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Why Mike Smith Should Not be on the Hot Seat

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Smith

Ninety-seven percent.

That’s the chances that an NFL kicker makes a field goal inside 25 yards. It also represents the chances that an NFL team wins a game in which they are plus-4 on turnover margin.

And it is the chances that the Atlanta Falcons do not win the Super Bowl this season.

I have been seeing and hearing a lot in the past twelve or so hours since the Falcons’ 27-23 loss to the Miami Dolphins on how the Falcons need to get rid of Mike Smith. And while I doubt many of those people are calling for an immediate dismissal of Smitty, they are likely expecting the Falcons to make a move later if Atlanta does not win a Super Bowl this year.

I can understand that frustration because the Falcons have given you, one of their fans, quite a bit to be frustrated over. But firing Mike Smith simply because the Falcons haven’t gotten off to the fastest start or don’t appear to be a Super Bowl team in Week 3 is going a step too far.

Yes, the Falcons have struggled to finish games this year. They have outscored their trio of opponents 47-26 in the first half this year. Meanwhile, they are getting outscored 24-48 in the second half of games. The Falcons have found success early in games, outscoring opponents 31-0 in the first quarter of their three games this year. They have combined for 40 points in the other three quarters this year, but have allowed 74 points.

Let’s compare that to the Falcons after their 3-0 start a year ago. In the first quarter of their first three games of 2012, the Falcons outscored their opponents 26-3. But in the second quarter, they were able to outscore opposing teams 34-21. In the third quarter that score margin was 21-3, and 13-21 in the fourth quarter.

There are some clear conclusions here. Both the Falcons’ offense and defense are underperforming compared to last year’s results.

These aren’t indicators that the Falcons are poorly coached by Mike Smith. It’s just an indicator that this year’s team is not quite as good as the 2012 group was at the start of last season. There are obvious reasons for that, and it starts with injuries. With Roddy White out of the lineup, the Falcons are struggling to sustain drives. Just look at the Falcons ability to convert third downs by quarter over the first three games of 2012 and 2013:

Falcons 3rd Down Conversion Rate by Quarter

The Falcons third down conversion rate by quarter over the first three games of 2012 vs. 2013
 
2012
2013
3rd Down Conv.Pct.3rd Down Conv.Pct.
1st quarter5/1145.57/1070.0
2nd quarter6/875.02/728.6
3rd quarter6/966.71/911.1
4th quarter1/812.55/955.6

Last season, the Falcons had 13 third down conversions over the final three quarters of their games. Roddy White accounted for four of those, with Tony Gonzalez getting a pair of them. That’s roughly half their production between the two of them.

Fast forward to 2013, and White has a pair of third down conversions in the final three quarters and Gonzalez has none. Obviously White’s issues are related to injuries. Gonzalez’s lack of production might have to do with his skipping much of training camp.

But it’s clear that the Falcons need to get Gonzalez more involved as he did not have a single reception after the Falcons’ opening drive against Miami. Gonzalez being targeted only once in the final 52 minutes of the Dolphins game is not because the Falcons are poorly coached. It is rather directly related to Matt Ryan’s decision making and whether or not Gonzalez is getting open.

The reason for the defensive drop-off in play is likely due to turnovers. In the first three games of last season, the Falcons forced 11 turnovers. Thus far this year, the Falcons have taken the ball away from their opponents four times. Those 11 turnovers turned into 37 points for the Falcons, while their 4 this year have generated 14 points for the Falcons. Sure, that’s about the same amount of points per turnover (roughly 3.5), but having seven less turnovers is basically taking 24 points off the scoreboard.

Is it poor coaching that is resulting in the Falcons not creating as many turnovers this year? Look, the Falcons played Matt Cassel and Philip Rivers in the first three weeks of the 2012 season, two of the most turnover-prone quarterbacks in the league last season. They also picked off Peyton Manning three times in the first quarter of their win over Denver, something that hadn’t happened since Manning’s rookie season in 1998. While the Falcons deserve full credit for making those plays against Manning, that is a fluke in the sense it’s a one-time thing that is very difficult to repeat.

The Falcons’ lack of turnovers this year may have nothing to do with coaching, but may just be a quirk of scheduling. In a couple of weeks, they have a three-game stretch where they face Geno Smith, Josh Freeman, and Carson Palmer. Could they easily create a dozen turnovers in those games? Absolutely. And it may have nothing to do with the Falcons being a better coached team then, but simply because they are seeing more favorable matchups.

All of these stats are just meant to show that there are legitimate reasons why the Falcons aren’t finishing games. People are too quick to go the “poor coaching” route when the results don’t match their expectations.

The Falcons aren’t off to their best start this year and they certainly have plenty of things that they need to work on. But very little of it has to do with the fact that Mike Smith is doing a bad job and they are a poorly-coached team. Much of it has to do with circumstances that are out of his control such as injuries and the unreliability of turnovers.

The other factor may simply be because the 2013 Falcons aren’t as good a team as they have been. Is that because Mike Smith is not a good coach or because every season is different? The 2011 Green Bay Packers were a better team than their 2010 counterpart, but did not win a Super Bowl in the latter year. The 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t as good a team as their previous year’s team, but they did manage to win a title. Look no further than the Baltimore Ravens of last year, who were not an improved team from 2011 to 2012.

It’s still September and there is a lot of season to be played. It’s much too early to determine the temperature of Smith’s seat. Perhaps in January you may still feel that Mike Smith deserves to lose his job. I’m certain I will disagree with you then as I do now. But holding that opinion with a full season to consider is certainly your prerogative as a free-thinking fan of the Atlanta Falcons. But as of today, I believe people need to pump their brakes as far as dismissing the coach fifth highest winning percentage in NFL history.

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Author: Aaron Freeman

Aaron is the founder of FalcFans.com.

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