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Takeaways from Week 6

October 14th, 2013
(AP Photo/Dave Martin)

Mike Smith (AP Photo)

I’ve heard a lot made about Mike Smith’s poor game management decisions over the past week in light of the Falcons disappointing 30-28 loss to the New York Jets last Monday.

I personally believe it’s overblown, although I’ve found that few agree with me as people have already made up their minds that Smitty is poor at managing the Falcons on gameday even when there is compelling evidence staring them in the face that says otherwise.

Sure, you can criticize Smitty for not taking the points at the end of the first half against the Jets, deciding to go for the touchdown. But Smitty’s decision is more than defensible, and arguably the right call. At least if you believe in things like Advanced NFL Stats’ Win Probability metric. Using their calculator, the numbers suggest that as long as the Falcons believed there was a 33-percent chance of converting on 4th-and-1 from the Jets’ 1-yard line, they were right to roll the dice and go for it. The numbers suggested that the average NFL team should convert 68-percent of the time, more than double the allowable percentage and the Falcons had already converted on 50-percent of their 1-yard-to-go situations up that point in the game. Throw in the factor that the Falcons had been plagued by red zone inefficiency this season where they were unable to convert touchdowns, it made perfect sense why Smitty would elect to be aggressive in that scenario rather than settle for three points (again). Complaining about Smitty being overly aggressive is really a matter of philosophy, not science. Really no different than the belief that an offensive tackle that stands 6’3″ versus 6’5″ is incapable of being successful in the NFL.

And I would find it troubling if someone had unkind words to say about Smitty’s decision to go for it on 4th-and-1 at the Jets’ 18-yard line in the fourth quarter down six points with about four minutes to go in the game. Again using ANS’ 4th down calculator, had the Falcons failed on that attempt, they would have still increased their chances of winning than settling for three points. Which makes perfect sense when you consider a turnover on downs would have given the Jets the ball at the 18 instead of the likely scenario that would have given them the ball at the 20 after a field goal and touchback on the kickoff. Regardless the same scenario comes about where in order for the Falcons to get another chance to take the lead (or tie it post-field goal), the Falcons need a defensive stop. A touchdown is much better than a field goal, and the Falcons aren’t going to have a better chance to score a touchdown than they had deep in Jets’ territory at that point. Let’s say they kick the field goal, kick off to the Jets and get a three-and-out and force a 40-yard punt, you’re taking over around your own 30-yard line likely with the two-minute warning nearing. According to ANS, the chances you make a field goal and tying the game on a drive starting at your own 30 are about 11-percent, while you wind up with a 49-percent chance of scoring a touchdown if you convert on fourth down at their 17-yard line.

There certainly have been many instances over the years where Mike Smith’s decision-making has been called into question. I cannot and will not deny that. But in many of those instances Smitty’s decisions were either the right call, or at least defensible as to why he made the decision. That’s the key: defensible. It may not be the best call to be made in that given situation, but certainly understandable and rational that a human being in that situation would make that decision. And thus it makes little sense to be upset and irate on the verge of firing somebody for making rational decisions.

But then again, reason and rationality aren’t widespread when it comes to the sport of football, particularly in terms of the people that watch it. When a team is 1-4, particularly a team that most expected to be a playoff team (including myself) and many expected to compete for a Super Bowl (which did not include me), the last thing people are going to do is turn to reason.

People are very quick to push the “emotional” button in that scenario. And that means someone’s head must roll.

But that’s another thing that I constantly come into contact with: the belief that there is one quick or easy fix to the problems that plague the Falcons.

I certainly would agree that if the Falcons were to fix their offensive line, it would have far-reaching positive ramifications for this football team. A team with a good offensive line is better able to run the ball, which means that they are in a better position to put the nail in the coffin to finish off opponents, something Atlanta has struggled to do over the years. It also means that in the event that you have a devastating injury at a skill position as the Falcons do currently with Julio Jones being sidelined, it increases the chances you can offset that by relying on your running game to make your offense go (see the 2013 New England Patriots). It also means that you do a better job protecting Matt Ryan, which for obvious reasons makes him more effective regardless of who has is throwing to.

The quarterback and the offensive line are the foundations of your offense. You can offset a lot more deficiencies elsewhere if you are strong at those spots, than you can if your strength lies elsewhere.

But if you think there is a quick or easy fix to the offensive line, you’re probably fooling yourself. It’s popularly held that the Falcons O-line issues came to a head this off-season when they opted to dump Tyson Clabo and Todd McClure for Lamar Holmes/Mike Johnson and Peter Konz, which has yet to pay dividends. But I believe the Falcons blocking issues have been a systemic problem that dates back to poor decisions made years ago.

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Sam Baker

Plugging in Holmes and Konz really was not the mistake made. The Falcons could have more than handled that had the front office helmed by Thomas Dimitroff made better decisions earlier. Giving Justin Blalock $39 million was simply a mistake. While Blalock is playing well thus far in 2013, it’s really about two years too late. And having one individual play well really doesn’t mean much when a successful offensive line must be a cohesive five-man unit. The Falcons let Harvey Dahl walk to St. Louis for $16 million over four years in that same off-season that they handed Blalock his big contract. And the resulting play at right guard has been a black hole of production ever since. While Garrett Reynolds is playing above expectations (although that isn’t saying much considering how low they were going into the year), again it doesn’t make that huge a difference if other players are playing poorly. It’s not to suggest that Dahl would have played any better than Blalock has over the past 37 games, but when the choice is between guaranteeing one player $16 million versus $4 million and both players are of similar skillset, the choice should be obvious. The Falcons have preached about fiscal responsibility with their off-season decision-making, and that clearly was an example where they did not heed their own advice.

And the pièce de résistance was when the Falcons opted to give Sam Baker $41 million this off-season. Baker was a much worse investment than Blalock. Blalock clearly had a skillset that made it plausible why the Falcons would prefer to give him a long-term deal. He was a competent to good run blocker and pass protector that was durable and there were reasonable expectations that his play was ascending. Again, I want to stress the mistake wasn’t the Falcons choosing Blalock over Dahl, it was paying Blalock more than double the salary of Dahl. But there were free such reasons to think Baker was a smart investment. Yes, his 2012 performance was solid, and arguably the most consistent of the starting five. But that was after four collectively lackluster seasons during which Baker had missed 14 combined games due to injury. Baker had consistently shown that he was largely inept as a run blocker, and possessed little skill to suggest he would be anything more than an above average pass protector. We had seen the very best of Sam Baker in 2012, and he was still by and large a below average to average starting left tackle. I understood why the Falcons opted to re-sign him, and for the most part agreed with the decision itself. But again, if the Falcons were being fiscally responsible they should have agreed to much more favorable contract that would have allowed them to quickly exit if Baker regressed in any way. Had Baker balked and sought the market-value deal that he ultimately received, the Falcons should have been willing to let him walk and let someone else overpay him, not too dissimilar from the strategy the Falcons used in 2006 when they let Kevin Shaffer leave for Cleveland. In that situation, the Falcons wound up with Wayne Gandy as their left tackle for a year and half, which potentially saved the Falcons upwards of $30 million. Gandy was by no means great during his short time in Atlanta, but he did not handcuff the Falcons from ultimately drafting Baker in 2008. They won’t have such luxury in regards to Baker’s deal.

Because of the money paid to them, the Falcons basically have no choice but to continue forward with Baker and Blalock protecting Matt Ryan’s blindside, at least for another year. The Falcons could cut Blalock this upcoming off-season, but would have to eat roughly $7.3 million in dead money, netting them only about $380,000 in 2014 cap savings if they were to let him go. That’s not even the value of the veteran minimum for an undrafted rookie. Assuming Blalock doesn’t fall off the face of the Earth for the remainder of the season, such a move makes little sense. And Baker still has over $15 million in guaranteed money due to be paid out when you factor in the remainder of his $10 million signing bonus and the $7.25 million in combined base salary and option bonus that is fully guaranteed for next year. Again, since the Falcons are stuck with paying both nearly a combined $15 million next year, they might as well keep them and try to get some production.

And the truth is the Falcons aren’t going to give up on Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes probably as quickly as some people may want. Konz has struggled this year, but his excuse has been that it’s been largely against good players such as Randy Starks and Muhammad Wilkerson. He’s not getting whipped by no-name players for the most part, and it takes time for centers to really hit their stride. Vikings center John Sullivan was the top-rated center per Pro Football Focus in 2012. In his first two seasons as a starter in 2009 and 2010, he rated 28th and 26th, respectively. Currently, Konz rates 32nd out of 34 centers rated. And considering he’s not far behind Max Unger (30th), Nick Mangold (29th), and Jonathan Goodwin (28th) who ranked 3rd, 6th, and 10th last year suggests that the sky isn’t falling in regards to his development.

Holmes on the other hand is a bit more of a question mark. I believe he was a bit of a reach in the 2012 draft, and while I do think Holmes has the ability to become an effective to good starter in this league, there is no guarantee that he’ll ever get there. Holmes basically has two career paths ahead of him: J’Marcus Webb or Duane Brown. While Webb did improve over the course of his three-year career as a starter in Chicago, it was never to a degree that was acceptable. Even as an improved player, he was still a liability for the Bears, which led to them shooing him out the door this past summer once Jordan Mills showed any level of competency. Brown also struggled early in his career, but was able to ultimately put it together to a point where he is now considered among the elite left tackles in the league. I’m not trying to suggest that Holmes will ever be a player on par with Brown, but saying that just because you stink early in your career doesn’t mean that you’ll always stink. Holmes has already shown some improvement over the course of this season thus far and if he ever learns to use his hands properly, that’s when he’ll start to prove Dimitroff & Co. right for selecting him where they did.

While the Falcons will almost certainly bring in competition to push Holmes next season at the very least, it’s unlikely that the Falcons are going to make a big splash move such as paying out another market-value deal or using their top pick on a tackle. That only remains a possibility if Holmes regresses over the remainder of this season, which I suspect few want to see. Under Dimitroff, the Falcons have consistently shown patience with their draft picks taken in the first four rounds, basically allowing them to play out the entirety of their contracts before moving on from them. I don’t expect that philosophy will change in regards to Konz and Holmes.

That simply leaves right guard as the sole spot where the Falcons could reasonably be expected to make a big splash. The Falcons do not have significant money tied up into Reynolds as they do with Blalock and Baker, nor have they invested a high draft pick in him to suggest they will be patient in developing him.

The questionable spending of the past likely will prevent the Falcons from trying to splurge in free agency. Not to mention, the presence of Matt Ryan’s contract will also make the Falcons hesistant to hand out many market-level deals to anybody but their own homegrown players. It also doesn’t help that next spring’s looming free agent class at guard isn’t exactly ripe for the picking. While there are a number of mid-level free agents that could offer potential upgrades over Reynolds, there is really no guard that is the caliber of player that would make a team willing to spend in excess of $30 million to sign. The closest being Kansas City Chiefs right guard Jon Asamoah, but he should be re-signed by the Chiefs.

And while it would be silly to comment on the potential draft class of 2014, it doesn’t appear that it is going to be like the 2013 class where there are two elite guard prospects at the top of the draft that make you throw out the convention rules about taking guards high. And even if there were, given the Falcons potentially needs on the defensive side of the ball, I’m not sure I’d like such a move. The Falcons may be looking to fill four or more starting positions on that side of the ball next off-season, including some much-needed spots on the defensive line. Given the premium placed on pass rushers league-wide, it’s a smarter strategy to take the pass rusher high and hope a good guard slips through the cracks on the second day of the draft (see Larry Warford).

Elsewhere in the NFL…

It was an interesting Sunday, as it almost always is. The Jacksonville Jaguars played the Denver Broncos tougher than most expected. It didn’t surprise me that the Jaguars opted not to lay down, but I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be a relatively competitive ballgame through nearly three quarters of play.

That leaves the NFL’s two remaining unbeaten teams in the AFC West, as the Kansas City Chiefs managed to thwart the Oakland Raiders. Now the hype train is going to be gearing up for the inevitable meeting in Week 11 where the Chiefs travel to Denver after a bye week. Between now and then the Chiefs have home games against the Texans and Browns, and travel to Buffalo in Week 9. Denver travels to Indianapolis next week, then hosts Washington, and goes to San Diego after their Week 9 bye before hosting the Chiefs.

Will both teams be 9-0 at that point? Possibly, although it always seems like the things we want to happen never seem to actually happen when it comes to the NFL. It’s going to be an interesting matchup because you have a Chiefs team that is thriving on defense and running the ball, while the Broncos are winning with dynamic passing and offense. If the Chiefs find a way to control the line of scrimmage, that is often the kryptonite for the type of play teams like the Broncos exhibit. The X-factor is going to be Von Miller, who returns from his suspension next week. The Broncos defense has not played well this year, and Miller’s successful return could make the difference for the remainder of the season and particularly in that matchup against the Chiefs. Top pick Eric Fisher has struggled this season on the right side, and if Miller is able to exploit that matchup it could spell trouble for the Chiefs offense, which is still helmed by the passably mediocre Alex Smith.

Buffalo Bills quarterback Thad Lewis had an impressive performance in only his second career start, considering the low expectations. He made a couple of big-time throws, including a last-minute deep strike to Marquise Goodwin that sent the game into overtime. That bookended his first pass of the game which was a 40-yard strike to T.J. Graham. Not a bad way to begin and end a game. Unfortunately, Lewis was injured at the end of the game, so much so that the Bills are expected to bring in Matt Flynn today to work out. The Bills can’t catch a break when it comes to injuries to their quarterbacks.

New England also had a strong finish with Tom Brady throwing a last-second touchdown pass to Kenbrell Thompkins to deliver New Orleans their first loss of the season. While the Falcons have virtually no chance of catching the Saints, it is nice to see a division rival lose in such dramatic fashion. While I don’t have quite the passionate loathing for the Saints as your typical Falcon fan, I do still enjoy that they can get their heart ripped out from time to time. It followed a game in which Brady did not play particularly well, but as usual that is quickly overshadowed by what you do in crunch-time, i.e. the “Anti-Romo Equation.” It’s also worth noting that Bill Belichick worked his magic in effectively neutralizing Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston, as they combined for just one catch for 11 yards (made by Colston). That’s what superior coaching gets you. Unfortunately for the people outside of New England, there’s only one Belichick.

The Houston Texans are in disarray after getting embarrassed by the lowly St. Louis Rams 38-13. Despite a 2-3 record heading into this week, if I did power rankings, I would have probably placed the Rams no higher than 29th in the league, with only the Jaguars, Buccaneers, and Giants being ranked lower. As I noted last week, Gary Kubiak is on the hot seat and if the Texans can’t turn around their season and make the playoffs this year, I am confident he’ll get the axe at the end of the year. And Matt Schaub will find his way out the door with him so that the Texans make a clean sweep of the organization. The only person who is likely safe at this point is GM Rick Smith. It’s hard to fault a guy that has found such elite talent as J.J. Watt, Brian Cushing, Duane Brown, and Arian Foster over the course of his tenure. But defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who was the talk of the town not that long ago may also be out the door given how poorly the Texans defense has performed to date despite the quality of talent on that side of the ball. It’s certainly not like Mike Nolan here in Atlanta, who is trying to make lemonade with the Falcons current talent on defense. One J.J. Watt is worth the eleven Falcons defenders.

Speaking of disarray, what has happened to RG3? I remember commenting after his knee injury that I did not believe his career path would be dramatically altered, but based off his play thus far this year I would be wrong. I recall Daunte Culpepper having his career-altering knee injury and just never being the same player afterwards. At least with Culpepper we had gotten five and a half good seasons from him. It would be a shame if Griffin’s career is derailed before it ever really got started.

“Josh Freeman Watch” has begun in Minnesota with a paltry performance by Matt Cassel against the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers defensive front is no joke, and the Vikings really had nothing going on offense outside a solid day from tight end Kyle Rudolph (9 catches, 97 yards, and Minnesota’s lone touchdown). Adrian Peterson was bottled up for the most part and carried the ball only 10 times for 62 yards as the Vikings got behind early.

Speaking of Freeman, the Bucs don’t seem improved at all offensively in his absence. I’m not sure what the numbers bear out, but watching Tampa Bay’s offense against a weak Philadelphia Eagles defense didn’t inspire much confidence. Their offensive gameplan looked very conservative under rookie quarterback Mike Glennon, trying to run the ball on early downs and not asking Glennon to go through multiple progressions or force the ball downfield. They’ve essentially doubled-down on an “old school” approach which is built on running the ball and playing good defense, and not letting the game get away from you. How that approach fares against the Falcons next week will depend on which Falcon team shows up. If the Falcons get off to a fast start, then it will be tough for the Bucs to play that way and win. But if the Falcons sort of wade into the game, it will present them with a perfect opportunity to fall to 1-5 with a second-consecutive loss to a rookie quarterback, and into last place in the division.

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