Last week, Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank gave head coach Mike Smith a vote of confidence. That was followed up on Thursday, with further elaboration that Blank fully intends to bring Smith and GM Thomas Dimitroff back for 2014. Then later on Thursday, the Falcons played their best game since Week 7.
Maybe, Blank should have backed Smith a month ago.
Blank indicated in Silver’s report that regardless of how the Falcons finish this year, the Terrible Twosome in Smith and Dimitroff will be back. I guess that nips my belief that if the Falcons were to finish 2-14 or 3-13 that Smith would be fired. Although never say never. The Falcons could revert back to getting blown out for the final five games, and I think Blank would have to strongly consider making a change.
But truth be told, I don’t want the Falcons to blow things up. Or at least, I don’t want to feel like the Falcons have to blow things up.
What is most concerning about Blank’s comments is that it may lead to this team not making major changes to their “process.”
For the most part over the years, I have backed the so-called “process.” But the problem with the Falcons process is that it represents very little progress.
Complacency, more so than Injuries are Falcons Downfall
The story of this season will center on injuries and complacency. This team has obviously suffered a number of injuries which have limited their ability to field a competitive team. My personal opinion is that the amount of injuries doesn’t explain how uncompetitive this team has been since the bye week, but I’m sure that is going to be what the Falcons chalk their struggles up to this off-season.
And I’m afraid that it will lead to this team not doing as much self-evaluation as they need to, something they’ve needed to do for several years now.
The other aspect of this season is the complacency. This team made the same mistake they did in 2011, when they thought with the additions of Julio Jones and Ray Edwards, they would pick up where they left off in the playoffs the previous year as the NFC’s top-seeded playoff team and be in a position to win a title.
But obviously, this year has been much worse than the 2011 season.
This year, the Falcons expected that they could pick up Steven Jackson and Osi Umenyiora, who were at best marginal upgrades over Michael Turner and John Abraham, could let Tony Gonzalez skip half of training camp, and everything would work out like it did in 2012. Well, Jackson and Umenyiora have in fact been downgrades from their predecessors. While Jackson in a vacuum would be considered better than Turner, the run blocking has been worse and Jackson missed five weeks due to injury. That’s five weeks of production that the Falcons did manage to get out of Turner last year.
There’s a Problem with the Tight Ends
And while I don’t blame the Falcons for giving Gonzalez time off during the summer, the benefits that they said they would garner from it haven’t come to fruition. Chase Coffman and Levine Toilolo have largely been afterthoughts in the offense, and all those first-team reps that they got with Ryan this past summer have yet to pay off.
Outside 14 snaps that Coffman played against the Cardinals, he has averaged 1.8 snaps per game this year. Toilolo has seen a reduction in reps since the bye week, averaging 10.5 snaps in the six games since, when he averaged 13.8 in the five weeks prior to the bye. That doesn’t make a lot of sense considering the need of the Falcons to find better receiving options in Jones’ absence. If this does wind up being Gonzalez’s final season, then the Falcons have done a poor job preparing either Coffman or Toilolo for increased reps next season. It still baffles me that offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who has preferred multiple tight end sets in the past, has yet to really employ either backup tight end.
In 2011, the Jacksonville Jaguars backup tight end Zach Potter averaged 22.5 snaps per game. The previous year, Potter was the third stringer for much of the year and averaged 12.2 snaps per game, while the other backup Zach Miller averaged 19.9 snaps.
There Will be Turnover in 2014, but Overhaul Unlikely
There certainly will be changes to this roster in the offseason. But the question is going to be how much change. There could be substantial turnover on the defensive side of the ball, with players like Asante Samuel, Thomas DeCoud, Jonathan Babineaux, Stephen Nicholas, Peria Jerry and Osi Umenyiora potentially being on the chopping block.
There probably won’t be as much turnover on offense, with really only Gonzalez, Jackson, and Jeremy Trueblood likely being shown the door. There are other players like Harry Douglas and Jason Snelling, that are also potentially expendable, but I don’t see the team getting rid of either.
This team has stressed retaining its core over the past two offseasons, under the belief that at its core this was a really strong group that just needed a few supplemental pieces to ascend to that next step. Well, the 2013 season should have defenestrated that belief.
Instead, this team needs to focus on rebuilding or rather building up its core. They need to find better young talent than they have over recent years. If this team does opt to get rid of the veterans I mentioned above, they need to concentrate on acquiring young players via the draft that can replace them.
And that really is going to be the key to any turnaround the Falcons have. Even if the Falcons land a future superstar with their top pick in the draft, that player alone isn’t going to turn them into a Super Bowl team. It’s going to take successful picks not only at the top of the draft, but also in the middle and later rounds as well.
There are probably many people that believe this team is one bold free agent offensive lineman and Jadeveon Clowney away from being in the Super Bowl. Such an offseason plan would be another sign of complacency, again repeating the same mistake that they’ve made the past few years in thinking that they just need a little push.
Perhaps they do, but they need to approach things like they need a big push. They need to play the long game rather than the short one. Because the short game has been what has led to this mess.
Dimitroff Has Proven Marginally Better than McKay as GM
Dimitroff has essentially made the same mistake that Rich McKay made when he got to Atlanta. Both general managers preached building through the draft, but essentially after a few years decided to start dealing away draft picks with the intent of getting over the hump. McKay did it in 2006, trading away most of that draft for players like John Abraham, Chris Crocker and Wayne Gandy, under the hope that they would be the last push needed to get a team that was in the NFC Championship Game in two years prior into the Super Bowl. Well, it didn’t work, and when the bottom fell out in 2007, it fell hard due to the lack of young talent on the roster to fill the void.
Under Dimitroff, the Falcons dealt high picks away in favor of Gonzalez and Jones, and the high picks they did retain didn’t quite turn into studs in the years since. Akeem Dent has already been surpassed by an undrafted rookie in Paul Worrilow. Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes will have to make significant leaps forward next year, or they too will fall by the wayside. It appears that those drafts between 2010-12 amounted to Sean Weatherspoon, Jones, Corey Peters, Jacquizz Rodgers, and Matt Bosher as players that have thus far shown enough to earn a second contract. That’s by no means a terrible haul from those drafts, but it’s by no means indicative that Dimitroff is as strong a drafter as he is reputed to be.
In the end, I don’t want to see the Falcons blow things up. And if there are major changes coming, as mentioned before they are likely to come on defense where the team is likely to get rid of a lot of older veterans. But in reality, strengthening the defense is pretty straight-forward. They just need to add more talent, which will come if/when they start using earlier picks on that side of the ball. Those incoming players can be added to a core that already has Weatherspoon, William Moore, and Peters, and has up and coming young players like Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, Worrilow, etc. to at least give you optimism that brighter days are coming.
Lack of Offensive Identity is a Glaring Problem
It’s really the offense that concerns me the most, and if anything needs to be blown up and rebuilt from the ground up, it’s that side of the ball. Outside Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, and perhaps Jacquizz Rodgers, there really isn’t much to like about the Falcons offense. News broke this week that the team is planning on extending Roddy White’s deal this offseason. That’s a smart move, because it at least buys them more time before they have to find a suitable replacement for White. Since rookie wide receivers are seldom good, it would mean that the Falcons would need to have White’s heir apparent on the roster a year prior to his departure. And with 2014 being the final year of his contract, it would put extra stress on the team to find said player this spring. By adding another year or two to White’s deal, it gives them another year or two before they have to find that player. While Douglas’ production might suggest to some observers that he can be an adequate replacement for White when the time comes (Douglas is signed through 2015), those observers are being deceived by stats. Douglas is producing, but he’s not playing well. Many of his stats are empty yards that come when the Falcons are well-behind in games and throwing to play catch-up. And it really doesn’t matter what sort of numbers Douglas puts up, he still is a very limited receiver. He’s not a good deep threat, is not great at beating press coverage on the outside, and struggles to extend to make catches away from his body. The player that should replace White should be the polar opposite of Douglas in those three areas.
The offensive line is a mess and its best player, Justin Blalock, is also a short-timer like White. It’s certainly possible that by 2015 or 2016, there isn’t a single player starting on that line that is currently on this year’s roster.
The team also needs to shake up their running back position. While Rodgers is young and looks like one of the better third down backs in the league, he has yet to prove he’s capable of more than being a situational player. And thus the team is going to have to find another young back for the future that can either split reps with him or be the lead guy.
The main thing the Falcons are going to have to figure out on offense is their identity. What sort of team are they going to be? Obviously when you have a pair like Ryan and Jones, you’re going to lean towards passing. But are they going to be a team that likes to spread the field with multiple wideouts and throw the ball around a lot? Or are they going to try and feature a vertical passing attack, particularly one that is coupled with a play-action-based, power run attack? Are they going to be a man-blocking offensive line or a zone-blocking one? If this team intends to feature Rodgers more, then zone-blocking makes more sense. If the goal is to be a man-blocking unit, then they need to get better blockers. And subsequently not make a significant investment in a left tackle that is a better fit in a zone-blocking scheme like they did this offseason with Sam Baker.
One of the issues that has plagued this team this year with Jones injured, is that there is really nothing the Falcons can hang their hat on offensively in terms of their identity. They’re just flapping in the breeze, waiting for the day that Jones returns to the lineup and is their savior.
So even if it doesn’t resort in a bunch of roster turnover on the offense, the Falcons brass need to figure out this offseason exactly what they intend to be offensively so that if/when the day arises that Jones is again sidelined, they won’t get caught in this scenario again. Any scenario that involves signing Brian Robiskie is a bad one.