Now that the 2012 season is over, I think it's time for an across-the-board grade of each position and the coaches. These grades will include post-season performances in the final score. Without further delay...
Final Grade: A
Many Falcons fans have clamored for Matt Ryan to be "unleashed" in a true pass first offense for a couple of years now. Though Julio Jones was drafted last year to allow for that, the 2011 season saw a constant struggle between trying to move the ball through the air, while also trying to maintain a run-first Mularkey identity. As such, Ryan never really took that step under Mularkey. The hope was that Dirk Koetter would come in and finally turn the offense over to our signal caller.
Without a doubt, the 2012 season was THE year that Ryan finally took over completely - and it paid off beautifully. Ryan broke several Falcons records - including completion percentage (nearly 70%!), yards (over 4700) and TDs (32). Minus a few rough games, Ryan turned in a near MVP caliber season capped with his first playoff win. He continued his clutch play, amassing several more fourth quarter comebacks and now having the most in his first five years than any QB in NFL history. His velocity and deep ball were dramatically improved, as he regularly launched passes downfield with near pinpoint accuracy.
While many will undoubtedly remember "the fumble" from the NFC Championship game, the fact remains that Ryan - without the benefit of a meaningful running game - was gashing one of the best defenses in the league all game long. To discount his break-out performance based on a single fluke mistake is to ignore the fact that Ryan looked like the best QB in the league for long stretches of the game. He clearly looked more relaxed and confident - possibly a benefit of getting the "no playoff wins" monkey off of his back.
If there are any criticisms of Ryan, it's a shared criticism for the entire team - they tend to disappear in games and play down to opponents. My hope is that he - and the rest of the Falcons - will focus on that aspect of their game for next year.
Final Grade: A
The "pick your poison" offense lived up to the billing. The big three - Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez - were nearly unstoppable all season long. Double Roddy? Julio breaks out. Double Julio? Tony breaks out. It was amazing to watch it come to fruition, and defenses truly fretted over the fact that there was simply no way to cover them all.
Amazingly, Roddy and Julio both went over 1000 yards while Tony went over 900 on the year. Meanwhile, Roddy returned to his normal sure-handed form, all but eliminating the drops issue he had in the 2011 season. Julio improved tremendously in his route running and though he had some frustrating drops, he became more reliable as the season progressed. Both receivers showed incredible chemistry with Ryan, making them that much harder to defend.
And what else can be said about Tony Gonzalez that hasn't already been said. Though he lacks the downfield explosiveness of other tight ends, he was incredibly sure-handed and continued to make circus catches all year. If he does indeed retire, replacing him will be impossible. The chemistry he and Matt developed over the last four years was almost legend. Matt would regularly put balls in the air before Tony had even turned, knowing his hall-of-fame target would be there - and he always was.
Meanwhile, other receivers - such has Harry Douglas and Drew Davis - made contributions where needed, but were never a real threat. That's hardly a criticism - it's hard to get many catches when the big 3 are ahead of you. Harry Douglas didn't break out like many people thought he would, and unfortunately, his trip against the carpet monster in the NFC Championship game will haunt people's memories of him. HD83 may get his chance in the 2013 season to prove he's a real receiving threat, especially if Gonzalez retires. If he doesn't prove himself, the Falcons may consider moving on.
Final Grade: C
Wear and tear finally showed up as Michael Turner did not resemble anything near the player we remember from the 2008 and 2010 seasons. Blame the lack of a lead blocker - or a sub-par performance from the offensive line - but Turner deserves some of the blame for our running game all but disappearing. While he did have some good performances - the Seattle playoff game being one of them - he was never a consistent running threat.
Meanwhile, Jaquizz Rodgers took another step forward, splitting the carries with Turner. While he also did not have a great season running the ball, he showed himself to be clutch in several games - converting key third downs using his elusiveness in the process. He was also a much better receiving option and proved to be very good at picking up blocks in the backfield. While it's still unclear if Rodgers can be a 20-25 carry per game back, he has already shown that he at least deserves to be in a rotation. He can be a difference maker.
Final Grade: B-
The drafting of Peter Konz in the second round and Lamar Holmes in the third signaled that the Falcons were getting serious about improvements to a rather poor 2011 season for the offensive line. However, when the season started with the same starters in all 5 spots, fans questioned whether anything had changed at all. But as the season got rolling, it was clear that the line HAD improved. Whether it was Pat Hill, the inclusion of the screen game, or just a year of working together - the line turned into a competent pass blocking group. In particular, Sam Baker finally started living up to his late first round draft position and Garrett Reynolds was turning out to be a good RG - in both run and pass blocking. Their pass blocking allowed Ryan to get out to a red-hot start to the season.
However, when Reynolds went down in the Eagles game - ultimately to land on IR - Konz had to step in and play at RG. The rookie looked exactly like that - and had a very up and down season. Against bigger DTs, he would get man-handled and as a result, Ryan's performance dipped somewhat. As the season progressed, he seemed to settle in and by the playoffs, he was performing better. In the playoffs, this line only allowed one total sack - which can be misleading, as Ryan did a good bit to make them look better - unloading passes quickly, or moving away from pressure.
For all the success the line had in pass blocking, they had a rough year in run blocking. It would seem that the inclusion of the screen game meant that the standard running game was neglected in the process - and it showed. The line spent a good bit of the year missing blocking assignments or letting defenders shed blocks a bit early - or even worse, penetrate into the backfield. This group is capable of good run blocking - the Saints game in the GA dome or the Seattle playoff game as prime examples - they just weren't consistent in doing so.
Final Grade: C-
During the off-season, Falcons fans were hoping that Dimitroff would make a move for Mario Williams, in hopes of bolstering a rather lackluster pass rush in 2011. Instead, the Falcons resigned John Abraham and stuck with their rotation of Ray Edwards, Abe and Kroy Bierrmann while hoping that draft pick Jonathan Massaqoui could add production, along with Lawrence Sidbury and Cliff Matthews.
Of all the DEs on the roster, only Abraham continued to be a force - registering 10 sacks on the season. Ray Edwards was cut mid-year after turning into a full-blown locker room cancer. Biermann was used more as a roaming OLB in a 3-4 than a true pass rusher, but did register 4 sacks on the year. Guys like Sidbury, Massaqoui and Matthews rarely saw the field and Abe's performance began to decline towards the end of the year - not registering a sack in the final four games while being mostly ineffective in the post-season (due to his lingering ankle injury suffered in the last game of the season).
The lack of pressure from the defensive ends put a lot more pressure on our linebackers and secondary. Likewise, teams with running QBs - like Carolina and Seattle - regularly beat us on the ground, getting past the ends in the read-option.
This off-season will need to be spent doing a very deep examination of our ends to determine if the players we currently have can take us to the next level in 2013.
Final Grade: C
Sadly, our defensive tackle rotation did't do significantly better than our defensive ends. The Falcons started the season with our best run stopper - Corey Peters - on the sidelines. Even after returning to the roster, it took Peters most of the season to get back into his normal form. Meanwhile, the ever "promising" Peria Jerry continued to show flashes, but little more. He's a solid rotational guy, but certainly not worth the first round pick spent on him. Swagger Vance Walker also contributed well, especially considering his 7th round draft position. Babineaux continues to be the sole bright spot - and he managed to snag 3.5 sacks, while continuing to draw double-teams. Our lone DT draft pick - Travian Robertson - showed great promise in the preseason, but didn't see any significant snaps in the 2012 season.
This will be an interesting area to watch during the offseason. With USS Babs being a free agent, if Nolan wants to transition to a 3-4 look, he may decide to let Babs walk. If so, don't be surprised to see a free agent or draft pick used to sure up the middle of our line.
Final Grade: B-
Once the best part of our defense, the departure of Curtis Lofton hurt more than Atlanta fans realized. Our ability to consistently stop the run was greatly hampered and Akeem Dent wasn't quite ready to step into Lofton's shoes. We went from a great run stopping team to one of the worst. While defensive formations like the Big Tackle 3 helped us get better at run stopping, the fact remains that our 3 starters weren't quite cutting it. Sean Weatherspoon had a good season, but did better in pass coverage than he did in run stopping or tackling. Stephen Nicholas did ok in both areas, but was badly exposed in the playoffs. And while Dent seemed to come on towards the end of the season, he hasn't shown anything that says he'll be anything more than merely serviceable. Meanwhile, our depth at the position was very shallow with veteran Mike Peterson and roster-lingerer Robert James being our only depth.
This group has talent, but needs to get better at the fundamentals. An improved pass rush will also help this group, as they will not be consistently tasked with trying to cover game-changing tight ends like Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis.
Final Grade: B+
Of all the groups on the defensive side of the ball, the cornerback play seemed to be the most improved. They went from being our defensive liability to being one of our bright spots. The acquisition of Asante Samuel will go down as one of the steals of the 2012 season while Dunta Robinson improved as well. While many thought the loss of Brent Grimes would destroy this unit, guys like Christopher Owens and Robert McClain came in to contribute and McClain in particular looks like a player who we can count on in the nickel going forward, if not more. Mike Nolan did a great job of getting the most out of these guys, though depth is still somewhat of a concern.
Don't be surprised if Grimes walks and the Falcons look for some later round talent in the draft.
Final Grade: B
The tandem of Thomas DeCoud and William Moore had their best season to date. Together, they accumulated 9 interceptions and were consistently play makers in not only the passing game, but also against the run - with both forcing fumbles during the year. DeCoud really took a step forward, becoming a very good coverage safety. Moore still struggled with injuries, but when on the field, he was clearly a difference maker - though he would sometimes whiff in his coverage assignments. When Moore went down, the veteran Chris Hope stepped in and performed very well. There's hope that later round pick Charles Mitchell can contribute more next year, but he only saw a few snaps in 2012.
The only blight on this tandem came in the post-season, as DeCoud struggled in both games - particularly in covering the tight ends. Both Zack Miller and Vernon Davis ate this secondary alive, and DeCoud and Moore are partly to blame. However, an improved pass rush will help this unit not be so exposed by the intermediate routes.
Deservedly, both DeCoud and Moore will both be going to the Pro-Bowl this year.
Final Grade: B+
Matt Bosher had a solid season, showing great accuracy and a powerful leg. He regularly pinned the ball inside the 20 and averaged just under 48 yards per punt in 2012. While he did have a few moments of panic, he had an otherwise solid year.
Final Grade: A
The "other Matty Ice" Matt Bryant had yet another year of clutch kicking and while he wasn't completely flawless, he was as clutch a kicker as you can ask for. His ice-water blood particularly shined in the divisional playoff game against the Seahawks, when he drilled it through the uprights to seal the first Falcons playoff victory in the Mike Smith regime.
Final Grade: D
Had you told me prior to the season that we would feel the loss of Eric Weems, I would have scoffed at the sentiment. However, the loss of our pro-bowl special teamer hurt more than we realized. Weems was better than average in kick and punt returns and was replaced by Jaquizz Rodgers on kickoff returns, while Dominique Franks handled most of the punt return duties.
While Rodgers was decent enough, Franks regularly confounded fans who took to nicknaming him "Fair Catch Franks" for his tendency to call fair catches even when presented with opportunities to return the ball. He would regularly let the ball drop behind him only to be downed in horrible position for the Falcons offense. When he did manage to return a punt, he was decidedly bad. Towards the end of the season, Harry Douglas was given the opportunity to field the punts, and while he showed to be a much better option, he's not the ideal long-term solution if he's going to be an ongoing factor in our offense.
The Falcons would be wise to start finding long-term replacements for both Rodgers and Franks/Douglas for returns, as we need Rodgers and Douglas healthy for our offense, while Franks has proven he doesn't deserve the job.
Final Grade: B-
Even though there was a huge shift in coaching personnel across the board, there was some concern on whether Smith would allow Nolan and Koetter to truly rework the offense and defense, or if we would continue to see elements of "Smitty ball" being employed. Thankfully, Smith seemed to give both coordinators free reign in reinventing both sides of the ball to great success. That said, there were still times where the offense seemed to want to revert to the traditional run-first mentality or force the running game when it wasn't there - often knocking the offense out of rhythm and causing games to be closer than they had to be.
Smith also continued making occasional mental errors, often in critical situations. His challenge of a reviewable turnover against the Cardinals almost cost the Falcons that game, while his poor clock management against Seattle allowed them to get two more offensive plays off before the game was truly over.
Most notably, the Mike Smith Falcons have maintained an identity of playing down to lesser opponents while also allowing teams back into games after jumping out to big leads. The conservative play calling has faded somewhat, but there's still a frustrating tendency for this team to execute poorly in the second half of games. It's on Smith to identify why this trait has continued and figure out how to fix it. He no longer has the Mularkey/BVG monster to pin this tendency on, so if 2013 is going to be a successful season, Smith needs to do some self-examination to determine how this team can overcome these tendencies.
All of that said - Smith is still one of the greatest head coaches the Falcons have ever had, if not THE best.
Final Grade: B
When Falcons fans heard that Nolan was signed away from the Miami Dolphins, there was a sense of hope and excitement amongst the fan base. The highly respected coordinator had fixed many bad defenses, and the hope was that he would do the same here. And for his first year, Nolan certainly got more out of this defense than BVG ever did.
First, players immediately responded to Nolan's more patient "let them play" style of coaching. You won't find many players that don't love playing for this coach. Additionally, he took a secondary that was considered sub-par and extracted some amazing performances out of them - even after losing his best corner after the first game of the season. Though the defense would give up quite a few yards, they ultimately surrendered few points - finishing 5th in the league in that key statistic. This was done through forcing turnovers and/or clamping down in the red zone.
That said, there is still work to be done. This defense was frustratingly inconsistent with it's ability to tackle. Defenders were regularly shed for additional YAC. Likewise, the run stopping ability of this defense appeared to disappear overnight, while the pass rush seemed to disappear as the season wore on. And while this defense did a great job defending traditional passers like Peyton and Eli Manning and Drew Brees, it was shredded by read-option type QBs like Cam Newton and Russell Wilson.
This off-season will be critical, as it's obvious the defense has several areas to address. The hope is that Nolan can begin stocking the roster with the quality of players he wants for his style of defense. He'll also have the off-season to properly scheme for running QBs like Newton.
Final Grade: A
It's funny, but the biggest promise that came from Koetter was the promise to add screens to an offense that was already decent at scoring. Falcons fans were nervous that the coordinator for the worst offense in the league was coming to our club, but Koetter showed quickly why he was highly regarded across the league. He instantly worked well with our franchise QB and transformed the offense in one short season. Under Koetter, we had 2-1000 yard receivers, a TE with over 900 yards and record numbers for our QB. And as promised, he added a meaningful screen game to the offense.
Meanwhile, Koetter's offensive creativity showed through numerous times - not only in his numerous screens but his great play fakes. He used Julio Jones as a threat in so many ways that teams were flustered to try and predict what was coming. One minute, Julio is running a go-route and the next he's lining up as a half-back. One minute Matt is passing to a lineman in a jumbo line formation and the next Roddy is taking a bubble screen in for a 30+ yard touchdown. While there were moments where the offense would stall getting too creative, the offense really seemed to settle in towards the end of the season.
Were it not for two fluke turnovers in the NFC Championship game, this offense may well have dropped over 30 on one of the best defenses in the league. Needless to say, Koetter has been a very welcome addition to this ball club and we can only hope he continues his remarkable run for the next several years.
Overall Grade: B
Though the sting of the NFC Championship game loss is still hanging over this grade, it's hard to not to be excited about the dramatic improvements we saw in 2012. Our franchise QB took a huge step forward in his game, Julio Jones continued his turn into one of the games premiere receivers and our defense turned into a ball hawking, hard to decipher unit. It's also hard to argue with the success of a 13-3 regular season, a win in the playoffs and being 10 yards shy of getting to the Super Bowl.
The only reason this season doesn't get an A is because of the inconsistencies. This team needs to eliminate the playing-down mentality and develop a killer instinct. There are also some holes that need to be patched, and some aging players who will need to be replaced in the coming year or two. But with that said, it's hard not to be excited about the future of this team in 2013 and beyond.