Atlanta Falcons Takeaways from Last Week – June 9, 2014

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Smith

It is June and this is usually the dead time in the NFL’s offseason, and often is the time when I become the most pessimistic in my outlook on my favorite football team, the Atlanta Falcons.

I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Once the NFL Draft is done, there is a sizable gap of downtime before the start of training camps in late July. Typically there is a couple of weeks of continued offseason fervor as rookies and veterans come together to work out in mini-camps and offseason team activities (OTAs) in earnest.

But usually once June hits, most of the buzz on the incoming draft class and the first looks at the veterans dies down and there’s basically six to eight weeks of waiting. It’s really the only time of year where coverage of the NFL takes a back seat to NBA playoffs, NHL playoffs, Major League Baseball, and other sports in America. Football takes a break, and this period from early June to late July is the true offseason of the league.

I myself also took a bit of a break last week. One of my relatives passed at the end of May and I was traveling to go to their funeral last weekend. That did not allow me much time to contemplate the Falcons to any degree worth writing my normal takeaways column to be published on Monday.

And I decided to take a bit of a break over the rest of the week to decompress before getting back to the grind this week.

It’s going to be an interesting summer because it’s the first time since 2008 that there is really any strain of real pessimism within the fan base. It’s a relatively foreign feeling when considering the Mike Smith Era overall. The Falcons streak of five consecutive winning seasons was snapped last year to the tune of a 4-12 record.

This offseason, the Falcons wound up with a high draft pick and serious questions about their ability to compete for a playoff spot in 2014. This offseason became one that is all too familiar for long-time Falcon fans like myself.

I’ve considered myself a Falcon fan since 1991, and while I was still very young in those earlier years, the ’90s were an era where losing was the norm.

It was an era that saw the Falcons build a bit of momentum one year to see it come crashing down the next with the long-dreaded “curse” that saw the team never have consecutive winning seasons.

But with the hiring of Mike Smith in 2008, while the trend of incongruent seasons continued, it became less drastic. When the Falcons had their normal “down” years, such as in 2009 and 2011, the team was still a good, competitive team that won more games than they lost.

Thus, the lows of 2013 is the outlier. The Falcons will be better in 2014, there is little doubt about that. They will certainly win more than four games, and likely double their win total from a year ago.

But it does make one ponder if the team is going to get back to a point where they were in 2012 any time soon. And that point was one that saw them “10 yards from the Super Bowl” which is frankly an oversimplification, but still is accurate in connoting how close the team was to reaching the proverbial mountaintop as the best team in the league.

One of the things I’ve noticed over the past five years that I’ve been reviewing Falcons games and really trying my best to become a better student of the game of football and particularly this team, is that this is a team that never really felt like one of the best teams in the league.

They often had a regular season win total that indicated they were, but that never seemed to show up come January in the postseason. Three times they were favored going into their playoff matchups, and three times they were thoroughly outplayed by supposedly “lesser” teams.

It raised questions about quarterback Matt Ryan’s ability to win big games and whether head coach Mike Smith was capable of elevating the team’s play.

I, on the other hand, began to question more and more the moves of general manager Thomas Dimitroff, particularly those made in the offseason of 2011 were good enough to get this team over the hump.

The team gave up a ton of value to move up for a wide receiver in Julio Jones. And while Jones has been magnificent when healthy for the most part over the past three seasons, the team lost a lot of valuable talent with that draft-day trade.

It’s a trade that will be endlessly debated as there are just as many reasons to dislike the move as to love it. In the end, I feel like it was not a net positive overall, but am still more than content that Jones is on the team.

He is one of the few special players currently on the Falcons roster. The term special indicating a player that fans of other teams would look at and by utterly envious.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Julio Jones (left), Roddy White

The lack of which was a reason why premium website Pro Football Focus considered the Falcons roster to be the third-weakest in the entire National Football League (link requires premium access to ESPN Insider).

It’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not complete lunacy. The truth, at least as I see it, is that the Falcons aren’t a significantly talented roster. They are a team that has had a number of big name players, but many of them like Steven Jackson, Osi Umenyiora, Asante Samuel, and even Tony Gonzalez were playing in the twilights of their careers.

Had the Falcons had players such as them in the primes of their careers, it would indeed be one of the most talented rosters in the league. But alas, one of the root causes of the team’s poor 2013 season is their inability to find such premium players in the draft and develop them.

Jones, quarterback Matt Ryan, safety William Moore and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon are the lone “home-grown” talents that this front office has acquired over the past six years. They have acquired a number of solid, complementary players such as Kroy Biermann, Thomas DeCoud, Curtis Lofton, Sam Baker, and Corey Peters, but none of them are the types of players you build around. And frankly, several of those complementary players have spent the bulks of their careers performing more like quality reserves than capable starters.

The Falcons do grade well in overall draft efficiency, because many of their draft picks stick with the team and manage to earn lots of playing time. But in several cases, that is simply because the team is devoid of a better player earning reps. A prime example of this is Garrett Reynolds. Reynolds’ 23 career starts makes him look good on paper relative to most fifth-round picks. But in reality, the subpar quality of his play means that his performance was much closer to par for a fifth-rounder, which is mediocre.

The team’s issue is the lack of premium players, and a big reason for that is their past decisions to trade out of the early rounds of the draft. The Falcons lost a first or second round pick in three consecutive drafts (2010-12) stemming from trades for Gonzalez and Jones. First and second round picks tend to make up the bulk of the players that ultimately turn into stars, evidenced by the fact that all four of the team’s home-grown talents were taken in those rounds, as well as many of the others they signed and traded for with the exception of Samuel.

However things are looking a bit up for the team, as selections like Jake Matthews and Ra’Shede Hageman at the top of this past May’s draft could become premium players for the team. I’m much more skeptical about Hageman’s ability to reach that level, but if he and Matthews both become two of the better players at their respective positions down the road, it will go a long way to bolstering this team’s overall talent on the roster.

Cornerback Desmond Trufant is coming off a strong rookie campaign, and will have an opportunity to solidify his status as one of the league’s top cornerbacks with a tough early slate of matchups in 2014.

With the expected move to left cornerback, Trufant will be expected to draw frequent matchups against Kenny Stills, A.J. Green, Vincent Jackson, Greg Jennings, Alshon Jeffery, Steve Smith, and Calvin Johnson before the Falcons’ Week 9 bye.

Robert Alford flashed potential last year, but needs to add polish to his game. He’ll be under a trial by fire, and seemingly has both the athleticism and confidence to handle it. But those things can only get you so far, as both past Falcon corners in DeAngelo Hall and Dunta Robinson had both things in spades, but weren’t always consistent.

But perhaps Alford could steal a page from Hall as opposed to Robinson. Hall has a knack for creating turnovers, and if that’s all Alford contributes to the team this year, that will be greatly appreciated.

Because let’s face it, the Falcons defense is not built to stop teams. Rather, it’s built to slow them down enough for the Falcons offense to win games. That’s been their hallmark under Smith: keep things close, and then let Ryan do his thing in the fourth quarter to pull out the win.

The issue the Falcons face in this upcoming season is whether or not Ryan will be able to do his thing. Gonzalez has been a big part of that ability to win in the end as he accounted for 19.5 percent of the team’s passing yardage from 2009-13 in the fourth quarter or overtime.

That may not seem like much, but it’s about a fifth of the pass attack. Losing Tony is like losing a finger. And not some useless digit such as the pinky or ring finger, but rather your index finger or thumb. Even simple tasks such as holding a pencil or turning a doorknob without either of the latter fingers missing becomes exceedingly difficult.

And it’s one of the reasons why I’m not overly optimistic about the Falcons chances to really make a dramatic leap forward in 2014 to get back to where they were at the end of 2012.

One of the bigger weaknesses of the Smith Era at least as far as the coaches are concerned, is their ability to adjust their offense on the fly. With a relatively vanilla offense to start with, injuries only made the team even more conservative last season.

That in my eyes is not a positive sign for the future. Had the coaches possessed the capacity to adapt, we should have seen it occur in 2013. They really had nothing to lose given they were out of the playoff hunt by midseason. They seemed to make an adjustment in Week 13 against the Buffalo Bills, being much more aggressive with taking shots downfield. But after that paid dividends in a win, they went right back to being conservative the following weeks against the Green Bay Packers and Washington Redskins.

Last year’s Falcons offense, particularly in the early going was almost exclusively Julio Jones-centric. With Roddy White nursing a bum ankle, Gonzalez drawing aggressive double teams, and Harry Douglas being his usual intermittent self, the Falcons offense basically went as far as Jones carried them in the first five games of 2013.

It’s easy to center things around Jones, because again he’s one of the team’s few premium players and can often look like Superman. But as anybody that has followed the Detroit Lions over the past seven years knows, even if you do have an other-worldly receiver, it doesn’t consistently translate into overall team success.

And thus a big question mark for this season is going to be whether or not the Falcons coaching staff can adjust to life without Gonzalez, as well as potentially life without Jones. Jones’ injury history is well-documented and thus the odds are fairly high that he’ll miss some time again in 2014.

Last year, the Falcons solution was to sign Brian Robiskie, who besides a couple of reps on special teams and one target in the end zone, did absolutely nothing for the seven weeks he spent on the roster.

This year, there needs to be a better plan in the likely event they miss Jones for any extended period of time. The Falcons offensive production, particularly Ryan’s has taken a major hit when Jones hasn’t been in the lineup.

Matt Ryan With/Without Julio Jones 2011-13

with Jones824124166.4941065235798.7
without Jones38459165.0400122204182.7

Even the number of sacks Ryan has taken dramatically rises when Jones is out of the lineup. That’s because the Falcons become a much easier team to defend and thus teams have no issue pinning their ears back and attacking the quarterback because they don’t have anybody to fear on the back end.

Roddy White is still a solid receiver, but the brunt of his work comes on the short and intermediate passes. Since 2008, White has caught 251 passes that went for 10 or less yards. That is the third-highest of any wide receiver in the league behind only Wes Welker (352) and Brandon Marshall (284). Interesting enough, Tony Gonzalez also ranks highly on that list (274).

That ability to dominate on the short throws is one of the key reasons why I believe White would be better utilized as a slot receiver in the Falcons offense than someone that lines up outside most downs.

Will the Falcons make that adjustment and feature as many lineups that have White inside with incoming speedster like Devin Hester lined up outside, or will the team stick with the lineup that features Harry Douglas in the slot and White outside?

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Devin Hester

All signs point to the latter with indications that Hester’s role will be as a situational playmaker. That is one adjustment the coaching staff appears willing to make, but how it pays off has yet to be seen.

Visions of the Seattle Seahawks’ usage of Percy Harvin in this past year’s Super Bowl immediately come to mind when contemplating Hester’s role. That would be a new wrinkle for the Falcons offense and a significant adjustment for this coaching staff.

If Hester can add significant value most weeks, it’ll be a significant step in the right direction for the Falcons, and help them improve upon their 2013 season.

My expectation for the Falcons is that they’ll be competing for another playoff berth in 2014. The difference is that in past years, where making the playoffs appeared to be a given, it appears to be tougher road ahead for the Falcons.

In previous decades, making the playoffs was a huge accomplishment for the Falcons organization. Those years would be cherished because there was no telling how many years of losing one would have to wade through to get back. But under Smith, that era seemed to be erased.

Due to my normal June pessimism, this uneasy feeling going into this summer seems to be the universe correcting itself after taking a break for five years where the Falcons were perennially a good, competitive team.

But come July, that pessimism may turn to optimism in seeing that this year is likely going to prompt a return to the winning ways under Smith previously seen in Atlanta prior to 2013.

It may be as simple as perceiving instead the gap between the Falcons and the top of the league, and appreciating the gap between them and the bottom of the league. While sites like Pro Football Focus may not be perceive the latter gap to be sizable, it’s up to the players and coaches this year to prove them wrong.

Probably the lone positive of the team’s incongruent, up and down nature from to year to year, is that they do a good job rebounding after being humbled. Their humility reached its lowest levels in 2013, and the hope is that the ensuing rebound will reach higher levels in 2014.

Again, while I don’t expect this team to win enough games to earn a No. 1 seed and be hosting an NFC title game in 2014, I do think it can lead to this team being a very tough out as a wildcard team.

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Aaron Freeman
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