The Falcons’ 2013 season is officially grounded. Injuries to key members on both sides of the ball (Julio Jones, Sam Baker, and Mike Johnson on the offense, and Sean Weatherspoon and Kroy Biermann on the D) revealed how fragile the team really is. This is a group that when healthy can compete for the playoffs, but it’s not a team that enjoys a lot of depth and shows resilience—a favorite term of Mike Smith’s (though, to my great annoyance, he often uses the word “resiliency”).
Here’s the current assessment, as I see it. The offensive line as it’s currently constituted is simply not an NFL caliber line. See the amount of pressure Matt Ryan faced on Sunday against a very good Arizona Cardinals front seven. See the total of 27 yards rushing gained in four quarters of football, even with Steven Jackson back in the lineup. Next, the Falcons defense is simply not up to snuff either. The players on defense are too prone to missing assignments, taking bad angles, and not getting enough of a pass rush to keep opposing QBs from finding receivers camped out in the holes left by its zone coverage. In order to go to battle with the defense the Falcons fielded on Sunday, they needed an offense capable of scoring more than 30 points. They have managed twice all season (both of their wins).
Let’s forget 2013. This was a team that was built to win now (as evidence by the signing of aging superstars Tony Gonzalez, Osi Umenyiora, and Steven Jackson). That doesn’t appear to be happening, so what can the Falcons do going forward?
1) Trade Tony Gonzalez. There’s some team that is competing for the playoffs out there that can use Tony Gonzalez. First option is the Kansas City Chiefs. They have a relatively young team with Pro Bowlers on both sides of the ball. Really the major hole in their arsenal is at tight end, though an argument could be made that their receiving corps is pretty lackluster. This makes for a nice story—Gonzo taking one last crack at a Super Bowl run with the team he’ll soon represent in Canton. Give us a third round pick, and we’ll return your prodigal son.
Another option might be the New England Patriots who with Gonzo could, in the second half of the season, redeploy the two tight end packages they love so much. Problem here is that Bill Belichick would probably try to fleece us in any prospective deal. This isn’t a great or even good option.
2) Fire Mike Smith. Jim Leyland just abdicated the bench for the Detroit Tigers because he’d failed to get his team over the hump two seasons in a row, despite a pitching staff with three aces and a power pocket in his lineup that employed three fearsome sluggers. Save his captaining of the first pre-fire sale Florida Marlins ship, Leyland has proven himself to be a leader who can be counted on to put out a quality product but not necessarily a champion.
I think Mike Smith is a fantastic leader who has made the Falcons arguably the best prepared team in football from week to week. But over and over again, his teams have shown an inability to make meaningful changes during a game. And, this week, in a game they pretty much had to win, they uncharacteristically committed 10 penalties, including a couple third quarter false starts at a really critical juncture. Mike Smith is a program saver. He can take a chronically underachieving team and make them stronger. He can instill a locker room with good values and encourage the play of a brand of careful, if a little nervous, football. I’m convinced that if he were hired by the Oakland Raiders or Minnesota Vikings, he could transform them into regular playoff contenders.
But, like Dan Reeves before him, he doesn’t have the instinct to step on another team’s throat when he’s up. In fact, before 2013, his pattern was getting his teams to jump out to big leads and then holding on for dear life while the opposing side started to figure out how to get back in the game. Further, when his frontline players get hurt, he doesn’t have the fire that inspires the next man up. (See, for instance, the skeleton crew of no-names that Belichick brought into the Georgia Dome to beat the Falcons a few weeks ago.) Smitty from ever being a championship coach. That’s just my opinion.
3) Restructure Matt Ryan’s contract. It should be clear to everyone right now that the Falcons have too many holes to become a consistently good team that can win games in multiple ways beginning in 2014. That point is important: winning games in multiple ways. At the moment, there is one formula: Outscoring the opponent. And, as the record shows, that’s not happening. The offensive line has maybe two serviceable cogs, Peter Konz at center and Sam Baker, provided he’s got a sparkling clean bill of health and can play right instead of left tackle. If we continue at the current pace, the Falcons should be able to use a high first round draft pick on a left tackle for the future. Improving the offensive line will not only protect our investment in Matt Ryan but will also open holes that Jacquizz Rodgers and a soon-to-be-drafted feature back (my dream would be Georgia tailback Todd Gurley) will be able to exploit.
The problem is that one offensive lineman and a third round pick spent on a running back won’t be enough. On defense, we have three players at the moment who project to make a Pro Bowl in the future: Biermann, safety William Moore, and Weatherspoon. (Do not get me started on what I think about Thomas DeCoud.) Weatherspoon, however, has shown a remarkable inability to stay on the field. This is a problem that plagues many of GM Thomas Dimitroff’s first round picks—Peria Jerry, Baker, and Jones (so basically all but Matt Ryan and 2013 pick Desmond Trufant, who has only played in seven games). With defensive leaders Umenyiora, Jonathan Babineaux, and Asante Samuel all rumbling toward retirement, replacements are needed at all levels of the defense, most especially at linebacker and along the entire defensive line. That is a lot more than one draft worth of acquisitions.
To be competitive in the short term, the Falcons will need to do some work through free agency. But future money is short because Matt Ryan’s contract is going to eat into it big time. His cap number in 2013 was only $9.6 million. Next year, it will be $17.5 million. In 2015, it will be $19.5 million. It tops out at $23.75 million in 2016 before heading back toward not earth but maybe earth’s orbit. If the Falcons want to win. If the Falcons want to justify the ridiculous new stadium they’re planning to build, the Matural needs to be more realistic about his pay-scale. He’s being paid like a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, and, if you check the records, he isn’t one. And, frankly, his own contract looks to be one of the biggest obstacles to winning one.