The 2013 season is over for the Atlanta Falcons and what a disappointing season it was.
The Falcons finish the year with a 4-12 record, when most (including myself) were expected a record that was closer to 12-4 after their trip to the NFC Championship Game in 2012. What is the narrative for the year that was 2013 in Atlanta?
First off, injuries were a factor, particularly the two injuries to wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones. White suffered a high-ankle sprain at the end of the preseason, and rather than rest him for the start of the season the Falcons and White himself pushed to play. Hindsight tells us that was a mistake. Because after the fifth game of the year, Jones went down with a season-ending foot injury. Had White been rested, it’s likely he would have been able to suit up and pick up the slack by then. Instead, White would miss the next three games with a hamstring injury and would be largely ineffective for three more following that.
Essentially, the Falcons got only five games worth of solid production from each wideout this year: Jones for the first five, and White for the final five. In the first five games, the Falcons averaged 24.4 points per game, while they averaged 25.2 in the final five. During the six in between, they averaged 17.5 points per game. It’s not a coincidence that the Falcons offensive production dropped by a touchdown when they lacked a comparable playmaker at wide receiver.
And while he had led the team with a career-high 85 catches and 1,067 yards, Harry Douglas proved he was not that playmaker. The stat that is most-telling about Douglas’ 2013 season is his two touchdowns despite playing the entire season. Prior to this year, there were only five receivers that exceeded 80 catches, 1,000 yards, and did not exceed a pair of touchdowns in a season.
Wide Receiver an Underrated Need for Falcons
The lack of a reliable wideout is one those subjects I’ve harped on throughout this season, mainly because most will focus on the play of the Falcons in the trenches as the root cause of their woes this year. And while those people aren’t necessarily wrong in thinking that upgrading those areas should be the top priorities for the Falcons this offseason, I believe it was really the diminishing returns from the passing game that doomed the Falcons season.
Much of that is tied to the poor play up front, as Matt Ryan was sacked 44 times this year, the most ever in his six-year career in Atlanta. Given the quick trigger of Ryan, that is a very large sack total. That would likely exceed 50 if your average NFL quarterback was playing behind the Falcons’ offensive line. Although that total is somewhat inflated by a trio of bad games against the New Orleans Saints and Buffalo Bills in consecutive weeks a month ago and yesterday’s finale against the Carolina Panthers, resulting in Ryan being dropped a combined 20 times. Outside those games, the Falcons did not give up sacks to an extraordinarily high rate compared to the rest of his career. In the 13 other games played this year, Ryan was sacked on 4.3 percent of his dropbacks which meshes well with his career figure of 4.1 percent headed into this season.
Peter Konz Headed Towards a Make or Break Season
But regardless of how you manipulate the numbers, the Falcons still need help up front. And a series of unfortunate personnel decisions have led to little growth over the past few years. 2012 top pick Peter Konz could become the poster boy for those poor decisions. He may follow the path of former Wisconsin teammate John Moffitt into obscurity. Moffitt, who started two seasons alongside Konz at Wisconsin, was a third-round pick by the Seattle Seahawks in 2011. He had two injury-plagued, underachieving years there before being shipped this summer to the Denver Broncos after an initial trade to the Cleveland Browns was voided. Moffitt wound up retiring midway through this season and his NFL career will be considered no more than a footnote. It’s possible that Konz’s career similarly fizzles out if he does not have a strong offseason, followed up by an even better regular season in 2014.
But despite these issues and problems that the Falcons face on their front line, an underrated need for the Falcons as they head into the offseason is shoring up depth at wide receiver. Douglas, while a competent complementary weapon at times this year, just isn’t capable of being a go-to option in the vein of Jones when he is out. Few are, but the Falcons need to find someone that can do some of the things that Jones can if or when he misses more time. Given that Jones has missed time or been limited by injuries in five consecutive seasons, it’s a safe bet that he may miss time in a sixth in 2014. The Falcons need to find another option that can stretch a defense this offseason to provide that much-needed aspect of their offense that was sorely missing following Jones’ injury this year. That was a role that Douglas was unable to fill, and an element that was missing from the Falcons offense until White’s late-season resurgence.
But if the Falcons are going to regain their foothold at the top of the NFC as they held in 2012, they will need to upgrade their defense.
An Improving Defense May Hold Key to Falcons Future Fortunes
Passer Rating Differential, which is considered the Mother of All Stats by Cold Hard Football Facts since it correlates very well with wins and losses. Well, the Falcons finished second to last in the league this year allowing a passer rating of 102.4. Only the Oakland Raiders were worse. That made it exceedingly difficult for the Falcons to have a positive passer rating differential given all the problems that plagued the offense. The Falcons finished the season with the 26th best passer rating differential, or more accurately the seventh worst.
I’ll blame that lacking production on the defense due to a lack of turnovers and a lack of pass rush. The pass rush is tangible, and thus more easily improved than turnovers, which involve luck and circumstance. But it’s not a coincidence that the teams that led the league in taking the ball away in 2013 were ones that typically blended strong defensive line with a good secondary play. The Falcons saw a lot of promising play in their secondary this year, although the departure of Brent Grimes really hurt them. But Desmond Trufant proved to be an upgrade over Dunta Robinson, and if the Falcons can get better play at free safety next year, things will be looking up for the secondary.
Disappointments Abound in Regards to Falcons Pass Rushers
That means the Falcons must focus on upgrading their defensive line this offseason. Osi Umenyiora finished with an underwhelming season. Prior to this season, I suggested that Umenyiora could have a season where he reaches at least 25 “positive pass rushes” (or PPRs), when combining his total sacks, pressures, and hits according to my Moneyball reviewing system. Well, headed into the final week of the season, Umenyiora had only tallied 15.5 PPRs, less than half of what John Abraham achieved a year ago (33) in what was considered a “down” year for him. Osi’s production is roughly on par with what Kroy Biermann had produced over the past three seasons in years where he was considered underwhelming in terms of his pass-rushing abilities.
The Falcons will need to make a decision this offseason to determine whether to keep Umenyiora in 2014. If they do opt to keep him, it will likely be as a situational rusher similar to the role he played with the New York Giants in his final seasons there. That would require the Falcons to upgrade at least one of their starting defensive end positions, possibly two if they don’t feel comfortable starting Biermann, Jonathan Massaquoi, or Malliciah Goodman at the other spot. But Massaquoi’s 10.5 PPRs heading into the final game may give the team pause in regards to Osi’s return. Massaquoi is six and a half years younger and will carry one-eighth the cap hit of Umenyiora in 2014, suggesting far greater economic value for the Falcons if Massaquoi is the team’s top situational pass rusher.
The Falcons have a lot of work cut out for them, as they look to improve both lines. But again, hopefully they won’t be too focused on those areas of the roster to shore up depth at other positions such as wide receiver.
Elsewhere in the NFL…
The playoff pool is set and once again at least five NFL teams that missed the playoffs a year ago made it this year. It’s a phenomenon that has occurred in seventeen of the past eighteen seasons. This year’s new blood include the Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers in the AFC, while the Carolina Panthers, Philadelphia Eagles, and New Orleans Saints made it to the postseason in the NFC.
If we’re using the previously mentioned passer rating differential to decide which teams have the best chances of winning the Super Bowl this year, then it’s the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos, who finished first and second this year. Both teams were my preseason Super Bowl picks, so I’m definitely optimistic that I’ll have gotten something right this year. But rarely do things go according to plan, as it has occurred only twice in the past 20 seasons that a pair of top-seeded teams met in the Super Bowl. It happened in 2009 when the Indianapolis Colts and Saints met, and previously in 1993 when the Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys met for the second time in the Super Bowl.
History suggests that Seattle’s path to the Super Bowl will be easier, as 11 times in the past 20 years, the top-seeded NFC team made it to the Super Bowl. In fact, 16 times in that same span the top-seeded NFC team has made it to the conference championship game. All four of the instances where the No. 1 seed was stopped short of the conference title game have occurred in the past six seasons. And in three of those years, the team that upset the top seed made it to the Super Bowl.
The AFC is a bit more fickle. Only seven times in the past 20 years has the top-seeded team won the AFC and journeyed to the Super Bowl. Eleven times the No. 1 seeds in the AFC went to the conference title game. But only in four of the nine instances where the top seed was bounced in the second round of the playoffs, did the team that defeated them travel to the Super Bowl.
And given the fact that the top seed in the AFC this year is Denver, it lends credence to the possibility that conference proves fickle once more. The Broncos are helmed by Peyton Manning, who is notorious for underachieving in January. So it seems like if there is going to be a hiccup to my Super Bowl prediction, it will come in the AFC. The stage appears set for a rematch of the Broncos and New England Patriots (the No. 2 seed) in the title game, as the Patriots beat the Broncos earlier this season in Foxborough. If they go into Denver and beat the Broncos a second time, I have the feeling it’s going to really impact Manning’s career legacy. After a season where he has already earned significant accolades and expected to earn several more, if the Broncos don’t wind up in the Super Bowl, the focus will be firmly on Manning for Denver’s failure.
But if passer rating differential is our litmus test, the Patriots may not be the best bet to beat the Broncos. In fact, the next-best AFC squads after Denver in that metric are the Cincinnati Bengals and Chiefs, ranking sixth and seventh respectively in NFL this year. Even the San Diego Chargers (10th) outpace the Patriots. Even without Geno Atkins, the Bengals quietly have had an outstanding defensive season, ranking in the top five in nearly every worthwhile statistical category. A big day for the Bengals defense and the emergence of Andy Dalton as a competent playoff-caliber quarterback could be what gives the Bengals the best chance to topple the Broncos. But there’s no chance of Denver and Cincinnati meeting before the AFC title game since the latter is the No. 3 seed. Instead, it’s likely the Chiefs who might be this year’s upset-minded team, as they could play the Broncos for the third time this year if they defeat the Colts next week.
In the NFC, the teams most likely to upset the Seahawks if we’re using the passer rating differential metric, would be the Saints, Eagles, and San Francisco 49ers, who rank third, fourth and fifth respectively.
It’s always interesting to see how January shakes out, even in the years where the Falcons aren’t playing.