. Such moves add up over time and if the trend continues, then there’s every reason to be optimistic that in a couple of years the Falcons should be back competing at the highest levels.
But while the long-term future of the team looks very promising, that doesn’t automatically indicate that their short-term prospects are the same. However, I’ve been open about my expectations that the Falcons will improve this year despite the fact that on paper they are far from one of the more talented rosters in the league. Much of that optimism stems from the phenomenon of “culture change” that occurs with the hiring of a new coach.
Did Culture Change Prove Mike Smith’s Downfall in Atlanta?
I was listening to Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com’s “Move The Sticks” podcast this past weekend, and one of his guests, best-selling author Jon Gordon, spoke a lot about culture change and coaching itself. Gordon spoke quite a bit about Smith and the changes he instituted in Atlanta back in 2008. Gordon’s books were recommended reads to the Falcons players during Smith’s early years, and the two are currently working on another book which may shed light on why the Falcons declined the past two years from Smith’s own perspective. Gordon teased this on Jeremiah’s podcast about what insights the book might offer:
“Culture really was the key factor. The first five years [Mike Smith and the Falcons] really focused on their culture. They went to the NFC Championship and lost to the Niners. And after that it became about getting back to the Super Bowl rather than the culture and process that caused them to be so successful those five years.”
Despite many opinions about what caused the downfall of Smith, this insight from Gordon echoes my own somewhat. I’ve consistently blamed complacency as the cause of the Falcons downfall over the past two years. That complacency surfaced through the team’s attempts to find that “final puzzle piece” that would get them over the hump and into the Super Bowl as opposed to addressing many of the glaring issues that had plagued the team for multiple years.
Again, a big reason why I’m now optimistic about the Falcons’ long-term future is that over the recent months since Quinn’s hiring, the team is showing decidedly less complacency with the addition of Chester being another prominent example.
But another important reason why I expect the Falcons to see marked improvement in 2015 has less to do with that lack of complacency, and everything to do with the simple fact that they have a new head coach.
Falcons Should See a Boost From New Coach
The Falcons’ own history is rich with major improvements that have occurred during the first year of a new coaching staff. With Bobby Petrino being the lone exception, the Falcons have seen at least a four-game improvement in win totals with three of their last four coaching hires.
|Coach||First Yr||Overall Record||1-score Record||Pct.||Previous Yr||Overall Record||Difference||1-score Record||Pct.|
While there are various reasons for why those coaches and teams were able to make those improvements, one is their respective ability to win close games. In each of their first years as head coaches, the teams of Reeves, Mora and Smith were able to effectively double the winning percentage of their predecessors in games decided by one score (i.e. eight or less points).
If the same holds true for the transition of Smith to Quinn, then one can expect that instead of winning just 33 percent of their one-score games as they did in 2014, the Falcons will win at least 67 percent in 2015.
In fact, one of the hallmarks of the Smith-led Falcon teams from 2008 to 2012 was their uncanny ability to win close games. No team was better in the league over that five-year span than the Falcons in pulling out close games, winning 71 percent of their games. That obviously changed in 2013 and 2014, as their win percentage fell to a paltry 35 percent, which was among the league’s worst marks in that span.
Whether it was due to a lack of emphasis on culture as Gordon opined, it’s very clear that the team’s inability to win close games was an expression of whatever changes had gone wrong in Atlanta.
Had the Falcons been able to maintain that 71-percent rate of winning in 2013 and 2014 would have effectively resulted in six more wins over that two-year span for Smith. And that likely would have been enough to keep his job.
Falcons Defense to Blame For Inability to Win Close Games
Based off my research, I’m of the opinion that the team’s defensive struggles were the primary causes for the team’s inability to pull out close games. Essentially, the Falcons had a much harder time maintaining and sustaining leads in 2013 and 2014 due to poor defensive play than they had in the previous five years. The evidence to support this is as follows:
Falcons Scoring in 1-Score games (2008-14)
|Avg. Margin after 1st qtr||+0.24||+2.35|
|Avg. Margin after 2nd qtr||+1.44||+0.35|
|Avg. Margin after 3rd qtr||+0.37||+0.29|
|Points scored (2nd qtr)||7.5||7.5|
|Points allowed (2nd qtr)||6.3||9.5|
|Points scored (3rd qtr)||3.5||4.8|
|Points allowed (3rd qtr)||4.8||4.8|
|Points scored (4th qtr)||7.5||6.3|
|Points allowed (4th qtr)||5.8||7.9|
|Points scored (2nd-4th qtr)||18.7||18.6|
|Points allowed (2nd-4th qtrs)||16.9||22.3|
The numbers suggest that most of the Falcons defensive struggles came in the second and fourth quarters over the past two years. It’s not a coincidence that the Falcons were among the worst defenses in the league at defending drives in the final five minutes of the second and fourth quarters in 2014:
Falcons Defensive Drives in Final 5 Minutes of 2nd & 4th QuartersThese show the stats of drives that started and ended in the final five minutes of the second and fourth quarters in 2014.
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
No team gave up a higher percentage of scores or forced a lower percentage of punts than the Falcons did on drives that started and ended with five minutes to go in the second and fourth quarters last year.
Why is that stat important? Because overwhelmingly teams tend to pass in the final five minutes of each half (about 64 percent of the time). Thus the likely culprit for the Falcons’ defensive struggles in critical moments was due to their inability to stop the pass, or more accurately to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Thus it will be tantamount that Quinn’s staff reverses that trend by improving the pass rush. A Falcons team that can get effective pressure on the quarterback is a team that is better equipped to win close games because they can get the necessary stops in crunch time.
That ability to get pressure also is tied to the Falcons’ poor third-down defenses over the years as well. The correlation between pass-rush production (sacks) and third-down defense is significant as the correlation coefficient for the two since 2008 league-wide is -0.533. The reason why it’s a negative correlation is simple: as sack production goes up, the number of first downs allowed on third downs goes down (or vice versa). That isn’t an overwhelming statistical correlation on its own, but relative to pro football, it’s massive. The correlation between sack production and third-down defense is on par with that between passing and winning.
It’s widely accepted fact that if you want to win in the NFL, one must have competent to good quarterback play. Well the same can be now said about third-down defense. If one wants to get off the field on third downs, one much have a competent to good pass rush.
A big reason why you can be much more optimistic about Quinn’s fortunes in 2015 is that the Falcons should see improved pass rush this year. While I don’t think it’s realistic to expect the Falcons to have a good pass rush, there’s certainly reason to expect that they can at least be average in that regard.
The addition of Vic Beasley is a going to be a big part of that. Also, the additions of Adrian Clayborn, O’Brien Schofield, Grady Jarrett and Brooks Reed will help the defense make strides. Unlike Smith’s regime, which put all its eggs in the collective baskets of Ray Edwards and Osi Umenyiora to improve the team’s pass rush in past offseasons, the Falcons have made five additions in the hopes that they increase the odds that improvements are made.
Both Malliciah Goodman and Ra’Shede Hageman have slimmed down in their attempts to get quicker and more explosive. Their improvements, along with reduced roles for run-stoppers like Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson should also result in the Falcons generating more effective pressure this season.
So perhaps Smith might want to re-write a couple of chapters in any new book he does with Gordon explaining his downfall in Atlanta. Instead of pointing to a
“cultural disconnect,” maybe he can look no further than his own culpability in the team’s decision to part ways with John Abraham and inability to improve the pass rush over the course of his tenure as the real causes to his demise.