The Atlanta Falcons will be taking on the Green Bay Packers later this evening on Monday Night Football and it is of course impossible for me to muse on events that have yet to occur in this week’s takeaways column.
But one thing is for certain, the Falcons will remain in first place in the NFC South regardless of the result of tonight’s game. The Falcons can thank the Carolina Panthers for beating down rival New Orleans Saints by a score of 41-10 on Sunday afternoon.
While that win certainly helps the Falcons out in regards to improving their chances of playing in January, it also increases the possibility that neither the Falcons nor Saints wind up winning the division. Carolina’s dominant performance on the road in New Orleans at least hints at the possibility that they could steal the division should they run the table. While most eyes in Atlanta are fixed up the Falcons’ Week 16 matchup against the Saints, there’s a possibility that the game against the Panthers the following week in the season finale could also have equal if not greater stakes for the division crown.
Only time will tell, but given how the NFC South division race has fared over the past month, it only seems inevitable that a definitive winner won’t be crowned until the final whistle is blown on Sunday, December 28.
While most focus on the team’s immediate future in terms of making the postseason, my gaze can’t help but wander towards the future and particularly that of head coach Mike Smith.
It wasn’t that long ago when Smith appeared a “dead man walking” and the answer to the question about his future was less if he was going to be fired, but rather when the axe would inevitably come down. My, have things changed over the past six weeks.
Smith’s Stint as Falcons Coach Has New Life
It’s not to say that Smith has removed himself completely from the hot seat, but he at least has a fighter’s chance now. It would appear that his fate is tied firmly to that of the team: should the Falcons make the playoffs, there’s a good chance that Smith returns in 2015.
The Falcons are 3-1 since their disappointing last-second loss to the Detroit Lions in London, after which I made that initial declaration that Smith was doomed. Should the team split the next two games and make the playoffs, there’s plenty of reasons to suggest that Smith has done enough to salvage his job.
Yet despite two heart-breaking losses to the Lions and Cleveland Browns in the final minutes, the fact is that the Falcons were competitive in both games. When looking at the other five losses on their 2014 resume, such claims are much harder to make. The team held late leads against both the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants in Weeks 4 and 5, but in both games, the level of play on the field didn’t quite accurately reflect the scoreboard.
The team essentially choked away wins against the Browns and Lions, and in most eyes that was directly related to poor decisions made by Smith. But should the Falcons continue to play competitively for the remaining four games and make the playoffs, the agony of those losses could begin to fade from memory.
That would not be the case in the minds of many Falcon fans who want Smith ousted, but it could be the case in the mind that matters the most: Arthur Blank’s.
Blank Holds Key to Smith’s Fate
One can only guess at what thoughts are rattling within the mind of the Falcons owner. There’s certainly the possibility that the Falcons could make the playoffs and Blank still opts to move on from Smith. But it’s not a common occurrence, as it has only occurred four times over the past 20 seasons where a team has fired a coach after leading his team to the playoffs. Most recently it occurred in San Diego with Marty Schottenheimer after the 2006 season. Prior to that: Steve Mariucci (2002, 49ers); Tony Dungy (2001, Buccaneers); and Chan Gailey (1999, Cowboys) each were axed after leading their respective teams to the playoffs in their final seasons.
If Blank were to do the same, he’ll likely be hoping to take his cues from the Buccaneers and Chargers. The Bucs won a Super Bowl under new head coach Jon Gruden in 2002. Schottenheimer failed to win either of his playoff appearances during his five seasons with the Chargers, with the team having a regular-season winning percentage of 58.8 percent under him. Neither Norv Turner nor Mike McCoy have improved upon that win percentage, collectively winning 58.4 percent of regular season games in the time since, but the Chargers at least have won three of seven playoff games under the pair of coaches. There’s no doubt that if Blank moves on from Smith, it will be because he no longer believes that he’s capable of getting the team the ultimate prize: a shot to play in February.
Smith’s fate isn’t sealed quite yet and how the Falcons play over the final month will be a huge determining factor to how things inevitably turn out. Should the Falcons go toe-to-toe against the Packers tonight, a team that many currently view as the best team in the NFC, it will likely go a long way in helping Smith state his case that he deserves to stay. That would be coming off one of the team’s more impressive wins last week over the Arizona Cardinals, who previously held the title as arguably the NFC’s top team at least when considering their record.
Should the Falcons beat the Saints in two weeks, sweeping them for the first time since 2005, and then completely run the NFC South table by beating the Panthers the following week, Smith will have even greater cause to keep his job.
But nobody should be counting their chickens before they hatch since it’s all still very fluid. Should the Packers blow out the Falcons tonight, it could have an equally negative effect on Smith’s job security. Blank’s tolerance for embarrassment is probably non-existent at this point and the last thing Smith needs is to have the Falcons lose in the same fashion that the Saints did this past Sunday.
Simply put, all parties are in “wait and see” mode.
In light of the question marks surrounding Smith’s future, certain whispers about who the Falcons could potentially target should Smith get the heave-ho have now grown a bit more audible in the past week.
Jason Cole of the Bleacher Report was the first to speak of current New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan’s possible arrival to the Deep South. Per Cole, sources indicated that Ryan is amenable to such a move since his departure from New York is a foregone conclusion given their current 2-11 record.
Recent Reports Heat Up Rex Ryan Rumor Mill
This past weekend, Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News seemed to back up Cole’s initial reports. Mehta reported sources that indicated that Ryan had the “inside track” to the job had it been left up to Blank back in 2008. However, after the team’s hiring of general manager Thomas Dimitroff, Smith leap-frogged Ryan. Reports at the time did indicate that Ryan was one of Dimitroff’s four chosen finalists for the job alongside Smith, Steve Spagnuolo and Leslie Frazier back in 2008, so Mehta’s sources don’t sound too far off the mark.
Ryan would certainly qualify as an interesting hire for the Falcons, although I’m not convinced he’d be the right hire. Ryan would bring a much different energy to Atlanta than Smith has given his outspoken nature and penchant for colorful language. Those qualities make Ryan a natural for television, a gig that he’d be keen to accept should the right head coaching opportunity not become available, per Mehta.
But while those qualities make for entertaining sound bites and press conferences, they don’t matter much on the field. And that’s ultimately where the Falcons need their greatest overhaul.
Over recent months, I’ve been quick to point out the lack of talent on this year’s Falcon team. But that’s not to suggest that the Falcons’ cupboard is completely bare. They already have a franchise quarterback, one of the league’s best wide receivers, several pieces along the offensive line and Desmond Trufant.
But unlike the Bucs team that Gruden inherited back in 2002, this Falcons team isn’t a coaching shakeup from being back in the hunt for the Super Bowl. Gruden inherited one of the league’s premier defenses and had the benefit of continuity in the form of defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin sticking around after Dungy’s dismissal. Five defenders on the Bucs in 2001 made the Pro Bowl. Gruden’s success the following year came thanks to that unit gelling into one of the best of all time, coupled with bringing an underachieving offense to mediocrity.
Many might believe that Ryan could perform a similar transformation in Atlanta but with the sides of the ball reversed. Ryan would inherit a potentially prolific offense and if he could infuse a lackluster Falcons defense to be decent, that could be a recipe for success in Atlanta.
Falcons Not Quite Ready For Immediate Success in 2015
However, the offense that Ryan would inherit in Atlanta isn’t quite on par with those Buccaneers defenses of yesteryear. While the 2012 Falcons offense was among the league’s best, this team is a far cry from those days. As I’ve noted before, the Falcons had a very rare combination of production from their three top wideouts in 2012. Fast-forward a few years and the team will be hard-pressed to repeat that success without similar elite talent. Tony Gonzalez is retired and Roddy White appears to be a shell of the player he was then. Current Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter also appears a far cry from Kiffin as far as coordinators go.
In six years under Ryan in New York, the best offense the Jets ever fielded was decidedly an average unit: ranking 16th in terms of offensive DVOA per Football Outsiders in 2010. And that was largely due to the success of the Jets ground game that season.
The Jets were routinely among the league’s worst passing teams under Ryan’s watch. And while that wouldn’t be the case in Atlanta with a quarterback like Matt Ryan, there’s little reason to believe that Rex Ryan is capable of getting anymore out of the Falcons’ franchise quarterback than Smith has. In fact, most signs point to the likelihood that a Rex Ryan-led Falcons team would get decidedly less.
Hiring a coach like Ryan would certainly bring a greater deal of “swagger” to Atlanta that hasn’t been apparent in recent years under Smith, and should also lead to significant improvements on defense, but at the end of the day, does that get the Falcons any closer to winning a title?
In my eyes, Ryan is too much of a lateral move from Smith: a defensive-minded coach that has a limited scope and vision for offense. Ryan might do a better job instilling the “toughness and edge” that Blank reportedly wants the Falcons to have moving forward, but as I noted two weeks ago, the team’s problems go deeper than a mere attitude adjustment.
Falcons Next Head Coach Needs to Upgrade Personnel Decisions
The Falcons have made a plethora of poor personnel decisions over recent years to put them in their current predicament, which is likely becoming only the second team to make the playoffs with a losing record.
Many blame the current abysmal state of the Jets on general manager John Idzik and his predecessor Mike Tannenbaum as opposed to Ryan’s coaching. But that only indicates that Ryan has been either unable or unwilling to flex his might when it comes to the team’s personnel, neither of which suggests that he is suited to getting the Falcons’ front office moving in the right direction.
It’s easy for me to suggest that Ryan is not the ideal candidate to patrol the Falcons sidelines next season, yet I don’t have a better candidate of my own. But I have at least laid out of a few qualities and characteristics that potential coach should have.
Hiring a coach that is able to grow the Falcons offense cannot be underestimated. The Falcons already gave Matt Ryan a massive contract and are likely to give another one to Julio Jones in the near future. There is simply no point to having such a large amount of money invested in two players on that side of the ball if the goal isn’t to produce one of the league’s elite offenses at some point. Throw in what is likely to be a multi-year rebuilding process for the defense, the Falcons are going to need their offense to carry them in the meantime.
Yes, the Falcons already have several solid offensive pieces to build around, but they should by no means rest on their laurels. That sort of complacency is exactly why the Falcons offense has declined in recent years. The running game, receivers and offensive line were deemed “good enough” by the Falcons’ powers that be, with all three groups subsequently eroding over the course of Smith and Dimitroff’s tenures in Atlanta.
The Falcons had problems at left tackle and right guard way back in 2011, yet it took until 2014 before they were able to adequately address both positions by signing Jake Matthews and Jon Asamoah. The team is still looking for the long-term replacement for running back Michael Turner and Gonzalez at tight end. White’s name will also need to be added to the list of veterans that are going to need successors sooner rather than later.
It’s definitely true that improving the defense should and will be the team’s top priority next offseason. After all, the 2014 Falcons are currently on pace to be the seventh-worst defense of all time in terms of yards allowed. But the point is that should not be at the expense of ignoring the offense.
Whoever the next Falcons coach is should at least understand that. And assuming he does, there’s reason to hope that he can achieve what Smith never could: win a Super Bowl.