"How many chances will I need before I win a playoff game? This many!" Matt Ryan in the midst of taking his third playoff strike.
I’m too afraid to tally the number of hours I spent reading ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, listening to NFL-related podcasts, talking heads on TV shows, and former players in online videos; and vacillating between actually going to the Meadowlands in advance of this weekend’s Falcons-Giants game.
I didn’t end up going. That ranks as one of the best decisions of my three decade-plus lifetime. I didn’t show up at Met Life Stadium. Neither did the Falcons offense.
If you spend too much time listening to chit-chat on the NFL network, you have likely noted two main criticisms of the 2011 Falcons: One was that the offense hadn’t settled on its identity between a power running game and the second coming of “The Greatest Show on Turf.” The other was that the defense, while posting more than respectable stats (especially in the second half of the season), was somehow suspect.
I take issue with the latter, which I think was perfectly illustrated by the playoff game. The defense, for my money, played pretty well—lights out, in fact, for a good portion of the afternoon. But, the offense kept sending them back out on the field after just a few plays. The Giants have a lot of weapons. They weren’t going to stay quiet all day. If the offense had come out and established anything resembling a rhythm
The first critique, however, seems totally on point. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey never seemed to figure out the individual talents of the many weapons they had in their point-scoring arsenal. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why. Sunday was one of the best examples:
Matt Ryan: He can manage a game. He is intelligent. They say he can’t throw deep, but he seems to do it so infrequently, who really knows whether he can or not? Here’s what he can’t do: extend plays. When the pocket breaks down, Ryan sometimes ventures toward the sidelines, but, either as a result of his wideouts not coming back to the QB or just because he doesn’t throw well or have great field vision while on the run, those plays rarely result in decent yardage gains. Basically, that means, if you want to win games with Matt Ryan throwing 30 times or more a game, he needs to have a nonporous offensive line.
Michael Turner: A power runner. A tubby load. He can’t cut. He barrels forward. He needs to get the legs going before he can be effective. If he encounters a lot of resistance at or behind the line of scrimmage, he ain’t going very far (most of the time). Not ideal in very short yardage situations.
Jason Snelling: Runs with verve and gets his knees up high. Always seems to get a yard or two more than you think, a la the Saints’ Christopher Ivory. Seems like an ideal short yardage back and was solid catching the ball out of the backfield.
Jacquizz Rodgers: I have to admit, I was so much more excited about the Falcons drafting this lil’ spark plug relative to the Julio Jones pick. I see him as a Darren Sproles-type player whose potential is off the charts. But, we didn’t seem to ever use him unless a play had broken into a million pieces. Or we tried to run him in more traditional situations. I can only hope his development was affected by the lockout.
Roddy White: More like Droppy White this year. Roddy had an amazing season last year. This year, his proclamation that the Falcons offense would be the new “Greatest Show on Turf” was second only to Vince Young’s “Dream Team” utterance in terms of its foolishness. Roddy is perfect for out routes and that curl he likes from the slot.
Tony Gonzalez: Big end zone target. Ideal possession receiver for getting between five and 10 yards. Other than Roddy, when he wasn’t being Droppy, Gonzo was the only largely properly utilized part of the Falcons weaponry.
Harry Douglas: The Falcons forgotten man. Some pundits early on said that he would benefit the most from the addition of Julio Jones. He did. For one game, against the Saints in Week 10. He got open multiple times over the middle in the Saints soft zone as the Falcons clawed back and forced that game into overtime. Then he went AWOL. Why not use him as a Welker-type slot receiver? Why not have Roddy run the curl that every DB that plays us looks for, while sending Julio across the middle, and then bombing to Harry deep? Sound too much like Madden? Take a look at the Saints. The Pack. The Pats. The Lions.
Julio Jones: There were times that I thought the Jones pick was more trouble than he was worth. But, if the Falcons keep him beyond his initial contract, I think he’s going to be one of the league’s premier receivers, so I’m ultimately glad he’s around. That said, Mularkey seemed to call plays as though it was he who was responsible for justifying the kid’s existence on the squad. Matty seemed to force throws to him or in his direction when there were plenty of other options, including running the ball.
Frankly, there’s something to the fact that the Falcons only win against a playoff team came when Jones was injured. That’s not to say Jones couldn’t have been better integrated into the offense. It just seemed that Mularkey didn’t know how to create a good mix of run and pass. It seemed like, at times, he was consciously trying to get people touches, spread the ball. But, if there’s anything one notices when watching the Saints or the Pack, the NFC’s two vaunted offenses, they (and their quarterbacks) don’t seem to care who is at the end of their passes or which back is carrying the rock.
That’s an issue of team identity—suppressing individual egos and stressing whatever serves the team is best. That’s taught from the top down. That’s on the coaches—Mularkey, among them.