Category Archives: Atlanta

Thomas Dimitroff’s Greatest Draft Blunder Retires

Thomas-and-Smitty Peria Jerry—whose first name will forever be pronounced in Atlanta as “pariah”—is retiring from football after five meh-to-blech seasons in the NFL. The Falcons chose the Ole Miss product with the 24th pick in the 2009 draft, despite his missing the first month of his senior year due to knee surgery for a torn meniscus. They also ignored the fact that he’d be turning 25 before his first pro season ever began.

His college injury would turn out to be predictive of his introduction to the Falcons. Less than a month after being drafted, he hurt the same knee in a minicamp. The same knee would give out two games into the 2009 season. In all, he’d play in 64 games in five years—mostly as a rotational player and a second fiddle to Corey Peters, who was drafted two rounds later in 2010.

Now, if only to make myself feel worse, here is a list of Pro Bowlers who were drafted after Jerry in 2009: Clay Matthews, Jairus Byrd, Max Unger, LeSean McCoy, William Moore, Louis Vasquez, Mike Wallace, Henry Melton, Johnny Knox, Thomas Morstead.

The glass half-full POV here is that Moore, the Falcons second round pick, can compensate for the blunder that was Jerry. The glass half-empty is that we could have had both Matthews and Moore. (The Packers, instead, were the team that landed two future Pro Bowlers, having picked B.J. Raji ahead of Matthews.)

By the way, Jerry is not Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff’s biggest personnel blunder. That’s still the free agent signing of Ray Edwards.

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Look Homeward, ATLien

The folks over at Elite Daily took the LeBron James coming home-meme a few steps further and offered up what each NBA team would look like if its starting lineup were made up of all locally grown products. (They skipped Denver, San Antonio, and Utah, which have not produced enough players to make a starting five.)

The hometown Hawks have one proven All-NBA player (Dwight Howard), one perpetually raw veteran (Josh Smith), a promising big (Derrick Favors), a raw combo guard (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope), and a journeyman role player (Jodie Meeks). All told, I’m not sure I’d go to battle with this lineup over Teague, Sefolosha, Korver, Millsap, and Horford. I think the cunning and high NBA IQ of the true Hawks lineup is probably an advantage of an all-area squad. (The idea of JSmoove being a Hawk again alone might be an immediate dealbreaker for my ability to enjoy this thought experiment.)

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But it got me thinking: Do players whose roots go back to Atlanta want to come home? In 2012, as Dwight Howard readied to actually leave Orlando once and for all, Atlanta seemed to be in the running. Josh Smith, his old AAU teammate on the Atlanta Celtics, was a Hawk. D12 had been the best man at Smoove’s wedding in 2010. But he couldn’t resist the pull of L.A., and the Hawks struck out. Even Smith eventually left for Detroit in the summer of 2013—though many fans were ready to see him and his quizzical shot selection skip town (as was the new front office).

Then comes this from Grantland’s Zach Lowe, who pronounced the Hawks one of the 2014 free agency season’s losers last week:

No one will take Atlanta’s money, despite a good core of players, a very good coaching staff, and an innovative style of play Mike Budenholzer has only just begun installing. Some stars won’t even meet with them. I almost wanted to hug Budenholzer when I saw him in Vegas. The most common theory among insiders for Atlanta’s lack of appeal is that players see the Hawks as a dull franchise with a dead crowd and a limited postseason history that almost always involves NBA TV.

That will turn around at some point, but just about everyone Atlanta has approached so far rebuffed the Hawks’ invitation to get in on the ground floor.

It’s not surprising that a team that has never even been to the Eastern Conference Finals is having trouble luring top tier, or even second tier free agents like Luol Deng, who spurned them for the suddenly rebuilding Heat. But what makes it at least a little shocking is that, like L.A. and New York, Atlanta is a playground-type city for a lot of the NBA’s premier personalities. NBA veteran (and former Fab 5er) Jalen Rose placed Atlanta atop his favorite cities in America list, saying that even in the off-season players will still kick it in the A.

But the A and the Hawks are two different things. According to a recent post on the Houston Chronicle‘s Ultimate Rockets blog, Dwight Howard loves the city, but “he would rather stay away” from playing for the team he cheered for growing up.


Trade Gonzo. Fire Smitty. Restructure Matty Ice.

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Sad to say Falcons fans, but Tony’s only road left to the Super Bowl starts in KC.

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.


Falcons Snatch Defeat from Jaws of Victory

Now where did I put Cowher's number?

Arthur Blank, likely wondering, “Now where did I put Cowher’s number?”

I got a text from a friend Sunday night. It read: “[The Falcons] will never win a SB with that coach/QB combo. Never.”

At first I dismissed this missive as lashing out by a depressed 49ers fan, who was likely ornery after the Indianapolis Colts  traveled across the country to put a whipping on a seriously regressing Colin Kaepernick.

But who am I kidding? I totally agree.

If a standard NFL game were only 15 minutes long, the Falcons would be the perennial favorites to win the Lombardi trophy. But games are  60 minutes long, and the Falcons coaching staff just can’t seem to keep their team motivated for that length of time. Leads are squandered. Mid-game lulls are commonplace. And the comebacks haven’t been coming—as they once did.

After five years of watching him play, I think I’m convinced that Matt Ryan is not the problem. I think a coach who “coaches up” players, who players desperately don’t want to disappoint, who makes smart gambles, etc., can win with Matt Ryan. Bill Cowher and Jim Harbaugh come to mind.

Mike Smith, is no Cowher or Harbaugh. He seems to get stuck on words, like “resiliency” and “explosiveness,” repeating them to a team that regularly showcases neither trait. His managerial echolalia isn’t even what annoys me most about him. It’s that he’s a defensive coach—prior to joining the Falcons, he was the defensive coordinator of the Jacksonville Jaguars—who has never really had a feared defense. He seems completely mismatched with the team he currently has, an on-paper offensive juggernaut that in real life is sort of ho hum and average.

I think Smith might be one of those coaches who can get you to the playoffs and no further. He’s Dan Reeves without the suit. He’s Andy Reid. For an in-state example, he’s the NFL version of Mark Richt.

Case in point: Falcons beat reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, D. Orlando Ledbetter, just tweeted that offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has set a goal of turning 55 percent of red zone possessions into touchdowns. My question: Why isn’t the goal 100 percent? If you aspire to it and fall short, you’re still a damn good football team. Aspiring to mediocrity is what’s gotten this team to where it’s at now.

I just don’t see the Mike Smith regime leading us to a trophy.


Hawks Come Up Small: Preseason Edition

Coach Bud, after a few too many Buds?

Coach Bud, after a few too many Buds?

With more than a full two months to go before the start of the 2013-2014 NBA season, one would figure the Atlanta Hawks had a good shot at not appearing on this site. After all, they’d pulled off another remodel this summer, headlined by shipping out flashy but challenging power forward Josh Smith and replacing him with the more workman-like and dependable Paul Milsap. Solid move, as judged by most basketball pundits.

They also hired Mike Budenholzer as their new coach. The top assistant and presumptive coach-in-waiting behind the legendary Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, he was hired to imbue the Hawks with some of the special powers of the Spurs. He joined Hawks general manager Danny Ferry, who had previously been VP of basketball operations for the Spurs. True to Pop philosophy, in this year’s draft, the team eschewed American college stars in favor of two youngsters who had been plying their trade in the professional leagues of Europe, Brazilian Lucas Nogueira, who played in Spain, and German Dennis Schröder. Schröder, in particular, was impressive in summer league this year.

Last night, Budenholzer was arrested and charged with driving under the influence after being pulled over by the cops in Midtown Atlanta—in a particularly nightlife-rich bit of Midtown. He refused the breathalyzer, but the cop wrote in his report that, “I noticed that he had bloodshot and watery eyes and a strong odor of an alcoholic beverage coming from his breath.”

No word on what the Hawks plan to do about this situation, but Ferry has informed the media that he’s up-to-speed on the situation. But, really, this likely doesn’t bode well for a franchise that’s been in Atlanta for nearly 50 years and hasn’t made it past the second round of the playoffs. We still don’t really know what kind of leader of men Coach Bud is, but he isn’t doing himself any favors in the setting a good example department.

It’ll be interesting to see what he does to right the ship. If he doesn’t, Coach Bud won’t just be a clever way of truncating a long surname.


Falcons Fall Back to Earth, Perhaps Predictably

012113_falcons_bseThere’s a reason no writer representing San Francisco contributes to this blog: SF teams, more often than not, finish the drill. Atlanta teams, sigh, tend not to. The Hawks have never made it to the Eastern Conference Finals, much less the NBA Finals. The Braves went to the playoffs 14 years in a row and managed only one World Series win—the city’s sole championship. Now the Falcons have reached the NFC Championship game three times and will once again not win the Super Bowl.

But, through three quarters of yesterday’s thrilling NFC Championship Game, it looked like the latest edition of the Falcons could make the franchise’s second Super Bowl appearance. That will not be the case. SF teams come up big. ATL teams come up small.

My worries with the new era of the Falcons, led by the Dimitroff-Smith-Ryan troika, crystallized on November  27, 2011. I never was too bothered by the first two playoff loses suffered by this regime. Losing to the eventual NFC Champion Cardinals on their turf with a rookie QB in his first playoff game was tough, but reasonable. The defeat to the Packers was harder to take, but that team was a buzzsaw.

But, the weekend after Thanksgiving in 2011 was foreboding: The Falcons piled up a 17-0 lead in the first half on the lowly Vikings, who came into the Georgia Dome sporting a feeble 2-8 record, a rookie quarterback who’s ceiling is probably Matt Schaub, and no Adrian Peterson. But, in about a five-minute span, the Falcons gave up two touchdowns, and the Vikings closed the gap to three points. The Falcons would eventually win, but I remember sending a text to a couple friends that read: “The Falcons have no killer instinct. We should have squashed this team. Why is this even a game?”

And, that’s been evident in their no-show in the Wild Card Game against the New York Football Giants last year; several skin-of-their-teeth victories this season over bad teams, including the Cardinals and Raiders; and their two most recent playoff games. The Falcons impressively fast starts against the Seahawks and the Niners have been tempered by equally shocking swoons.

A John Abraham Falcons jersey, on its hangar and heading back to  the closet until the fall.

A John Abraham Falcons jersey, on its hangar and heading back to the closet until the fall.

Against the Niners, they failed to score a single point in the second half, after having their way with the visitors in the first quarter of the game. Once again the Falcons only seemed to play offense for one-half of a football game; and however amped their defense was on the first couple series of the game, it was significantly more porous soon after. After letting the Niners recover from a 17-0 deficit and pull to within three points, the Falcons showed some pluck and put together a quick strike scoring drive to go into the half with a 10-point lead.

Maybe today would be different? Alas, it wasn’t. Matty Ice went cold, throwing an interception (that to be fair wasn’t his fault) and fumbling a snap. John Abraham was clearly ineffective—and I think someone needs to take a long look at why he was playing in the fourth quarter of a meaningless game on December 29. The better team, who’d been here before and squandered its opportunity last year, won. People seemed certain the 49ers would be back to avenge their loss; I get the impression that many think the Falcons just blew their one chance.

The fans, from what I hear from several people (including my parents) who went to the game, did their job for the entire 60 minutes. The city has risen up, as it is continually prodded to do, and embraced this team of talented underachievers. I’ve called the Falcons “the most considerate team in football.” They should be more considerate to their fans than to their opponents.


The Atlanta Falcons and the Art of Coming Up Meh

Dunta Robinson looks for something to hold onto while he and the Falcons defense weathered the Seahawks storming back in yesterday's divisional playoff game.

Dunta Robinson looks for something to hold onto while he and the Falcons defense weathered the Seahawks storming back in yesterday’s divisional playoff game.

In earning their league-best 14th win of the season and notching the franchise’s first playoff victory since 2005, the Atlanta Falcons proved that no team in the league takes more care to ensure that their vanquished opponents feel good about themselves.

Most teams—including the lowly Raiders, the QB-poor Cardinals, and the better-than-their-record Panthers—leave the Georgia Dome believing (often with just cause) that four times out of five, they would have won the game they just lost. The Seattle Seahawks certainly have to feel that way after narrowly losing to the Falcons despite coming back from a 20-point deficit by scoring 21-unanswered points in the first 14-and-a-half minutes of the fourth quarter of yesterday’s divisional playoff game. It’s hometown paper apparently does. The Seattle Times went with the relatively chipper headline: “Playoff loss hurts, but Seahawks will be back.”

After the game, all Russell Wilson could talk about was how excited he was for next season. The Falcons didn’t demoralize the seemingly unflappable rookie QB, they emboldened him. Whoops.

At halftime, it appeared that the Falcons, which in three of the past four seasons have come up small in the playoffs, were about to have their coming out party. But, by the fourth quarter the Falcons that we fans have been in an unhealthy relationship with for decades reared their heads, proving incapable of picking up first downs on offense and not surrendering them on D. They won the game on thanks to a drive authored by the aptly named Matty Ice. Great, but, c’mon man, we had a 20-point lead at home with 15 minutes to play?

Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson put it best, or rather put it as I have many times in the past: “”We’ve got to develop a killer mentality. We don’t put people away well enough when we get the chance.”

A win’s a win, I know, but when you play the Falcons, the NFL’s most considerate franchise, the door’s always open—both to you stealing a win and to the Dirty Birds coming up small.