Any follower of mine on twitter might have seen me tweet the phrase: “you reap what you sow” in recent weeks.
For those unfamiliar with that idiom, it originated in the Bible and essentially means that one’s circumstances are the direct result of one’s actions.
The Atlanta Falcons’ circumstances see them sitting at 2-4 coming off Sunday’s 27-13 loss to the Chicago Bears and talk of regime change will surround the team until they can string together some sort of winning streak. The Falcons will follow up a road trip to Baltimore next week with a trip to London to face the Detroit Lions. Then after a bye week, they will have to travel once more and face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers before returning to the Georgia Dome to face the Cleveland Browns on November 23. Given their historic road struggles under head coach Mike Smith, such a streak appears to be a long way off.
While it’s certainly possible the Falcons could split their next four games to somewhat keep the wolves at bay, it would only set them up to basically need to run the table in four home games over their final six and likely require them to steal a road win against either the Green Bay Packers or New Orleans Saints. Winning in a December game at Lambeau Field or beating even a down Saints team on the road would be uncharacteristic for the Smith-led Falcons. A couple of surprises like that would be exactly what Smith would need to salvage his job.
Right now, expectations are at an all-time low for Smith and the best way he can win back the fan base would be to get a couple of surprise wins against what are perceived to be superior opponents. I can’t completely close the door on that possibility, but it would require a major sea change to how the Falcons are currently playing football. And if Smith’s own history in Atlanta is any precedent, that sort of transformation is very unlikely to occur.
Stink of 2013 Still Looms in Atlanta
Those low expectations have a lot to do with the 2013 Falcons. Around this time last year, I was very much in the “pro-Smith” camp. Then, I put most of the team’s shortcomings on injuries as well as poorly executed personnel decisions and still do, but more on that later.
Over the course of the 2013, I wouldn’t say I was moved into the “anti-Smith” camp, but I certainly became disenchanted with him. That occurred after the middle portion of last season with a failure of the Falcons to make what I viewed as the necessary adjustments to try and win with an injury-depleted team. Those adjustments centered on the Falcons’ need to start fast and try to get an early lead. Their methodical, dink/dunk approach on offense was not the way to achieve that.
Most of my ire in 2013 was directed at offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, since he’s responsible for play-calling and offensive game-planning. But Smith was not immune, as he is ultimately responsible for Koetter.
That inability to start fast continues to plague the Falcons in 2014. And this year, they have far less of an excuse than they did a year ago for those struggles. Julio Jones remains healthy and upgrades have been made along the offensive line. The Falcons have mostly scrapped the dink/dunk offense for one that is much more capable of generating explosive plays.
Yet despite these improvements, the Falcons still remain “allergic” to fast starts outside the aberrant performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 3. Discovering exactly why will likely be something that I’ll try to focus on in this week’s All 22 review.
But the preliminary causes still appear to stem from subpar play from the team’s receivers and offensive line. Sunday’s loss to the Bears featured too many dropped passes. I’ve been vocal about Roddy White’s struggles this year and will continue to be so after several dropped passes from White on Sunday.
Outside Jones, Falcons Receiver Corps Are Old and Underachieving
White’s underwhelming play at present doesn’t change the fact that for the previous seven years he was the best wide receiver to ever put on a Falcons uniform. And there are certainly plenty of
excuses reasons for why White is struggling: age, injury and the death of his brother are certainly valid issues that could be negatively affecting him this year.
It’s hard to play winning football with only one reliable receiver, even if that receiver’s name is Quintorris Lopez Jones. Simply look at the Detroit Lions’ record in the years since they’ve acquired Calvin Johnson as evidence for that.
White did bounce back late last season and gave the Falcons offense a huge boost down the stretch. So, it’s not out of the question that his play improves the rest of the season. But I’ll repeat my question from a week ago: what happens if that doesn’t happen? Such an outcome certainly won’t improve the chances that Smith can salvage his job.
It goes back to my original point about reaping what one sows. The Falcons have invested very little in their wide receiver position over the years outside spending an arm and leg to acquire Jones. White, Devin Hester and Harry Douglas are all on the wrong side of the age 30. Eric Weems isn’t far behind at age 29. Is it likely any of those players are going to suddenly discover the fountain of youth?
It’s reached a point where many have put their hopes into a pair of rookies: Geraldo Boldewijn and Bernard Reedy. Boldewijn has tremendous size, but is a raw, plodding route-runner that realistically should not be seen anymore likely to succeed in Atlanta than Brandyn Harvey did once upon a time. And Harvey was considerably a more polished receiver when he entered the NFL in 2010 than Boldewijn was this past summer.
I should also remind people that while explosive, Reedy is a hair shorter than 5’8″. There aren’t a lot of successful receivers that size in the NFL for a reason. Coupled with the fact that he struggled to distinguish himself in actual preseason games this summer, it doesn’t exactly create the best recipe for immediate success should the Falcons turn to him this season.
If used correctly, Reedy can certainly be a situational asset for the Falcons. But one of the biggest criticisms of Smith’s coaching staff is their inability to properly utilize players. So that also doesn’t instill much confidence that any spark could be gained from the Falcons mining their own roster or practice squad for an upgrade at wide receiver.
The Falcons have sown the seeds of preferring veteran wide outs, which isn’t inherently wrong. But becomes problematic if age and injury eventually catch up and the pipeline of young options on the practice squad runs dry.
Falcons Faith in Toilolo Has Yet to Pay Off
Tight end Levine Toilolo also can’t avoid added scrutiny after several critical drops against the Bears. In a previous column written in August, I doubted whether Toilolo was poised to be anything more than a backup-quality tight end this season. Through the early portion of this season, it appears those doubts were valid. According to premium website Pro Football Focus, only Arizona Cardinals John Carlson has received a lower grade than Toilolo among tight ends going into Sunday’s matchups. And I suspect that when that site’s grades are updated for Week 6, that will no long be the case.
It’s not as if the Falcons had a ton of great options to choose from this offseason to upgrade the tight end position, although they essentially passed three times: first in free agency, followed by the draft and finally this past summer after a lackluster preseason performance from Toilolo.
But again, the seeds were sown long before this past offseason. When the Falcons acquired Tony Gonzalez via trade in 2009, they knew the then 33-year old tight end was only going to be a short-timer. Yet the team waited four years before they made any serious investments in acquiring Gonzalez’s heir apparent. And one can argue that Toilolo was not serious enough considering he didn’t exactly fit the offense as it was run with Gonzalez.
Offensive Line Also Plagued by Poor Personnel Decisions
Matt Ryan was sacked four times on Sunday by the Bears, following up on a loss to the New York Giants last week that saw him hitting the turf quite a bit also. Things probably aren’t going to fare any better for Ryan’s protection in the next two games as they face the formidable fronts of the Ravens and Lions.
Despite these breakdowns, the Falcons offensive line is still probably better than it was last season. Yet, better doesn’t necessarily translate to being good. With season-ending injuries to starters Joe Hawley and Lamar Holmes, good may be beyond reasonable possibilities. Good enough is probably the team’s best hope moving forward.
There was a time once where I defended Peter Konz, but that seems eons ago. At this point, I can readily say that Konz is one of the least athletic offensive linemen I’ve ever seen start an NFL game. And it appears there will likely be ten more times where I will have to bear witness to such an atrocity this season.
I don’t mean to suggest the Falcons blocking failures the past two weeks rest solely or predominantly on Konz, just that he epitomizes the shortcomings of the unit. Simply put, Konz is a very poor fit for the Falcons blocking scheme due to his lack of athleticism. With the additions of new line coaches Mike Tice and Wade Harman this year, the Falcons have introduced more movement into their blocking scheme. Whether it’s pulling into the hole, blocking on the second level or getting out in front of screens, athleticism is at a premium for the Falcons line this season. Yet, the unathletic Konz remains.
Harland Gunn is a much better fit at center for the blocking scheme because he has consistently shown that he’s most effective when he’s asked to block on the move, as opposed to Konz who has been least effective in that arena. Despite this, such a statement is probably deemed meaningless given Gunn’s poor performance against the Giants a week ago. My point is not that Gunn playing center would automatically see better results on the field, just that he’s a better fit. And ultimately, the job of personnel people like Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff is to do his best to fit round pegs into round holes.
If Gunn played center and struggled, it would simply be because he isn’t a good enough player. If Konz plays center and struggles, it can stem from not being a good player and/or from being a poor fit.
Frankly, there’s no excuse that poor fits are still problematic under Dimitroff’s regime, now in its seventh season. Once again, this organization’s ability to effectively utilize its players comes into question.
Similar to Hawley, Gunn is too small to hold up long-term at guard. But his aggressiveness and athleticism could make him a much better option at center. Given Konz’s underachieving since joining the Falcons in 2012, having him compete directly with a player like Gunn this summer would have been a smarter call.
Gunn saw limited reps at center this past summer in practices and none in preseason games. The point of preseason is to evaluate players and giving Gunn at least a half’s worth of snaps playing center would have been a good evaluation tool to determine if he was indeed a better fit there than Konz.
Falcons Issues Go Beyond Poor Coaching
My goal is not to use hindsight to nitpick and criticize the Falcons past decisions in regards to their shortcomings at wide receiver, tight end and offensive line. Instead, it’s simply to illustrate that the Falcons are currently reaping what they have sown in the past. Many of these issues were raised months and years past, and went unadddressed for various reasons.
One of the reasons why I’ve been less critical than others of Smith, Koetter and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan this year is because of my belief that Dimitroff’s personnel decisions are largely to blame for the team’s current predicament.
I certainly believe that Smith, Koetter and Nolan deserve the wealth of criticism they’ve received this year and don’t fault anyone that advocates their collective dismissal by year’s end. But, anyone that believes the Falcons can simply shuffle in a new coaching staff and see much more positive results is probably a little naive.
Not only are the Falcons going to have to be better coached moving forward, but they are also going to have to make better personnel decisions.
The pillars of any successful football organization are going to rest on three pillars: general manager (or whomever is in charge of personnel decisions), head coach and quarterback. If you’re solid in all three of those areas, you have a firm foundation for success.
There was a time where I believed the Falcons were firm in all three areas. But the years of missed draft picks and bad free-agent signings eroded the general manager pillar. After 2013, the strength of the coaching pillar has also been undermined. And there’s no doubt that moving forward, there is going to be a closer examination in whether the quarterback pillar is as sturdy as people once thought.
Fair or unfair, Matt Ryan’s large contract lends itself to such extra scrutiny. I’ll be the first to point out many of Ryan’s shortcomings that can be difficult obstacles to overcome. And while I can fully accept that Ryan is not a great quarterback, he’s a good quarterback. Looking at this franchise’s history and that of the league, finding a quarterback as good as him is not an easy thing to do.
The prime years of Matt Ryan are being wasted. Great quarterbacks don't grow on trees. That's what really bums me out. #ATLvsCHI
— Allen Strk (@Allen_Strk) October 12, 2014
This front office has had their fair share of hits, but has struck out too many times. For the sake of Ryan alone, that probably merits turnover in the personnel department. Barring one of the midseason trades I’ve been suggesting for weeks, I’m not sure there’s much Dimitroff and Co. can do to earn back the trust.
As for Smith and his coaching staff, they still have an opportunity to win me back. A mark of good coaching is when lesser talent is able to overachieve. For the first five years of Smith’s tenure, I believed that was the case, which was why I was a firm supporter of his. His focus and emphasis on disciplined play seemed to elevate lesser talent in years past. That is no longer the case, and I could probably write another lengthy column trying to examine exactly what that is.
Moving forward, it’s really just a matter of this team being a lot more competitive in games.In all four losses, the outcomes of each game has not really been in doubt heading into the final five or so minutes. At least for me, Smith can re-earn some goodwill if that changes.
Whether it results in wins or not, if the Falcons can prevent me from mentally checking out midway through the fourth quarter for the majority of the remaining 10 games, perhaps by year’s end I can say that the pillar that once was Mike Smith is not nearly as withered and eroded as I once believed.
That may not ultimately save Smith’s job, but it’ll at least make this Falcons team watchable. And at this point, I’ll take what I can get.