Takeaways from Wildcard Weekend 2013

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Julio Jones stands alone in Falcons offense

I got into an interesting Twitter conversation on Sunday in regards to the Atlanta Falcons identity. Or rather, lack there of.

This isn’t a new issue, and the team’s identity crisis really all started when the team mortgaged a good deal of its future to trade up for Julio Jones. After being initially critical of that trade, I have now embraced it following Jones’ transcendent play in last year’s playoff run.

But when Atlanta first made the move, I made comments about the Falcons adopting a new identity signaled by the team’s decision to trade away all those assets for Jones. And the reality is that the Falcons have failed to assume that identity.

The buzz word in 2011 was “explosive” and the Falcons have been anything but that since making the Jones trade. Essentially the team stood pat afterward that move, believing that Jones’ presence alone would be the difference in transforming their offense and leaving behind their run-dominated identity headlined by Michael Turner from 2008-10.

After finishing dead last in the NFL in 2010 in terms of percentage of passing plays that were completions for 20 or more yards, the Falcons made improvement to 18th in 2011. But then fell back to 27th in 2012, and were once again in the cellar this past year at 31st. Only the Washington Redskins fared worse in 2013.

If there is a silver lining, it was that the Falcons weren’t always that bad this year. If you only consider the first five weeks of the year when Jones was healthy, the Falcons ranked 20th. But that still is below average. So while one can say Jones has definitely helped make the Falcons more explosive, they have yet to cross the threshold that indicates a rise above mediocrity. In fact when one looks at the numbers collectively over the past three seasons, the only teams that have been less explosive than the Falcons are ones that have been plagued by poor quarterback play and/or no weapons at wide receiver.

NFL Big Play Passing (2011-13)

Percentage of Pass Plays that Were 20+ yd Plays from 2011-2013 in NFL
RankTeamTotal Pass Plays20+ Yd PlaysPct.

You can’t blame Jones for that though since he has done everything in his power to take this offense to the next step. But he needs more help. The Falcons are less than six months removed from handing Matt Ryan a $103.75 million contract, and are likely to give Jones a comparably monster contract at some point in the next 12 months when his contract expires. With a strong and complete 2014 season, Jones could find himself in the same tax bracket that has netted Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald deals in excess of $100 million in recent years.

Falcons Have Lost Their Identity Over the Years

When Mike Smith arrived in Atlanta, he stated he wanted to build a physical football team. Well, it’s very clear from this past year alone that he has not accomplished that goal.

Perhaps the team’s goal was to never fully embrace being explosive, but rather use Jones to supplement their already physical, run-oriented offense. The problem is that the team has arguably done an even worse job maintaining that identity, as their run game has fallen off a cliff. From 2008-10, the Falcons collectively had the seventh most rushing yards of any team in that span. In the past three years, the only team they have out-rushed is the Arizona Cardinals due to a 27 percent decline in production. Either by choice or necessity the Falcons have been forced to throw, with the fourth-highest pass-to-run play ratio of any team in the league over the past three years.

But it’s not as if that didn’t exactly pay off somewhat. The Falcons achieved their highest success under Smith in 2012, when they were largely a “finesse” football.

So the Falcons have a pivotal decision they need to make this offseason in regards to their identity. Are they going to be revert back to trying to be the more run-oriented, physical team? Or are they going to not only commit financially to Ryan and Jones, but also philosophically by opening up their pass attack to try and excel at being explosive?

It’s not to suggest that you can’t be both, as a team like the San Francisco 49ers shows that you can be both explosive and physical. But the 49ers are a physical team first, and their explosive plays are largely predicating on opposing teams committing to stopping their rushing attack. That is their identity and as we saw earlier this season, when they weren’t as effective running the football, their passing game suffered.

I think the Falcons should strive to be both by not only improving their play in the trenches and subsequently beefing up their rushing attack, but also by adding better weapons at wide receiver and tight end. Outside Jones, none of the current crop of receivers on the roster is going to challenge defenses to defend the deep ball.

Falcons Must Do A Better Job Drafting Late

There is a common misconception that if the Falcons continue to invest in skill position players, it will limit their ability to invest in the trenches. That is simply not true. You can find good, explosive wide receivers in the latter part of the draft. Antonio Brown, Denarius Moore, Cecil Shorts, Kenny Stills and Chris Givens are good examples of receivers that were taken on the third day of the draft since 2010. Tight ends like Jordan Cameron, Ladarius Green, Julius Thomas and Charles Clay were similar third day pickups that can help make plays down the seam. If the Falcons had picked up guys like that, the missing explosive element to their offense may not be nearly as absent.

It’s not to suggest that players like Brown, Shorts or Cameron grow on trees and are therefore easy to acquire. But it does become a lot easier when you actually target playmakers in those rounds rather role players like the Falcons have done with picks like Bradie Ewing, Charles Mitchell and Kerry Meier in that span. A basic analogy is that it’s hard to hit a home run if you’re trying to bunt. Occasionally you have to swing for the fences.

Players like Zeke Motta and Kemal Ishmael can fill valuable roles on special teams for this team, but I’m just tired of the Falcons using late-round picks on players with almost no potential to be starters. I’d much rather see this team roll the dice on a talented, but troubled wideout like Da’Rick Rogers. Special teams-first players like Motta and Ishmael can be found on the street or in undrafted free agency. That’s why other teams have found greater success with late-round picks than the Falcons because they aren’t entirely focused on finding a player that fills a relatively minor niche.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Peria Jerry signifies disappointing of 2009 draft class

Atlanta Still Hurting From Botched Defensive Draft in 2009

Regardless of the direction the Falcons go offensively, they have to improve their defense. If they want to be a ball-control, run-first attack then they need to build a defense the caliber of the Carolina Panthers that can consistently get stops and win games 20-17. If they want to be an explosive, air-it-out offense, then they need to get a defense that can rush the quarterback and finish games if/when they build a lead. Comparable to the Indianapolis Colts during the Peyton Manning Era when they had Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis coming off the edge.

The Falcons have yet to field a defense reminiscent of either under the leadership of Smith. And what that previously mentioned Twitter conversation opened my eyes to is that void centers on the failure that was the 2009 draft class. That was a group that the Falcons devoted heavily to defense and now sitting here five years later, the only thing they have to show for it is William Moore. Vance Walker was a solid rotational player, but now is a decent starter with the Oakland Raiders. Instead of re-signing Walker, Falcons instead opted to keep Peria Jerry, their top pick in 2009 who improved this past year, but is at best still a fourth option in a defensive tackle rotation. Also the Falcons got little to nothing out of cornerbacks Chris Owens and Willie Middleton, defensive end Lawrence Sidbury, and linebacker Spencer Adkins from that class as well.

And making matters worse is that over the next three drafts, the only defensive contributors they added via the draft were linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and defensive tackle Corey Peters. And both players have battled injuries lessening their impacts, and Peters didn’t really ascend beyond a decent player until this recent season.

The positive for the Falcons is that they have seemingly started to get the train back on track with 2013 selections in Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. Trufant was one of the top rookies in the league this past year and Alford has flashed potential to be an equally effective cornerback. And if Malliciah Goodman and Jonathan Massaquoi ever turn into contributors on par with Peters, things will definitely be looking up for the Falcons. That’s not to mention undrafted players like Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu also flash the potential to become valuable starters.

But even if all those things come true, the Falcons still need more help. There isn’t anybody that can be that pass rusher among that group. The one commonality between the current Panthers and old Colts defensive styles is that they can both pressure the quarterback. The Falcons lost their best defensive lineman last year when they opted to release end John Abraham. And they may lose their next best in defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux this offseason. That talent needs to be replaced, but also enhanced.

All these question marks form the main reason why I’m not of the mindset that the Falcons are just going to pick up where they left off in 2012 and be a Super Bowl contender in 2014. It’s not Super Bowl or Bust season in my eyes. The main thing I’m looking for is the team making significant strides towards that. I’m looking for whether Atlanta’s offseason decisions signal that they have a clear objective as far as their offensive identity. And on defense, it’s simply a matter of drafting better players.

Even if the Falcons were to finish this upcoming season with a mediocre record, if I see the above strides, I’m willing to be patient and accept that.

Elsehwere in the NFL…

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Andrew Luck’s legacy is beginning

It was an enjoyable weekend to start this year’s postseason with a wildcard round that lived up to its name.

That was embodied in the Indianapolis Colts’ win over the Kansas City Chiefs to start things on Saturday. Down, 31-10 at halftime, the Colts made an improbable comeback by outscoring the Chiefs 35-13 in the second half to win 45-44.

I mentioned earlier this year that I believe Luck would be knocking on the door to being an elite quarterback before long. And his performance in the second half was a strong indicator that at least once I knew what I was talking about. Despite throwing two picks in the third quarter, Luck played lights out in the second half. On every drive that Luck didn’t turn the ball over in the second half, the Colts scored a touchdown.

It’s not to suggest that Luck already is an elite quarterback, but if/when he starts doing that on a regular basis, particularly in January, it’s clear he’s not that far away. Very few quarterbacks can play that well in only their second playoff appearance. It’s a sign of that special quality that had many people calling Luck the best quarterback prospect in over a decade in 2012.

The other side of that coin is a very tough loss for Kansas City Chiefs fans to swallow. I know that given the fact that the Chiefs were a horrific 2-14 last year, their fan base can take some solace that they at least made it this far. But for a team that is on a 20-year drought when it comes to winning a playoff game, to lose one in that fashion has to be devastating. It was the second-biggest comeback in NFL playoff history, falling behind only the famous Frank Reich-led Buffalo Bills comeback against the Houston Oilers in 1993. What is fascinating is that in the Colts-Chiefs game, it looked like things only got worse when Luck threw a pick on the opening play of the second half, which the Chiefs quickly turned into a touchdown to push their lead to 28 points. That is similar to the Bills-Oilers game, where Reich threw a pick-six to Oilers safety Bubba McDowell two minutes into the third quarter. In that game, it pushed Houston’s advantage to 32 points.

Prior to Saturday, there had been only 20 instances in the past 74 years that an NFL team blew a 21-point halftime lead. Teams with at least a 21-point halftime lead have won 98 percent of games played in that span. Even in our parity-driven era of the past two decades, teams still win those games 97 percent of the time. At halftime, I thought the Colts would come back and make it interesting, but never really thought they’d actually win the game.

The rest of the weekend’s games were notable, but not nearly as fun as the Colts’ comeback. What followed immediately after that game Saturday, was a rather dull win for the New Orleans Saints over the Philadelphia Eagles. My biggest takeaway there is to never choose an inexperienced quarterback in his first playoff game, with the exceptions usually being guys that are backed by strong defenses such as Joe Flacco, Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Colin Kaepernick, Mark Sanchez and Tom Brady were in their first playoff games.

While the Saints finally won a game that mattered on the road, the Cincinnati Bengals lost the game that mattered at home on Sunday. It’s not that surprising since over the past 15 seasons, teams with an undefeated record at home in the regular season are just 4-3 in the wildcard round of the playoffs when hosting games. And when you throw Andy Dalton in the mix, it wasn’t a great recipe for the Bengals.

I know I’ve been hard on Dalton throughout several of my picks posts this year. Much of that has been made in jest, although I do believe that Dalton is just a mediocre quarterback. Back when he was at Texas Christian, I wasn’t overly impressed by him. He looked like a player that was just going to be a good backup in the NFL. But then he had a really good Rose Bowl performance against Wisconsin in his final collegiate game, finally looking like a player that had the upside to be a quality NFL starter. Coupled with the bit of hype he was receiving at the time, it influenced me to bump up his grade by about a round. What has occurred over his first three seasons in the pros has indicated that my initial gut instinct was probably the correct one.

Last February, I discussed the different tiers of quarterbacks following the Super Bowl. Then, Dalton was in the third tier, and has not risen above it. I do think he has the potential and capacity to be a second-tier passer, but his career path might be reminiscent of players like Alex Smith, Chris Chandler or Rich Gannon, that were “late bloomers.” And in the cases of all of those guys, he’s going to need a strong supporting cast around him. Dalton has that in Cincinnati, with a lot of young talent that is going to make that team competitive for several years. Smith is a good comparison, who at his best can border on that second-tier group. But Smith is the more pejorative version of the term “game manager” and ultimately Dalton will have to become that in order to succeed in the NFL. Coming out, I expected Dalton to be able to shine as a mistake-free quarterback but he definitely did not show those skills against the Chargers. He turned the ball over on three consecutive drives in the second half. Protecting the football is paramount in the postseason, and it’s going to be tough for Dalton to bounce back from this loss. I can only guess at the temperature of the Cincinnati fan base towards him, but I imagine that it’s close to ice cold. And it’s doubtful that he’ll be able to generate a ton of support within his own locker room in the future. Even if he bounces back from this next year and plays well in the regular season, he’ll still have these question marks lingering if/when he gets back to the postseason.

The weekend was capped with another fun game between the 49ers and Green Bay Packers on Sunday. The Packers had opportunities to win the game late, but just simply didn’t take advantage of them. It’s easy to single out the dropped interception by Packers cornerback Micah Hyde on what was ultimately the game-winning drive for the 49ers as the biggest missed opportunity. Hyde nearly picked it off deep in 49ers territory (inside their 35-yard line), which would have potentially set up the Packers for another score with four minutes left on the clock. But instead, the 49ers took advantage and marched down the field, with Kaepernick’s 11-yard scramble on 3rd-and-8 with about a minute to go being the back-breaker for the Packers. That put San Francisco in very makable field goal range (about 42 yards out) and the Packers were forced to burn their final two timeouts. 49ers kicker Phil Dawson ultimately nailed a 33-yarder to win the game as time expired, although Packers corner Davon House was inches from blocking the kick.

The 49ers fully deserve credit for pulling out the win because they made the plays they needed to make in a performance that was far from their A-game. They didn’t do a good job converting in the red zone, only scoring a touchdown on one trip among four in the game. But the Packers can really only blame themselves, as they converted just one of five third-down tries in the second half, and settled for a game-tying field goal on their final red zone trip with five minutes remaining. One could definitely criticize head coach Mike McCarthy for handing the ball off to wide receiver Randall Cobb on 1st-and-goal from the nine-yard line instead of running back Eddie Lacy, who had rushed for 81 yards up until that point. It was an example of being “too cute” with your play-calling.

It was a game that might be wind up a preview for what we could expect to see in the Super Bowl next month. The thermometer read 5 degrees Fahrenheit when kickoff happened on Sunday at Lambeau Field, with a wind chill that put the temperatures in the negative. I doubt that it will be that cold at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey come February 2. But that game may feature a defense and run-dominated team reminiscent of the 49ers (Seattle Seahawks?) and one that is pass-driven, but defense-deficient like the Packers (Denver Broncos?).

Notable in the Packers-49ers game is the struggles of both offenses. But it was clear that the Packers struggled more, despite having the home-field advantage and supposed “tolerance” for the cold. As previously mentioned, they struggled to convert third downs (just 27 percent overall), and threw for just 157 yards passing. That is a significant step back for a team that averaged 266.7 passing yards a game during the regular season. That doesn’t bode well for a team like the Broncos, whose quarterback is already fighting the stigma that he can’t deal with elements.

Everything is lining up well for the Seahawks to get the Super Bowl win. But given the way the NFL works, nothing goes according to plan. And that’s why we love it.

About the Author

Aaron Freeman
Founder of FalcFans.com