Atlanta Falcons Takeaways From Week 17 – December 29, 2014

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY SportsMike Smith watches the seconds tick off the clock on the Falcons 2014 season

It’s “Black Monday” in Atlanta for Falcons head coach Mike Smith. While no official move has been made as I’m writing this on Sunday evening following the team’s 31-point loss to the Carolina Panthers, it’s only a matter of time.

And it goes to show that the points I made at the end of October that Smith was doomed appeared to be spot on. There seemed to be an increasing chance that the Falcons’ semi-resurgence in the second half of the season might have been enough to save Smith’s job, but lopsided loss to the Panthers killed all of those hopes.

It’s hard to summarize how the past two weeks embody the Smith era. A week ago against the New Orleans Saints, the Falcons arguably played their most complete game over the past two seasons with a dominant defensive performance. And they needed exactly that for a second consecutive week since the Falcons offense failed to show up on Sunday.

Quarterback Matt Ryan threw a pair of pick-sixes and could have easily had one more if not for a penalty on Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis nullifying the play. His performance Sunday capped what has been a lackluster second half of the season for Ryan.

Six weeks ago, I joked that Ryan got lost during halftime in London. But the truth isn’t far from that. The Falcons quarterback just hasn’t been the same over the past two months.

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Matt Ryan and Julio Jones

Ryan’s Recent Success Thanks Mostly to Jones

At first glance, the numbers would suggest the complete opposite. Since halftime against the Lions, Ryan has completed 223 of 333 pass attempts for 2,456 yards, 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions. That means he’s completed 67 percent of his passes, averaged 7.38 yards per attempt and had a passer rating of 92.9.

But let’s remove all the passes to Jones over that time. Jones has caught 52 of 82 attempts for 881 yards and three touchdowns, with two of those interceptions being thrown his way. That means that over the past seven-and-a-half games, Ryan’s passer rating when targeting Jones is a whopping 101.7.

So Ryan has still managed to complete 68.1 percent of his other 251 passes for 1,575 yards, 10 touchdowns and five interceptions when not looking Jones’ way. Those aren’t bad numbers by any means as it works out to still be a 90 passer rating.

But the most glaring stat of those non-Jones targets is that Ryan’s yards per attempt drops to 6.27 yards. For the sake of comparison, Jacksonville Jaguars rookie quarterback Blake Bortles ranks 31st in the NFL with a yards per attempt of 6.14. In 2013, Tampa Bay’s then rookie quarterback in Mike Glennon finished dead last in the NFL with a yards per attempt of 6.27.

Over the first half of the season, Ryan’s yards per attempt when throwing to receivers not named Quintorris Jones was 7.08. That’s not great, but slightly below league average as opposed to at the bottom of the league.

Ryan’s completion percentage remains high when not targeting Jones because he has been making a lot of short, easy throws. Eight of his 10 non-Jones touchdowns in the second half of the season went for less than five yards, thanks in large part to misdirection plays like shovel passes and throwbacks to White.

Falcons Morphed Into One-Man Offense

It’s clear that Jones contributed a lot more to Ryan’s success than vice versa. The Falcons simply became too much of a one-man offense in the second half of the season. That seemingly worked to their advantage when they were successful at getting Jones the ball in wins against Tampa Bay, Arizona and New Orleans. But it worked against them in losses to Pittsburgh when Jones was out of the game. It also worked against them on Sunday, as Jones was bottled up for the most part and not by coincidence, the Falcons only generated three points.

All we have to do is look at the careers of Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson to see what happens to teams when their offenses are primarily driven by one stand-out receiver. Between the three of them, they have played 31 NFL seasons, but their respective teams have only made the playoffs a total of seven times. Given Jones’ propensity to get hurt, the Falcons may be on even thinner ice the Lions, Cardinals and Texans were respectively with their one-man offenses.

Whether it makes sense or not, Panthers cornerback Josh Norman has done better than any other NFL cornerback when it comes to containing Jones. It dates back to 2012 when in Atlanta’s Week 4 win over Carolina, Norman was often matched up against Jones. Jones finished the game with just one catch for 30 yards on eight targets. Add in this year’s two games, Jones has been held to 11 catches for 147 yards on 26 targets over three games when Norman is primarily tasked with covering him.

It goes back to the point I made following the Steelers loss with how easily the Falcons offense can be defended if an opponent essentially has no fear of a deep ball. But it wasn’t just solely Norman’s strong coverage that limited the deep pass this past Sunday. A much bigger problem for the Falcons was the poor pass protection in front of Ryan. The Panthers were able to pin their ears back and were able to hit or flush Ryan from the pocket on the majority of his dropbacks. Even if the deep ball was there, Ryan had no real chance to dial it up given how much heat he saw.

A year ago, the Panthers were also very successful in getting after Ryan to the tune of nine sacks. It was a major reason why the team stressed adding “toughness” the following offseason. And despite giving up six sacks on Sunday, things aren’t all bad for the Falcons offensive line since there is reason to believe the unit still has plenty of room to grow.

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Jake Matthews and Jon Asamoah (75)

Despite Bad Week 17, Falcons Offensive Line Shows Promise

Jake Matthews was solid when he wasn’t nursing an ankle injury this year. Given his pedigree and youth, there’s every reason to believe he can continue to grow. Ryan Schraeder was relatively a revelation down the stretch despite a poor performance against Charles Johnson in the season finale. Schraeder didn’t play high school football, which also suggests his best football is still ahead of him. Lamar Holmes should return and add some much-needed depth at tackle.

Asamoah was the team’s best blocker up front and at age 26 is still in the prime of his career. Center Joe Hawley played well his over the first four weeks of the season before injuries ended his season. That coupled with seven solid starts at the end of 2013, there’s reason to believe that if he can stay healthy for 16 games, Hawley will provide stability at his spot.

That’s potentially four starters that are in the primes of their career. The only exception is a 31-year old Justin Blalock. Given his age and increasing price tag, 2015 likely will mark Blalock’s final year in Atlanta. So it will be important for the Falcons to look to secure his heir apparent potentially in the draft this spring.  But if the team is successful at doing so, there’s plenty of reason to believe that the Falcons could have secured their starting five for the next three-plus seasons.

If guessing which current Falcons assistant coaches might stick around in 2015, offensive line coaches Mike Tice and Wade Harman likely shoot to the top of the list for that reason alone.

Falcons Defense Will Likely Be Overhauled in 2015

But it’s doubtful that many of the defensive assistants will be retained by the new coaching staff since the Falcons defense allowed 6,372 total yards in 2014. That marks the ninth most ever in NFL history and regardless of whether they deserve the bulk of the blame, Smith and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan are the two biggest fall guys for that dishonor.

The next regime is certainly going to have start with upgrades in the front seven, especially to the pass rush. Players like Kroy Biermann, Osi Umenyiora and Jonathan Babineaux are the team’s most productive pass-rushers, and there’s a pretty good chance that none of them return next season.

Then the Falcons will have to turn the keys over to young players like Jonathan Massaquoi, Stansly Maponga, Ra’Shede Hageman and Malliciah Goodman among others. And while those players may eventually grow into quality NFL players, they haven’t shown enough to suggest that is necessarily imminent in 2015.

I’d designate all four to be rotational players next year, not the caliber of guys that can carry a revamped defense. The Falcons are likely to hit free agency relatively hard given their excess of cap space. And they’ll also make upgrades on defense a priority in the draft.

Falcons owner Arthur Blank is no stranger to trying to “win the hearts and minds” of his fan base given his desire to sell personal seat licenses for the new Falcons stadium starting soon. And the Falcons have certainly been successful in their endeavors to win the “public relations war” in recent offseasons, but it just hasn’t translated on the field.

People championed moves to add Ray Edwards, Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson in past offseasons, but it didn’t equal significant improvement during those actual seasons. And whoever is calling the shots in Atlanta next spring will have to buck that trend.

Falcons Likely to Target Top Defensive Coordinator as Next Head Coach

I don’t have a clue who the Falcons will hire as their next head coach. If I was placing a bet, it’d likely be a defensive-minded coach given the obvious problems the team has there. Blank is likely going to want to hire someone that can instill the toughness he was desperately looking for at the end of last season. That likely translates to hiring a higher profile defensive coordinator.

The last time the Falcons conducted a coaching search, they interviewed nine confirmed candidates. Six of those nine were either offensive or defensive coordinators on playoff teams. So it’s a good bet that the bulk of the upcoming coach search will consist of top coordinators on playoff teams.

If so, some obvious candidates jump out in Todd Bowles, Teryl Austin and Dan Quinn, who are the defensive coordinators for the Arizona, Detroit and Seattle, respectively. Buffalo’s Jim Schwartz and Denver’s Jack Del Rio are experienced head coaches that also helmed top defenses in 2014 and could potentially be on Blank’s radar.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Blank won’t hire an offensive-minded coach. Adam Gase (Denver), Josh McDaniels (New England), Darrell Bevell (Seattle) and Pep Hamilton (Indianapolis) are some current offensive coordinators on playoff teams that might draw interest from the Falcons.

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Bowles

Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles likely to be on Falcons radar

That’s not to suggest that the Falcons will only interview and/or hire a coach that is currently coordinating a playoff defense, but it’s likely unless Blank can lure some big name coach out of college or the broadcast booth. One name I haven’t mentioned that we’ve already heard is on the Falcons radar is soon-to-be ex-New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan. If Tom Coughlin is let go by the Giants across town, he’d also probably be right up Blank’s alley. But it doesn’t appear that is a likelihood.

Logic also suggests that should one of their teams get bounced early from the playoffs increases the chances that one of those aforementioned coordinators lands in Atlanta. That bodes relatively well for Bowles, Austin and Hamilton, whose teams play in the opening round of the playoffs next week.

And I should also note that all three of those coaches are black, which may become a factor in each of their favors. Atlanta is one of a handful of NFL cities that have a majority minority population, in this case being African-Americans. In their 49-year history, the Falcons have never had an African American head coach outside the three games that Emmitt Thomas served as their interim guy at the end of 2007.

That’s not meant to suggest that Blank will hire a coach based off solely off the color of his skin, but it certainly could help him win a few more local hearts and minds.

But that issue among others reaffirms the question I raised a week ago about whether Blank’s first priority is to sell tickets or win football games. Is the primary impetus behind firing Smith due to think there’s a better candidate to lead to this team to winning football games or because it would be harder to convince fans to buy tickets if Smith was given another chance?

 

I don’t know the answer although if it’s the former, I can’t disagree with that conclusion. Unfortunately for Smith, I think we’re going to hear a lot of rhetoric in the near future from both the fan base and analysts that suggests Smith is a bad coach.

Smith’s Abysmal End Should Not Overshadow Accomplishments

I do disagree with that however. Smith is certainly a limited coach, but I don’t think that makes him bad. And because the current temperature is hostile towards him, a lot of Smith’s past accomplishments will be overlooked.

He was the first coach to have consecutive winning years in Atlanta, and not only had two in a row, but five. His “discipline first” approach made this team uncannily good in close games throughout his tenure. And while some of that was due to random luck, it also took legitimate coaching skill. Smith wasn’t the first head coach to preach about limiting turnovers and penalties, but was certainly more successful than most in actually instilling it. A bad coach couldn’t accomplish that.

Again, while I’m certainly in agreement with any that firing Smith is the right decision, it’s not because he’s a bad coach. Frankly, Smith took the team as far as it was going to go. And his performance over the past two years showed that the team needs a new direction and new energy injected into it.

Will Falcons Build The Right Way Under New Coach?

They’ve spent the last few years chasing the Super Bowl and trying to take shortcuts. And as I noted in last week’s column, twice now during Blank’s ownership of the team the team has gotten off track by abandoning a long-term success plan, which was building via the draft.

I’m sure there are exceptions, but history shows that more times that not, teams that ultimately win Super Bowls were built via the draft over the better part of a decade. And whether it was with Rich McKay and Jim Mora or recently with Thomas Dimitroff and Smith, the Falcons twice under Blank abandoned that path after a few seasons.

Whether or not that happens a third time we will see play out over the upcoming seasons. But there’s reason to be optimistic about the future in Atlanta. Despite less than stellar play down the stretch, the Falcons have a franchise quarterback in Ryan. They have potentially one of the league’s most dominant playmakers at wide receiver in Jones. They have a developing offensive line. The cupboard is far from bare in Atlanta for whoever takes over the head coaching position.

But despite those positive pieces, no one should be expecting a quick turnaround for this team. There’s certainly a possibility that a new head coach could add several wins and have this team right back into the playoff hunt. But that shouldn’t be interpreted as thinking that the Falcons are back to where they left off in 2012 and are poised for sustained success.

Sustained success really only comes from drafting well over multiple offseasons. And despite the fact that Dimitroff is without a doubt the best general manager the Falcons have ever had in their history, that was an achievement he failed to accomplish.

That rather than ticket sales and splashy head coaching hires should be really where Blank is focused.

 

About the Author

Aaron Freeman
Founder of FalcFans.com