Atlanta Falcons Takeaways from Super Bowl XLIX – February 2, 2015

I cannot deny the fact that I never really considered the possibility that the angle I’d have to take in today’s column was on how the New England Patriots managed to win the Super Bowl XLIX. I fully expected that much of my takeaways would revolve around Dan Quinn and how dominant the Seattle Seahawks defense proved to be.

The Patriots pulled out what was at least from my perspective, an improbable win. While I understood the relative closeness of the matchup, I just figured that the Seahawks’ defense would prove too formidable for the Patriots to handle. And while the early going suggested exactly that, the Patriots did manage to make enough plays to win the game.

Bad Coaching Even Problematic For Top Teams

Of course, the ending of the game will be what most people remember when Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell foolishly called a pass play from the one-yard line with 26 seconds left and a timeout when he had Marshawn Lynch poised to go. It’s an easy decision to second guess. Given their field position, going to for the quick slant on the pick play was probably what you would dial up on third down should Lynch have failed to punch it in on 2nd-and-goal.

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Malcolm Butler makes the game-saving interception

Frankly, Bevell’s poor decision potentially masked another one on the part of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. Up four points, Belichick opted against burning either one of his final two timeouts, letting 40 seconds tick off the clock before that second-down play.

Poor clock management? Absolutely, although the fact that Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler perfectly read Russell Wilson’s throw, beating wide receiver Ricardo Lockette to the spot to make the game-saving interception made Belichick’s error easy to overlook.

I can’t help but think back to the Atlanta Falcons’ own poor clock management situations that cost them two wins and a playoff spot in 2014 and how such grievous errors were used by many to justify the dismissal of former Falcons head coach Mike Smith.

In the weeks and months since, I’ve gotten into a number of arguments debates with others about whether clock management is as big a deal as many make it. Some consider it to be a “basic” aspect of coaching, suggesting that any failures in that regard indicate gross incompetence on a coach’s part.

But clearly, this past year’s postseason suggests that whether it comes down to play-calling or clock management, it’s not so basic after all. Not only did the final minute of the Super Bowl feature some questionable coaching decisions, but we also witnessed more of the same in the NFC Championship Game when the Seahawks squared off against the Green Bay Packers.

Packers head coach Mike McCarthy’s early decisions to settle for field goals rather than going for touchdowns are the most often cited bad coaching decisions in that game. Not to mention the defensive call in overtime that gave the Packers cornerbacks no safety help, leading to a 35-yard “walk-off” bomb from Wilson to Jermaine Kearse.

Clearly, there seems to be plenty of evidence that even the best teams in the league suffer from costly coaching decisions. Thus perhaps Falcons fans might not want to be as retroactively harsh on Smith for his mistakes.

Broken Record Alert: Falcons Problems Go Deeper Than Coaching

Anyone that has been a regular reader of these weekly columns over the past few months probably has gleaned that I have a soft spot for Mike Smith. As I wrote seven weeks ago, he became an easy target for the ire and frustration of the Falcons fan base over the failures of the past two seasons.

But what is an easy target but a scapegoat? I certainly cannot fault anyone that is critical of Smith, as he had plenty of shortcomings. But I also think that criticism has built a false narrative that most if not all of the Falcons problems emanated from Smith.

And I’m sure regular readers also note that I have devoted a great deal of words over the past several months trying to refute such notions by enumerating the many missteps of general manager Thomas Dimitroff over the years.

It’s not really my attempt at playing the “blame game.” Whether you believe the majority of the team’s problems were caused by Smith, Dimitroff or someone else is debatable, but ultimately irrelevant. The point has always been that the Falcons have systemic problems that have plagued this team for years. Their problems didn’t start in 2013, nor are they likely to end in 2014 should they not address these problems at the root.

And if we’re going to blame one thing for the Falcons problems, it’s got to be complacency. The Falcons only have to look to the two teams that just competed last night’s big game to see how things should be done.

Patriots and Seahawks Are Anything But Complacent

Following last year’s Super Bowl, I wrote about the complacency that plagues the Falcons and did so again in last week’s column. So I won’t bore you with repeating too much of the same things.

But does anyone think that the Patriots or Seahawks would have stood pat as the Falcons did with two glaring holes at tight end and edge pass-rusher this year?

I’ve already given plenty of evidence that suggests the Seahawks are the polar opposite of the Falcons when it comes to complacency, so let’s discuss the Patriots for a moment.

It took roughly one week after middle linebacker Jerod Mayo went down for the year before the Patriots swung a pair of trades at the late-October deadline to try and shore up depth at the position. They added Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas, two underachievers with the Tennessee Titans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, respectively, to give them some added bodies.

Neither Ayers or Casillas are up to Mayo’s level as players, with the Patriots relying mainly on Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins to fill Mayo’s void at inside linebacker. But the Patriots saw an obvious weakness and made a strong attempt to address it. And it worked out in their favor.

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Falcons are still searching for Tony Gonzalez’s replacement

Falcons Still Searching For Gonzo’s Successor After Six Years

Contrast that to the Falcons’ meager attempts to upgrade the tight end spot. The team knew when it acquired tight end Tony Gonzalez back in April 2009 that he was not a long-term solution. Gonzalez had just three years left on his contract back then, and thus giving the Falcons a firm window of when to find the future Hall of Famer’s successor.

They had a perfect opportunity with a rich draft class in 2010 to add Gonzalez’s heir apparent. But the team passed on players like Jimmy Graham, Tony Moeaki, Dennis Pitta, Aaron Hernandez and Garrett Graham, among others.

And now we can fast-forward the clock to 2015, and tight end remains one of the team’s biggest needs. This upcoming offseason will mark the sixth chance that the Falcons have to find Gonzalez’s replacement. The Patriots were able to find a pair of replacement linebackers in eight days, while the Falcons cannot even find a competent starting tight end in six years!

That would be “Exhibit A” in my case for why the Falcons are the Falcons and the Patriots are the Patriots. That’s why the Falcons find themselves currently at the bottom of the league, which has often been the case for their five decades of existence. It’s also why Belichick and Tom Brady are hoisting their fourth Lombardi trophy and have appeared in six Super Bowls over the past 14 years.

Why haven’t the Falcons found a tight end in six years? Because at some point circa 2011, the Falcons opted that instead of looking for an heir apparent to Gonzalez, they would put their entire focus on convincing him to play forever.

Merriam-Webster defines complacency as “a feeling of being satisfied with how things are and not wanting to try to make them better.” How the Falcons managed their tight end position appears to be a textbook definition of complacency.

No one can fault the team for wanting Gonzalez to play forever. But it’s borderline idiotic to expect a 35-year old who openly muses about his imminent end to do that.

Falcons Whiff on Meager Attempts to Address Pass Rush

But despite being a problem that goes back six years, tight end isn’t even the Falcons’ biggest issue. Instead, their biggest issue is the lack of a pass rush that seemingly goes back at least seven years since the Falcons brass never really made a serious attempt to upgrade it.

Well, that’s not fair. The Falcons made several attempts to address their lackluster ability to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. It’s just that none of those attempts worked in their favor. Drafting Peria Jerry and signing free agents Ray Edwards and Osi Umenyiora represented three swings of the bat and ultimately three misses. Strikeout.

That problem likely comes down more to incompetency than complacency, although the latter certainly was a significant factor. The Falcons’ dismissal of John Abraham following 2012 coupled with their fervent belief that they could “scheme” pressure with inferior talent suggests a certain level of “uninformed self-satisfaction” that is also one definition of complacency.

The hope is that with Quinn taking over for Smith as the Falcons’ next head coach, such problems will be a thing of the past. Falcons owner Arthur Blank has certainly made it known that one of the team’s offseason priorities will be addressing the pass rush.

There should be little doubt that potentially via both free agency and the draft, the Falcons are going to make significant additions to the roster to help bolster the pass rush. One can certainly expect that such moves will mirror those made a year ago that were designed to “toughen up” the team. Hopefully, it works out a lot better than those moves did.

Criticisms of Falcons Are Warranted

I often get criticized for being overly negative when it comes to my musings about the Falcons. It’s hard to deny that my writing, podcasts and tweets often have a pessimistic bent to them.

I don’t write or say these things to make people feel bad about their favorite football team. I write and say these things so that people are more informed about their favorite football team.

I certainly don’t consider myself an expert, rather a fan that has spent probably too much time thinking and overanalyzing his favorite football team over the past 15 or so years.

I write for the people that sat there on Sunday watching the Patriots and Seahawks and wondered, “Why not us?”

It’s not because this backup only plays x number of snaps or because that coach doesn’t know when to use a timeout. It’s because of the aforementioned problems. That isn’t negativity, but simple truth.

Whether it’s tight end, pass-rusher, right guard, running back, middle linebacker, etc. it takes the Falcons three, four and sometimes more years to address problems that other teams like the Patriots can solve in a much shorter period of time.

Patriots Simply Do It Better

The Patriots are by no means perfect when they do make a move. Ayers and Casillas aren’t as good as Mayo, but they certainly do an adequate job of filling that hole. Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell won’t remind anyone of the heydays of Wes Welker and Randy Moss, but they give New England something until they find the guys that could. Tim Wright isn’t Aaron Hernandez, but he’s at least a modest attempt at filling that void.

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Tom Brady and Bill Belichick celebrate

The difference between the Falcons and Patriots is that the Patriots at least attempt to address obvious weaknesses. In 2013, after nose tackle Vince Wilfork went down for the year, the Patriots traded for Philadelphia Eagles nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga. Sopoaga did very little over the next two months before being inactive for the Patriots’ final four games last season. It was at least an attempt to address what was a weakness at the position.

As a fan, I can forgive failure if I at least see some effort to improve. But what I cannot abide is failure when there is little to no effort. The Falcons at least tried on draft day to trade up for Dee Ford and Demarcus Lawrence. And that is certainly a praiseworthy effort on draft day. But what about the five months after that?

I find it exceedingly difficult to believe that a team that is as lackadaisical as the Falcons have been when it comes to addressing weaknesses is ever going to win a Super Bowl.

If you’re still not convinced of the Patriots’ superiority, then simply pay attention to the revolving door of backup quarterbacks they’ve drafted since Tom Brady emerged as their starter. Unlike the Falcons when it came to Gonzalez’s replacement at tight end, the Patriots won’t be caught with their pants down when it comes to replacing Brady at quarterback.

Seven quarterbacks have been drafted by the Patriots since 2002 and most of them haven’t amounted to much in the pros. But it at least shows the Patriots are proactive about a problem. That may not mean that they’ll immediately land another top-tier quarterback whenever Brady hangs up his cleats, but I’ll certainly bet on the likelihood that it won’t take six years.

And the irony of it all is the fact that the Falcons hired Dimitroff primarily because of the belief that he could bring that “Patriot Way” style of management down to Atlanta. Now with Scott Pioli also holding a high-ranking position in the Falcons front office, one has to believe that they should do a little better.

And if one is looking for reasons to be optimistic, it may rest on the fact that for the first time in practically forever the Falcons had a couple of free-agent signings that worked out in their favor. That’s at least a start and perhaps it gets the ball rolling, so that this offseason I’ll have one or two positive things to say about the Falcons.


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Aaron Freeman
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