Takeaways from Week 14

Gary Kubiak fired by Houston Texans

Despite solid play, Steven Jackson remains expendable

Another week gone by and another loss by the Atlanta Falcons.

I’ve grown numb to it over the course of this season, as the Falcons dropping another game to a very mediocre Green Bay Packers team on Sunday barely affected me.

After feeling some small elation a week ago following Atlanta’s win over the Buffalo Bills, it’s back to the same old bitterness of defeat this week. It’s a feeling and situation very reminiscent of past Falcon teams, especially the Mora Era teams that never could ever really seem to build sustaining momentum.

I could sit here and sound like a broken record, but I’ll continue to stress that we saw another week where the Falcons were conservative offensively with their willingness to take shots downfield, and we saw another week where the Falcons offense struggled to move the ball and score points.

It just can’t be a coincidence that the Falcons put forth one of their best offensive games of the season a week ago against the Bills in a game where Matt Ryan took more deep shots than he did in the previous three outings combined.

And this week, they revert back to that dink and dunk offense with Ryan only taking one deep shot in the first 52 minutes of the game. The Falcons offense subsequently generated just seven points up to then if you don’t count the pick-six and the gift touchdown off a turnover that required them to move only 13 yards before they reached pay dirt.

Someone might retort that the wintry conditions prevented the Falcons from being more aggressive, which I don’t quite buy. In the game between the Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers, with similar conditions, both teams threw the deep four times in the first 52 minutes of that game.

I just think that maybe if the Falcons had taken two or three more shots downfield, they could have completed at least one of them, and that could have helped put at least three more points on the board, making the outcome potentially different.

But enough about the timidity of the offense, let’s move onto something a bit more interesting, which is the 2014 season.

Despite Strong Play, Jackson’s Value Diminishes Significantly in 2014

Steven Jackson has been playing well in recent weeks, looking like the player that we all hoped and thought he’d be this season. Over the past three games, Jackson has combined for 54 carries, 218 yards, and 3 touchdowns. Extrapolated over the course of 16 games, that works out to be 288 carries, 1,163 yards, and 16 touchdowns. That is slightly better production than my initial season predictions had for Jackson (270-1,090-13).

The tough question that the Falcons are going to have to ask themselves in regards to Jackson, is whether he can be counted to put up similar production next year.

Jackson’s current production likely represents the best of what he can do. And the “real” Steven Jackson, i.e. the one that is likeliest to show up each week is probably 10-15 percent less than the one of the past three games. And with another year of wear and tear under his belt, the 2014 version of the “real” Steven Jackson is potentially 10-15 percent less than that.

So while the Jackson of right now might be capable of getting 70 or more yards every week, the Jackson of tomorrow might only be capable of getting 50-60 yards. And that would make him into a player comparable to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and I’m not sure the Falcons are prepped to have Jacquizz Rodgers be their version of Giovani Bernard. And by that I mean an explosive third down back that somewhat masks the fact that overall you would be one of the league’s worst rushing teams without him.

Now, I’m 99 percent sure that the Falcons will bring Jackson back next year. But it still makes me scratch my head on how this Falcon team evaluates and determines value because I don’t see why they should.

Jackson is poised to count $4.2 million against the Falcons salary cap, which is good money for a starting running back. Cutting him would save the Falcons roughly $1.8 million against next year’s cap, roughly the equivalent of three veteran players making the minimum.

The Falcons will likely wind up paying him that much money to be just a below average starting running back. In my mind, that is analogous to a team paying Matt Schaub $10 million to be their starting quarterback next season, again good money for a starting quarterback.

Schaub has shown that he can be a capable starting quarterback with the right elements around him. I wouldn’t have any major problem with any team that wanted Schaub to be their starting quarterback. But it would have to be at the right price, and at this point in his career, there’s no way that price should exceed anything than more than $5 million, roughly the price of a premier No. 2 quarterback (e.g. Matt Hasselbeck).

At least in my eyes, Jackson’s value in 2014 is probably worth $2.5 million at most, essentially the same amount in dead money that Atlanta would incur if they cut him.

The Value of Running Backs in General Diminishes Jackson’s Value

I can understand that if a player is at an important position or your back is against the wall in terms of potentially replacing him with a better player, that you would overpay a guy somewhat. That’s basically what the Falcons will be doing with Justin Blalock for the next two years. And even in the case of a player like Schaub, we know there is a finite number of quality quarterbacks in the league, and beggars can’t be choosers.

But there’s absolutely no reason to think that way at the running back position. Not in today’s NFL. Just look at all the good late round and undrafted running backs that currently populate the league. As far as running backs are concerned, the statement should be “choosers can’t be beggars.”

I just want someone to explain to me what Jackson is providing that players like Zac Stacy, Chris Ivory, Rashad Jennings, Pierre Thomas, Joique Bell, Bobby Rainey, Brandon Bolden, etc. aren’t.

Just look at the Rams. They cut Jackson, replacing him with Daryl Richardson (7th round pick), Zac Stacy (5th round pick), and Benny Cunningham (undrafted), and haven’t skipped a beat. In fact, they’ve made minor improvements in terms of their rushing production this year. Meanwhile, the second round pick they used on Isaiah Pead has yet to turn into anything. It’s just to point out that using high picks on running backs rarely pays off.

That should become more obvious in light of the Trent Richardson Implosion. I was a huge fan of Richardson coming out of Alabama, and believed the Browns were smart for taking him as high as they did in the 2012 draft. And I thought the Colts were getting a really good deal when they sent a No. 1 pick to Cleveland to pry him away via trade, but now I realize how incredibly foolish I was. And now I’m firmly committed to the bandwagon that suggests that over-investing into a running back early in the draft (or via free agency) is very dumb. If you stumble upon the next Adrian Peterson, more power to you. But the truth we may soon discover is that the odds you find the next Peterson is probably half as likely as I find the next Alfred Morris or Jamaal Charles.

But this is what the Falcons do, at least in terms of overestimating the value of certain players. And next year, Jackson will probably fail to eclipse 1,000 yards and the Falcons will probably still be one of the ten worst rushing teams in the league. And I’ll be scratching my head as to what exactly was the payoff for the extra $1.8 million that you opted to give Jackson instead of cutting him.

It’s a similar situation as to the one involving Thomas DeCoud. DeCoud will count $4.8 million against the 2014 salary cap, a portion of which could be guaranteed. He simply isn’t worth that sort of coin.

But unlike the running back position, free safety is a much harder position to fill with just anybody. From that perspective, it would make a whole lot more sense for the Falcons to keep DeCoud on next year’s roster than Jackson.

Against the Packers, we saw DeCoud exit the game with a concussion and the team plug in Zeke Motta to replace him. People have since asked me whether or not I believe Motta is a viable in-house candidate to replace DeCoud next season if the Falcons choose to part ways with him.

Motta Not an Ideal Candidate to Start at Safety

The answer is no. I like Motta, but I don’t think he has what it takes to be a long-term option as a starting free safety in the NFL. He’s got good instincts against the run, but he’s not a great tackler. He’s better than DeCoud in that regard, but over the course of a season if he were to see 1,000 snaps as a starting safety typically does, Motta would still miss a ton of tackles.

But the biggest obstacle for Motta is his lack of coverage ability. It’s why the Falcons played him behind William Moore at strong safety than free safety. Motta simply lacks the speed, range, and ball skills to be an effective free safety over the long haul. I’d liken him more to a poor man’s William Moore than anything.

Think about it this way, of all of the great plays in coverage that Moore has made over the years, how many times have you seen him matched up in coverage and swat a pass down, as we’ve seen DeCoud do occasionally, or any one of the Falcons cornerbacks have done? Most of Moore’s solid coverage plays come from other players’ deflections that he picks off, passes that are overthrown or hang up in the air, or when he delivers a hit that separates the receiver from the ball. And I think Moore’s ball skills and range are much better than Motta’s are, so I’m not sure Motta can make those types of plays.

I see Motta more as a subpackage player, comparable to a former college teammate of his: Robert Blanton in Minnesota. Blanton was a big corner at Notre Dame that has been moved to safety and been effective as a reserve and situational player. I think you could find a role for Motta in goal line situations, or in the nickel or dime packages, but as a regular starter, I just don’t see it.

If I was suggesting in-house candidates to replace DeCoud long-term, I’d choose Robert McClain long before I took a look at either of the Falcons two rookie safeties: Motta or Kemal Ishmael. Even if Motta manages to play well over the final three games of the season if given that opportunity, I believe the Falcons will need to look elsewhere to replace DeCoud this offseason.

Elsewhere in the NFL…

We got a very wintry slate of games on Sunday, with a blizzard descending on several cities, including Philadelphia. I for one am I believer that football is best viewed (and played) outside in the cold, thus why I have no complaints about the site of February’s Super Bowl in New Jersey.

It made for an interesting mix of games, including a Baltimore-Minnesota game that saw 42 points scored in the fourth quarter with multiple lead changes.

But the most interesting developments from this week’s games are now how much steam the coaching hot seat discussing has picked up.

The Texans fired Gary Kubiak on Friday, making him the first casualty of the 2014 coaching carousel. I’m not sure we’ll get another dismissal before the season is over. It really doesn’t seem that advantageous to fire a guy with three weeks left on the season. Although the Texans motive appears to get an early jump on the coaching search, so perhaps another team will follow suit in the coming days or weeks.

But Mike Shanahan (Washington), Dennis Allen (Oakland), Mike Munchak (Tennessee), Greg Schiano (Tampa Bay), Leslie Frazier (Minnesota), Jason Garrett (Dallas), Joe Philbin (Miami), and Tom Coughlin (New York Giants) are probably having the toughest time sleeping right now.

I doubt all of those coaches get fired, but they would form the eight I’d set the odds highest for. Right now, I’d place all the most likely odds on Munchak. Next would come Shanahan, given Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s penchant for firing coaches at the drop of a hat. Then would be Allen and Frazier. I think Garrett, Schiano, Philbin, and Coughlin hold their fates if they continue winning.

I’d estimate that if the Cowboys miss the playoffs, then Garrett’s seat could get warm. The Bucs seem to be turning things around, and if Schiano can win one or two more games to close out the season, he’ll definitely keep his job. If the Dolphins can sneak into a wildcard race it should erase the stink of the Martin-Incognito drama that could have slid Phlbin out the door. And I don’t think the Giants want to fire Coughlin, but the possibility they finish 5-11 and the fact that they’ll miss the playoffs four out of the past five years suggest Coughlin is vulnerable.

I think Minnesota probably wants to keep Frazier, but it’d be hard to justify it given their Falcons-esque collapse after going 10-6 last season and making the playoffs. Although I don’t think Frazier had the sort of expectations going into this year as Mike Smith and the Falcons had, so that might buy him another year.

If left up to GM Reggie McKenzie, then Allen would probably be given a third year. But I suspect owner Mark Davis has a little bit of his brother in him, and feels like he could potentially get a much better coach than Allen. I think Allen deserves some credit given that Oakland has performed well above my expectations for this season, but the possibility that the Raiders finish the season with a six-game losing streak probably sours those notions.

I think when push comes to shove, we’ll probably see at least four new coaches in the NFL in 2014. And probably one of them might be a face from the college ranks, as I don’t think the stigma exists quite as much against those sorts of coaches given recent success of Pete Carroll, Jim Harbaugh, and Chip Kelly among others.

I don’t know if we’ll see any teams recruit a big name like Jon Gruden or Bill Cowher out of a semi-retirement, although I’m sure if Shanahan is fired in Washington, that Snyder will pursue someone like them.

My belief that Mike Smith would ultimately lose his job has subsided thanks to last week’s Falcon win in Toronto, and the possibility that they could win another one next week against the Redskins at home. But if I was selecting the coach, who would appear next on the list after the eight mentioned above, as likeliest to go, I would put Smith there.

About the Author

Aaron Freeman
Founder of FalcFans.com