Fairly or unfairly, I’ve earned a reputation for being negative when it comes to my opinions on the Atlanta Falcons. But I think it would be more accurate to describe me as critical when it comes to talking about my favorite team.
I think it’s an important distinction. There is no denying that I have been quick to criticize when the team makes mistakes. I like to believe that when the team does well, I’m just as quick to praise. But perhaps my perception of that doesn’t meet reality.
But if that is the case, I think that has do with the fact that there’s been relatively little to praise throughout the calendar years of 2013 and 2014. It’s not to mean that everything the Falcons did over those two years was bad, but the bad certainly outweighed the good. That was certainly evident on the field as they lost more than twice as many games as they won in that span.
I’m of the belief, or rather the conviction, that the main culprit for those failures is none other than general manager Thomas Dimitroff, and I have been very reluctant to hold my tongue in speaking about that.
That’s not to mean that Dimitroff is solely responsible for all the things that went wrong for the Falcons over the past two years, but essentially he’s the boss. Arthur Blank may own the team and Dimitroff may ultimately report to him, but in terms of the guy that is actually running things in Atlanta, it’s Dimitroff that is the shot-caller.
I think far too many Falcon fans have been quick to pass the buck when it comes to being critical of Dimitroff and the poor job he’s done over the years. Part of the reason why some might call me overly critical of the Falcons GM might be due to my desire to make up for the lack of criticism that he’s received in recent years.
My criticisms essentially boil down to my belief that the primary failure of Dimitroff has been both his inability to identify and address the weaknesses of the team he’s supposed to be stewarding.
I have little to no complaints about the job that Dimitroff did during his first three years in Atlanta beginning in 2008. He certainly didn’t bat 1.000 when it came to his personnel moves, but most of the misses were defensible. However, I think things in Atlanta took a decided turn during the lockout year in 2011.
I believe the team wrongly assumed they were a few pieces away from being a Super Bowl team, but even that criticism is debatable. After all, the addition of Julio Jones was certainly a critical factor in getting the team on the doorstep of the Super Bowl in 2012.
I’ve explained before that the Falcons essentially punted on the 2011 and 2012 drafts thanks to the litany of picks they gave up via trade to get Jones. As far as I’m concerned, it’s an incontrovertible fact that the team’s inability to acquire sufficient talent in those drafts came back to haunt this team in 2013 and 2014.
But even with that said, Dimitroff is somewhat vindicated by the fact that the team was “10 yards from the Super Bowl” in 2012. Had a couple of plays broken differently in that conference championship game, the Falcons would have been in the Super Bowl that year instead of the San Francisco 49ers. Given such a possibility, even I can’t be too critical of the Jones trade.
Even though the Falcons missed the boat on the talent that could have been acquired in 2011 and 2012, Dimitroff made a gamble that nearly paid off. But it didn’t pay off, and I think afterwards the aforementioned inabilities of Dimitroff to properly identify and address the team’s weaknesses really began to rear their ugly heads.
Falcons Failed to Improve Defense Since 2010
When these problems first began arising in 2011, it followed the Falcons’ embarrassing loss to the Green Bay Packers in the 2010 playoffs. The Falcons’ defense and their lack of offensive explosiveness got exposed in that game. Dimitroff and Co. identified the lack of explosiveness as the primary problem, thus prompting their trade for Jones. The fact that the team essentially ignored the defensive thereafter was the first sign that the folks in charge of the Falcons were not doing their jobs.
The Falcons defense failed to force a single punt against the Packers and their initial attempts to address that issue was the drafting of linebacker Akeem Dent and defensive end Cliff Matthews in the 2011 draft. I’m not sure how either selection was a significant step forward for the Falcons defense. But at the time, there was the excuse that thanks to the lockout, the draft preceded free agency and there would be potential opportunities later that summer to address the team’s weaknesses on defenses.
The Falcons’ solution to that was signing defensive end Ray Edwards. And while I wasn’t particularly high on the prospect of signing Edwards, I can’t be overly critical of the move. As I noted at the time, the Falcons really didn’t have many other better options.
However the issue is less that the team signed Edwards, but rather that after it was quickly apparent that was a mistake the Falcons stood pat and never really properly addressed their defensive needs thereafter. The following offseason after 2012, their best attempts to continue to improve that defense were signing middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu and drafting defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi in the fifth round. How was that significantly different than what they did a year before by adding Dent and Matthews?
The following offseason, the Falcons signed Osi Umenyiora presumably as their makeup for Edwards. That may have been an improvement since despite being a disappointment, Osi did prove to be a more adept pass-rusher in his two years in Atlanta than Edwards had been previously. But of course, that “success” was negated by the fact that the team opted to cut their one proven, productive pass-rusher in John Abraham in 2013. Instead of Umenyiora being an upgrade over Edwards, he ultimately proved a downgrade from Abraham.
Falcons Poor Defense in 2014 Has Roots in 2010
Then in 2014, the team spent a lot of money on Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, two of Dimitroff’s biggest whiffs in free agency. This is a point where I’ll self-aggrandize and say that my negativity was worthwhile because I was one of a handful of people last March that was saying how such moves weren’t going to significantly improve the team.
Many have criticized former head coach Mike Smith and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan for the failures of last year’s defense and I don’t think either should be absolved for their failures. It’s fair to say that the Falcons 2014 defense shouldn’t have been as terrible as it was (the ninth-worst in NFL history) but there should have been little doubt that they were going to be bad from the jump. After all, they were already bad as evidenced by their performance against the Packers in 2010 and subsequently spun their wheels in trying to improve it for four ensuing offseasons.
It’s a fairly simple dichotomy that the general manager rules the offseason while the head coach rules the regular season. For all the failures of the Falcons coaching staff in 2014, at least as far as I’m concerned, the front office had been failing for four years prior to that. It would have taken an extraordinary coaching effort on the part of Smith to compensate for those failures.
Not only were the weaknesses of that 2010 defense improperly addressed, but there were deficiencies on that 2012 team that was “10 yards from the Super Bowl” as well that they didn’t solve. As far as Dimitroff is concerned, it’s less his inability to identify but rather his ineptitude at addressing them over the following offseasons.
One misconception about my criticism of the Jones trade is that I don’t believe the trade should have happen. I think such debate is irrelevant. The fact is that the Falcons did in fact make the trade, and my criticisms is only to point out both the pros and cons of it. The pros were most apparent in the explosiveness that Jones added to the passing game in the 2012 playoffs that was instrumental in getting the Falcons as far as they did. The cons of course was the lack of talent reaped in consecutive drafts that eventually caught up to the team in 2013 and 2014.
But one can argue another con is one that seems like a pro at first glance. Which is that Jones is so good that he potentially masked some of the other problems that plagued the Falcons in 2012. Jones, coupled with Matt Ryan, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez having career years hid those deficiencies.
Deficiencies on 2012 Falcons Improperly Addressed
Those deficiencies centered around the running game, offensive line, pass rush and run defense. I believe all four of those deficiencies played a significant part in why the Falcons lost to the 49ers in that NFC Championship Game. It’s a belief that often gets lost when people simply proclaim that the Falcons were “10 yards away.”
The 2012 Falcons were 29th in the NFL in rushing offense and 30th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings, so clearly by any standard they were among the league’s worst rushing teams. A big reason for that was the fact that Michael Turner was running on old legs. The team’s solution to that problem was signing Steven Jackson, another aging running back that certainly didn’t pay off as the team hoped. While the Falcons running game got better, ranking 24th in rushing offense and 22nd according to Football Outsiders this past season, that essentially represents an improvement from terrible to bad.
Another key component as to why the Falcons running game struggled in 2012 was the offensive line’s inability to win along the line of scrimmage. While the Falcons offensive line is arguably in a better state today thanks to last offseason’s additions of Jake Matthews and Jon Asamoah, it seemingly had to bottom out first in 2013 before such improvements could be made. It’s telling about how good the Falcons were drafting when 2012 second and third-round picks Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes were supplanted by undrafted free agents James Stone and Ryan Schraeder within three years. The same can be said with Akeem Dent and Bradie Ewing being replaced by Paul Worrilow and Patrick DiMarco, respectively. I mention that of course to drive home the point of just how bad Dimitroff’s 2011 and 2012 drafts were. Outside of Jones, all their top selections in those two years have been replaced by players that all 32 NFL teams deemed weren’t good enough to be drafted.
But I digress. To improve the offensive line in 2013, the Falcons cut Todd McClure and Tyson Clabo and replaced them with Konz and Holmes. Not to mention they gave Sam Baker a lucrative contract that same offseason.
Falcons Past Positive Moves Outweighed by Negatives
I shouldn’t have to spend too much time explaining the missteps the Falcons made over the past two offseasons in terms of addressing their pass rush and run defense, as I’ve already mentioned the free-agent additions of Umenyiora, Soliai and Tyson Jackson.
Essentially every positive move like signing Asamoah or drafting Matthews, there are several negative ones. It’s simple math, if for every positive move there are two or three negative ones, that leads to a net deficit over time.
So I don’t understand why Falcon fans can continue to defend the job that Dimitroff has done recently because he’s essentially run the team into the ground. There was a time when his positive moves outweighed the negative ones, but that hasn’t been the case for many offseasons.
Some might call that being negative, but again I simply prefer to call it being critical. And I think fans need to be more critical, especially if they’re going to be asked to pay thousands of dollars for the “right” to sit and watch a game in an unnecessary billion-dollar enterprise.
And now we’ve reached the point where I defy expectations and talk about the positives, particularly those that have occurred since Dan Quinn was hired this past February.
Falcons Take Turn For Better in 2015 Offseason
I won’t say that the Falcons “nailed it,” but I do believe there are several reasons to be positive and optimistic about the team’s future based off this past offseason. A lot of it is due to the Falcons making moves that they should have made following that 2012 season.
The Falcons got younger at the running back position. That of course started a year ago with the selection of Devonta Freeman, but continued even further this year with the drafting of Tevin Coleman. I’m not in love with the Coleman pick, but at least the team didn’t make the mistake of signing an over-the-hill back like Justin Forsett this offseason.
There’s a real possibility that Coleman and Freeman could form the one-two punch in what can actually be a good running game, something the Falcons haven’t sported since 2011. But even if they are not, there’s every reason to believe that under Quinn the Falcons will continue to add young running backs rather than decrepit and declining older ones until they do have a good ground attack. If the Falcons are going to continue to miss, at least it should come in the form of players with actual upside as opposed to ones with clear downsides.
I wasn’t initially thrilled with the team’s decision to cut Justin Blalock because it created a hole on a line that was finally starting to gel after too many years of turmoil. But I’m at least optimistic that should the “Mike Person Experience” go wrong at left guard in 2014, it’s not going to take three whole years to replace Blalock like it did for Harvey Dahl at right guard.
The Falcons obviously made investments in finally improving the pass rush with the additions of Adrian Clayborn, O’Brien Schofield, Brooks Reed, Grady Jarrett and Vic Beasley this offseason. Now if we’re being honest, Beasley and perhaps Jarrett are probably the only ones that are going to be significant difference-makers up front. But the other three at least represent small steps in the right direction and 180-degree turn from last offseason.
It’s not only these moves that give hope for the future. As noted before, the additions of a pair of veteran tight ends Jacob Tamme and Tony Moeaki show improvement because the team won’t be putting all their eggs in the Levine Toilolo basket again. The offseason additions at wide receiver in Justin Hardy and Leonard Hankerson give the team better options than Drew Davis and Brian Robiskie should Jones get hurt again.
None of these moves alone will suddenly get the Falcons back to where they were in 2012: on the doorstep of a Super Bowl appearance. They won’t need all of them to work out, but simply need more of them to work out than do not. I also love the fact that the Falcons are doubling up with some of these moves. They didn’t add one tight end and one wide receiver, they added two of each. Adding five pass-rushers instead of one multiplies the chances that they are successful.
Falcons Mistakes No Longer Will Come Back to Haunt in Future
The “Dimitroff Way” was to put all their eggs in a single basket, whether that was Edwards, Toilolo, Soliai, Baker, Jackson, etc. That also often meant overpaying. One of the beauties of the “Quinn Way” is that the Falcons didn’t overpay for anybody. As noted last week, Reed is the only player the Falcons signed or re-signed this offseason that has a contract that the team can’t get out of a year from now. Technically, they could get out of Reed’s deal by eating an extra $320,000 in cap space via cutting him before his $2.5 million 2016 base salary becomes guaranteed sometime next March.
Compare that to the deal the Falcons gave Tyson Jackson a year ago which would have seen them have to eat an additional $4 million in cap space this year had they opted to cut him before two-thirds of his $2.25 million base salary became guaranteed this past March.
That’s the aspect of being a general manager that Dimitroff has gotten so wrong in recent years. It’s not really about hitting every time, but at least when you miss, don’t pay for it for years and years like as they have with many of the bad contracts he’s given out.
Baker’s contract is the perfect illustration of this. I’ve written before about whether the Falcons will choose to cut Baker at some point this summer. From a pure football standpoint, there’s near universal agreement that cutting Baker is long overdue. The Falcons may wind up keeping Baker in 2015 just because they want to get something given the significant financial investment they made in him two years ago. They’ve already paid him $18.25 million and are due to pay him $4.5 million more this year. Essentially the logic is that the team wants to get more than three bad games and one decent one out of him before calling it quits on that contract.
The most positive thing I can say about Dimitroff is that he’s a smart, intelligent and ultimately capable. It’s that high standard I hold him to which drives much of my criticism for him. He should be doing better because he showed over his first few years that he was a capable GM. His moves then were instrumental in why the team reached the heights it did in 2012.
The introduction of Quinn to Atlanta functionally gives Dimitroff a second chance at redemption. He now has the opportunity to hit the reset button and make up for all the mistakes he’s made in recent years. If Quinn is the new shot-caller in Atlanta and all Dimitroff does is ride his coattails from now on, then that’s fine by me. Even someone like me won’t complain as long as the team is winning and continuing to improve. The positive is that the Falcons have done more in the past three months to improve the team than they did in the three previous years.