The big question last week was whether or not Atlanta’s win over Tampa Bay was because they caught a bad team on the verge of collapse or because the Falcons were finally showing signs of life after a disappointing start to their 2013 season.
Well, judging from their performance on Sunday in their 27-13 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, it certainly doesn’t appear to be the latter.
The Falcons season appears to be done as the team now falls to 2-5 and with upcoming matchups against better teams than Arizona in Carolina, Seattle, and New Orleans over the next four games, they will be hard-pressed to get back to .500. While anything is possible on any given Sunday, the Falcons would need so many things to go their way to pull victories over those teams. And very little has gone the Falcons way this year.
Time for the Youth Movement
We’ve reached the point in the year where the main focus is going to be evaluating much of the young talent on the roster. But thanks to the plethora of injuries the Falcons have suffered this year, they already are evaluating a lot of their younger players. Players like Jonathan Massaquoi, Joplo Bartu, Paul Worrilow, Desmond Trufant, and Robert Alford are now logging serious reps on defense. And the Falcons are going to get long looks at their young receivers such as Drew Davis, Darius Johnson, and Levine Toilolo going forward. The positive is that the experience gained by these players should make them better NFL players. Unfortunately for the Falcons, that likely won’t really pay off until 2014 and beyond.
But the Falcons will need to start mixing in other young players more. I’d like to see Ryan Schraeder get mixed into the lineups on game day. He shouldn’t supplant any starter, but he should be given a couple of series here and there. Let’s face it, Jeremy Trueblood is not a long-term option for the Falcons. As explained two weeks ago, due to price tag and draft status, the Falcons have a vested interest in Sam Baker and Lamar Holmes, respectively, seeing the field. But that is not the case with Trueblood even though he hasn’t been the weakest link among the Falcons starting five, he is the most expendable of the group. The Falcons should try to give Schraeder a couple of series in the coming weeks, and see how he handles going up against players like Charles Johnson, Chris Clemons, and Cameron Jordan as an important evaluation tool on his future.
Malliciah Goodman, Stansly Maponga, and Travian Robertson should also see increased reps along the defensive line. Especially given the facts that Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters, and Peria Jerry are all going to be free agents next offseason and Kroy Biermann and Osi Umenyiora will be entering contract years in 2014. Significant turnover along the defensive line is coming and the better-informed the Falcons are in what they have in those young draft prospects today, the bette they will be prepared for tomorrow.
Trades and Tanking
The trade deadline is coming up on Tuesday, and you’ll hear many voices shouting for the Falcons to start to move some of the older players to try and get draft picks to start rebuilding next year. They will be advocating the strategy that since this season is essentially over, why not put yourself in a better position for next year. While it’s an ugly word, we’re going to be tip-toeing around the notion of “tanking” the rest of this season.
There are a couple of problems with that sort of thinking. Firstly, the previously advocated idea of getting more reps for young players isn’t really tanking. We’re not talking about benching Jonathan Babineaux for Travian Robertson by any means. But if Babineaux goes from playing 60 snaps a game to 45, with the difference going to Robertson, that isn’t tanking. The reality is that a player like Babineaux shouldn’t be playing that many reps in the first place, and it’s certainly possible that if Robertson is effective during his 15 or so snaps (which you won’t ever know until he gets that opportunity) to play, Babineaux could also benefit from the lighter workload as well, thus you’re actually improving the team.
And that’s the key reason why the “tanking” strategy is a bad one. The Falcons shouldn’t be looking to get rid of talent at this point in the year, they need to be looking to add it. Trading a player like Tony Gonzalez isn’t going to net the Falcons anything besides one of the worst offenses in the NFL. No team is going to give up premium draft value for Gonzalez, simply because there is no long-term value in it. Gonzalez essentially is only going to play eight games with a new team, perhaps a few more if they make a run in the playoffs. A team is always going to believe that they can get four years of production from any draft pick, whether it’s a first or seventh round pick. And in the first four or so rounds, teams are targeting players that will be potential starters for three or more years. You’re not going to give that up for even a great player like Gonzalez for just half a season’s worth of work. The best the Falcons could hope for in a potential trade of Gonzalez would be a conditional sixth or seventh rounder, and even that might be overly optimistic.
I wouldn’t be against the Falcons cutting a couple of players to make room for others in the interest of adding more talent to the roster. But of course the problem with that is many players have guaranteed contracts due to their presence on the roster in Week 1. Players that have limited long-term value such as Stephen Nicholas and Thomas Howard might be the first to go in the hopes that their roster spots can go to other young players or even another veteran that can help the Falcons at a needy position (I’m looking at the wide receivers and offensive line right now).
How Much Change is Coming?
And in the interest of improving the team, the one big question is going to be how much change is impending in 2014? Not to be condescending, but the typical fan response is to blow up the team. When the Falcons went 10-6 and lost to the New York Giants in the playoffs back in 2011, I was shocked with how much roster turnover several fans were pushing for then. And if the Falcons record winds up being flipped at 6-10 (which is about as optimistic as I can be at this point), then I can only imagine that many fans will want to take a flame to this Atlanta team much like General Sherman did to the city itself 150 years ago.
But the question will then remain, how do the actual decision-makers feel? Will Thomas Dimitroff, Mike Smith and Co. be able to pass this year off as a hiccup on the Falcons ongoing path to the Super Bowl? Will they simply say that injuries, not poor personnel decisions and questionable coaching led to the Falcons dramatic downfall in 2013? Or will they recognize the many fatal flaws in this team and make a greater effort in the upcoming offseason to fix those issues?
My bet is the latter, and that is due to the presence of Arthur Blank as owner. Blank famously said following the playoff loss to the Giants that “good is the enemy of great.” Well, the Falcons aren’t even good any more.
I can’t see Blank allowing the Falcons to sit idly by when free agency comes and the team just being content to re-sign their own guys and make only modest additions on the open market. Because let’s be honest, the Falcons have found little success in free agency in recent years. While the Falcons thought they were making big moves in 2010 and 2011 with signing Dunta Robinson and Ray Edwards, those moves fall firmly in the “bust” category. As did the team’s off-season additions of Vince Manuwai and Lofa Tatupu preceding the 2012 season. And their two big moves of getting Steven Jackson and Osi Umenyiora, at least through seven games, are inching towards the bust status.
Jackson has an injury excuse, and can also blame the fact that he is playing behind a terrible offensive line. Osi hasn’t been terrible, but through six games he is on pace to have roughly 17.5 positive pass rushes (PPRs) consisting of combined number of sacks, pressures, and hits on the quarterback. As I noted back in June, the sweet spot for Osi would be well over 25. In fact, 17.5 PPRs is the production that Kroy Biermann put forth in 2012, which he has been much maligned for over the years as “lacking” in regards to rushing the quarterback. Regardless of whether it’s their fault or not, Jackson and Umenyiora aren’t doing much to improve Dimitroff’s record in regards to successful free agent signings.
Where Are the Falcons Needs?
The story of this 2013 season is likely going to be summarized by the Falcons inability to run the ball and get after the quarterback effectively is biting them in the behind. Those things didn’t hurt them much last year because they had one of the league’s premier passing attacks on offense and they generated a bunch of turnovers on the back-end on defense to compensate.
So the Falcons are going to have to seriously address their rushing attack next offseason. And that probably comes in the form of upgrading their offensive line, since I don’t think the Falcons will be as quick to move on from Steven Jackson as they perhaps should in favor of a back with fresher legs. But as I noted two weeks ago, that may not be possible unless the Falcons are willing to give up on some of their recent moves. A big one could involve Sam Baker, who has always been an underwhelming run blocker and arguably the worst run-blocking starting tackle in the entire league. And unless he can play at a significantly higher level of these final two months of the season, they can’t realistically expect to make a significant upgrade on the ground if he’s counted to be one of their starting five. Baker is owed a $4 million option bonus next year and if the Falcons were to cut him before paying it, they would be forced to eat $2 million in additional dead money for Baker. That’s a very tough pill to swallow, but unless Baker has a strong bounce-back performance for the remainder of the year, it might wind up being the team’s best medicine.
In regards to the pass rush, the Falcons have paid relative lip service to it over the years with failures like Jamaal Anderson, Edwards, and now seemingly Umenyiora, coupled with the inability of their mid-to-late round picks like Lawrence Sidbury, Massaquoi, etc. to step up. Last off-season, we saw a team like Seattle go out and sign players like Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett to team with players like Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin. Those four players have combined for 12 sacks and 26 quarterback hits this year, helping to keep Seattle’s pass rush among the league’s most formidable. It should be noted that the entirety of the Falcons front seven has combined for 15 sacks and 24 hits this season.
The Falcons might need to make a similar move, with multple additions to try and breathe life into their pass rush. The positive for the Falcons is that next year’s free agent class of pass rushers looks to be strong group of players, headlined by Bennett, Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Greg Hardy, B.J. Raji, Michael Johnson, Henry Melton, Jason Hatcher, and Brian Orakpo (per SpotRac). That’s not to mention that if the Falcons do wind up with a high pick (if the draft was held tomorrow, they’d be picking somewhere between No. 5 and 10), they might have a shot to get 2014’s “can’t miss” studs in Jadeveon Clowney (South Carolina) and Anthony Barr (UCLA).
Elsewhere in the NFL…
Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford made a brilliant move at the end of the game on the fly in the final seconds to pull the dramatic come-from-behind victory over the Dallas Cowboys. After Kris Durham burned Orlando Scandrick for a 40-yard catch with under 40 seconds to go, Stafford hit Calvin Johnson to get the ball down to the one-yard line with about 28 seconds to go. The Lions ran up to the line and Stafford was yelling to spike the ball to stop the clock. Everybody on the field thought Stafford was going to clock it. I believe Stafford even believed it when he took the snap, but then when he saw that the Cowboys didn’t come off the ball, he leapt over his own blockers (who also seemed unaware of Stafford’s intentions) to reach the ball across the goalline with 14 seconds left. The Lions wouldn’t have had a shot to win this game without having a playmaker like Johnson on the field. Earlier in the fourth quarter, he caught a jump ball in double coverage to help set up a previous score when the Lions were down 10 points with six and a half minutes to go. Johnson caught 14 passes for 329 yards, becoming the first receiver to go over 300 yards receiving in a game since Flipper Anderson went for 336 in 1989.
The Cincinnati Bengals shut down the New York Jets offense on the day, as Geno Smith threw a pair of pick sixes on top of the five touchdown passes thrown by Andy Dalton. A.J. Green was the focus of the Jets pass defense, and he was limited to three catches. But unfortunately for New York, two of those catches were each 53-yard bombs where Green got behind the defense. On the opposite side of the field with all the focus on Green, Marvin Jones had a big day, catching 8 passes for 122 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Both players really illustrate two of my biggest complaints about the Falcons and their decision to stand pat at wide receiver. Green’s performance illustrates how valuable having a deep threat is. Obviously, not just any receiver can make the sort of plays that Green did. But it illustrates how in order to take the top off a defense, you actually have to be a threat to take the top off a defense. And the Falcons just don’t have a deep threat that is going to challenge coverages, and in previous posts have advocated why that is important. And with Atlanta’s very conservative game plan against Arizona, I believe that came to fruition.
On the opposite side you have a player like Jones, who despite all of the attention Green was drawing, made the Jets pay with his performance. While Jones is by no means a great receiver, as a former 2012 fifth round pick, he was capable of doing the damage that undrafted free agents like Drew Davis, Darius Johnson, and Kevin Cone aren’t capable of doing.
I know many will look at Davis’ stat line and see 5 catches for 77 yards and a touchdown and see a solid performance. But what they won’t see is how much Davis success was due to the play-caller, not his own ability to separate from coverage or make contested catches like Jones did.
And while a player like Harry Douglas has played well these past two weeks, when the Falcons could have used him the previous three to have a Marvin Jones-esque performance with all the attention going towards Gonzalez and Julio Jones. Douglas’ newfound success has been mainly because Ryan has no choice but to throw to him as often as possible since he has limited trust in the rest of his receivers. The Falcons need receivers that can beat one-on-one coverage, and without that they are going to continue to struggle offensively as they did yesterday against Arizona. I hope I’m wrong and these receivers continue to improve going forward, but at the very least they better hope they find a Marvin Jones-esque player in the fifth round or earlier next year.