There's no questioning whether or not the Falcons have been good in the Mike Smith/Thomas Dimitroff/Matt Ryan era. The record speaks for itself. The Falcons are 57-27 in the regular season since Smith took over, with five consecutive winning seasons, and four playoff appearances in five years. "Good" is probably an understatement.
The 2013 season, however, has a different tenor. The injuries alone are enough to bring Falcons fans to their knees. Losing Kroy Biermann for the season after he showed much promise in a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role hurt. Losing Sean Weatherspoon, star outside linebacker and defensive play-caller, for a substantial chunk of the season hurt even more. Seeing Akeem Dent develop into a decent run-stopping middle linebacker only to see him go down with an ankle injury. Seeing Asante Samuel on the field much less frequently than we'd like as he nurses a thigh injury from preseason.
And that's just the defense. On offense, it's gotten to be particularly painful. Mike Johnson had all but earned the starting right tackle job when his lower leg basically exploded in training camp. Starting fullback Bradie Ewing is out for the season, again. Steven Jackson, the free agent running back who was supposed to balance Atlanta's offense and shift their fortunes dramatically--remember when he said, as he entered free agency, that Atlanta was just a running back away from a Super Bowl?--has barely played due to a hamstring injury. Roddy White has yet to be 100%, dramatically limiting the explosiveness of the offense, and White may not even be back after the bye week after adding the insult of a hamstring injury to the literal injury of a lingering high ankle sprain. And Julio Jones--it still hurts to talk about Julio Jones--who broke a screw in his foot that had repaired a previous break, and is out for the season.
There's no way around it--this Falcons season feels unlucky. And, as the old saying goes, it's often better to be lucky than good. While the Falcons have undoubtedly been good over the course of the last five seasons, luck also played a big role in their success. They were lucky and good.
Remember the game against the Baltimore Ravens in the Georgia Dome in 2010? You should--it was one of those games that helped to solidify Atlanta's reputation for being clutch on last-minute drives to win. The tension was palpable as Baltimore took over on their own 28 yard line to try to overtake the Falcons, who led 20-14. With 2:57 remaining in the game, the Ravens drove down the field pretty efficiently, and despite a strong effort at a goal line stand from the Falcons defense, managed to punch in a touchdown on a Joe Flacco pass to Todd Heap.
The Falcons got the ball back with 1:05 remaining in the game, starting at their own 20 after a touchback. It took the Falcons just 45 seconds to move the ball 80 yards, a drive that culminated in a Matt Ryan-to-Roddy White touchdown pass to seal up the win. The two point conversion attempt failed, but that was fine, as the Falcons locked up the thrilling victory, 26-21.
Compare that to the Falcons' loss in week one of the 2013 season in New Orleans. The Falcons trailed 23-17 late in the fourth quarter, and they had even more time to execute a game-winning touchdown drive than they did against Baltimore in 2010. They took over at their own 20 yard line, with 3:12 remaining in the game, and--just like they did against Baltimore--moved the ball very efficiently down the field to get into the red zone. Once there, however, they just could not convert it into a touchdown to win the game. When taken in context with the way the Falcons lost the NFC Championship Game, it seemed to be a huge blow to the Falcons' identity as masters of the game-winning drive.
Also in 2010, when the Falcons traveled to Tampa Bay, they struggled throughout the game. Early in the fourth quarter, down 24-14, Eric Weems returned a kick for a touchdown, a bit of luck that pretty much never happens anymore thanks to the modified NFL rules. The score narrowed Tampa Bay's lead to 24-21. On the Falcons' next possession, they drove down the field and took a 28-24 lead on a touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Michael Jenkins. Tampa Bay tried to answer, but Josh Freeman threw an interception to Brent Grimes, and the Falcons were able to run out the clock and preserve the win.
Compare that to this season's lone trip to Florida so far, the Falcons' matchup with the Miami Dolphins in Sun Life Stadium. There were a lot of similarities to the 2010 game in Tampa Bay, except that the Dolphins seemed to be playing the role of the 2010 Falcons, and the Falcons were playing the part of Tampa Bay. Down 27-23 with just 38 seconds remaining in the game, the Falcons started a drive from their own 20, and Matt Ryan threw an interception, allowing Miami to run out the clock and preserve their win. It's not as fun when you're on the losing end of that kind of play.
When Carolina visited the Falcons in 2012, it was looking bleak for Atlanta in the fourth quarter. The Falcons were down 28-27, and the Panthers were driving, and getting perilously close to field goal range. Cam Newton took the snap on third down and two on the Atlanta 46, but fumbled, and the ball was recovered by Carolina on the 45. Initially, the referees ruled it a first down, which would have been disastrous, but--as luck would have it--the booth called for a replay, and the first down ruling was overturned.
On fourth and one from the Atlanta 45, Cam Newton was called for a delay of game penalty, forcing the Panthers to punt. It still didn't look like luck was working in Atlanta's favor, as they took over on their own one yard line with 59 seconds left in the game. On first down, Matt Ryan threw a 59-yard bomb to Roddy White, and then dinked and dunked his way into field goal range for yet another win decided by Matt Bryant's leg.
When the Patriots came to town a couple of weeks ago, the Falcons trailed for most of the game, really letting things get out of hand in the second half, and midway through the fourth quarter, trailed 30-13. Then, with a massive amount of luck on their side, they mounted a ridiculous comeback after Falcons fans had already begun streaming toward the exits. A touchdown pass to Tony Gonzalez narrowed the Patriots' lead to 30-20 with 4:28 remaining in the game. Atlanta opted for an onside kick following the touchdown, and luckily enough, Stephen Nicholas recovered. The offense drove down the field, but their luck ran out in the red zone, and they settled for a field goal, making it a one possession game with 2:55 remaining.
Matt Bosher's second onside kick was not as lucky. It was recovered by the Patriots on the Atlanta 46 yard line. However, the Falcons' luck had not entirely run out at that point. On fourth and one from Atlanta's 37 yard line, Tom Brady fumbled the ball on a quarterback sneak. Brady doesn't fumble often. That's about as lucky as it gets. A deep pass to Julio Jones got the Falcons back into the red zone, and that's where their luck really ran out. Another offensive series fizzled, the Falcons failed to score, and the Falcons were 1-3.
The Falcons traveled to Seattle in 2011 to take on the Seahawks, and despite the difficult environment for opposing teams in Century Link Field, Atlanta had a commanding lead of 24-7 at the half. On the first series of the third quarter, they extended the lead with a field goal. Then, because it's the Falcons and it's the third quarter, it all fell apart. Seattle scored 14 unanswered points, narrowing Atlanta's lead to 27-21. A Falcons field goal extended their lead to 30-21, a comfortable nine points, but Seattle immediately answered with another touchdown, making it a 30-28 game for the Falcons.
The Falcons took over on the Seattle 20 yard line after a touchback, and executed a sustained drive, taking 6:24 off the clock, but failing to add any points to their tenuous lead. Matt Bosher's punt put Seattle on their own 15 yard line with 1:49 remaining, and Tavaris Jackson managed to lead the Seahawks down the field and put them in position for a 61-yard field goal attempt from Steven Hauschka. Hauschka's field goal was short, the Falcons regained possession on the Seattle 49 yard line, and the Falcons assumed the victory formation for the win.
That win is painfully reminiscent of last week's loss to the New York Jets, and not just because the final score was also 30-28. Late in the fourth quarter, trailing 27-21, the Falcons executed a 3:46 drive that ended in a touchdown pass to rookie tight end Levine Toilolo, taking the lead, 28-21. Unfortunately, they left Geno Smith and the Jets just under two minutes to get down the field, knowing that they only had to get into field goal range to win the game. Unfortunately, that's exactly what they did, and unlike Steven Hauschka, Nick Folk made the field goal, sealing another Falcons loss.
Luck is comprised of a lot of elements. There are some aspects of luck that cannot be controlled, like injuries, weather (not in the Georgia Dome, but in opponents' outdoor stadiums), bad calls or spots that don't bounce Atlanta's way, and the other team's missed or made field goals.
But, in many ways, a team can manufacture their own luck. Creating, and not committing, turnovers is a huge component of making your own luck. This is something the Falcons did pretty effectively last season, finishing the year with a +13 turnover differential. This season, so far, their turnover differential is -2. That's a huge difference, and it's a factor.
Another way to make your own luck is to limit penalties. This is something that, historically, the Falcons have been great at during Mike Smith's tenure, and this season, they have definitely slipped. In 2012 and 2010, the Falcons finished those seasons with the designation of being the least-penalized team in the league. It's not a coincidence that those are also the seasons they finished 13-3. This season, the Falcons are averaging 5.2 penalties a game, and giving up 46.4 yards per game as a result. Last season, their average was 3.33 penalties per game, and 25.33 penalty yards per game.
The Falcons can also make their own luck by controlling field position. Coverage on special teams has been shaky at times, particularly against the Jets (thank goodness for Matt Bosher), and giving your opponent favorable field position increases the chance that they will score. Along with that, limiting mistakes--missed tackles, blocked punts, waving off a punt and then fielding it anyway, Harry Douglas--will help to keep luck on the Falcons' side.
Part of manufacturing your own luck is having the confidence that you can make your own luck, and it's possible this is the element that is contributing the most to Atlanta's current struggles. The injuries are hard to accept. The 1-4 record feels insurmountable. This is, quite frankly, not at all the way this season was supposed to go, and the team is likely discouraged, much like the fans are. They need to get their confidence back in order to make their own luck.
Here's hoping the Falcons are a little luckier after the bye week.