The 2013 season will likely go down as one of the worst in Falcons history. Without question, it's been the worst since 2008 - the year that Mike Smith took over the ashes of the program left over after the Pitrino/Vick nightmare of 2007. Depending on who you ask, some would argue that this season has been worse. They would rightfully point out the Super Bowl expectations, or the return of Gonzalez as powerful reasons.
Caught in the middle of this mess of a season, though, is head coach Mike Smith. While Arthur Blank has made it clear that Dimitroff and Smith will be back for 2014, fans are split on whether it's the right decision. Some fans are adamant that you don't let go of a coach who has averaged more than 10 wins per year since he took over. On the other side, fans are infuriated by seeing the same issues plague the team year after year - a clear sign of coaching issues.
So which should it be? Should he stay or should he go? Let's take a look at some of the arguments for both conclusions.
Smith Should Stay
Proven, Consistent Success
Between 2008 and 2012, only one other NFL franchise has had more wins than the Falcons (the Patriots). In that time, the Falcons made the playoffs 4 times and infamously came within 10 yards of going to the Super Bowl. In his short tenure with the team, Mike Smith has already cemented himself as one of the winningest coaches in Falcons franchise history.
Compare that to some of the more storied franchises of the NFL in that same time span. Teams like the Packers and Steelers - largely considered to be two of the better coached teams in the NFL - missed the playoffs multiple times and couldn't amass the sustained success that Smith has. Not to mention, Smith did all of this without the benefit of "learning seasons" where he could amass 2 to 3 years of early picks in the draft. He had immediate success, going 11-5 with a rookie QB (almost unheard of at the time) and into the playoffs. He and Matt Ryan took what should have been an equally disastrous 2008 season (following the 2007 debacle) and turned it into one of the franchises most memorable.
This kind of success is hard to find in the NFL. And you can't just walk away after one bad season.
Dramatic Improvements in 2012
Lest anyone forget, the Falcons were a run-first team from 2008 to 2011. After the embarrassing loss to the Giants in the 2011 playoffs, the Falcons made some dramatic changes in the off-season. The departures of Brian Van Gorder and Mike Mularkey ushered in the new era of Mike Nolan and Dirk Koetter as our new DC and OC. They were tasked with giving the team a defensive identity and making the offense more dangerous by putting more in the hands of our franchise QB. In one off-season.
In that time, the Falcons fielded a far more explosive offense which heavily featured the tandem of Jones and White. The defense became a turnover machine, plaguing QBs like the Manning brothers and Drew Brees. Matt Ryan had his best season ever, at one point even being a front-runner in MVP conversations. Players like DeCoud and Moore flourished in the new D, as the overall defense was in the top 5 in points allowed.
All of that happened in the first year under those new coordinators, headed by Mike Smith. That kind of turn-around can't be ignored when pondering the question of whether a coach should be brought back.
Can't Ignore the Injuries
Sam Baker. Julio Jones. Bradie Ewing. Steven Jackson. Roddy White. Sean Weatherspoon. Kroy Biermann. Akeem Dent. Stephen Nicholas.
These are all players who have missed significant time due to injuries during the 2013 season. That list is only the tip of the iceberg. Guys like Mike Johnson - our projected starter at RT - was lost before the season started. Simply put - this team is one of the most injury plagued in the league. Can you imagine what the Lions would look like without Calvin Johnson? Or if any NFL team lost ALL of their starting linebackers?
Without a doubt, someone needs to ask WHY all of these injuries happened and if there's a training issue that lead to this season. But holding Mike Smith solely responsible in the light of these injuries is just not fair.
Smith Should Go
Persistent Team Issues
Poor tackling. The dreaded third quarter lull. The need for fourth quarter comebacks. Rushing 3 on 3rd and long.
These, amongst other issues, are recurring themes over the last several years. In that time, we've seen a change in our coordinators and the schemes that they run. But in that same time, we've seen these team issues persist despite the change in coordinators. Why can't the Falcons consistently put teams away in the second half? Why do we always seem to allow teams to convert on 3rd and long (while inevitably rushing only 3 for pressure)? Why do we seem to always hit a lull in the third quarter, only to require Matt Ryan to add yet another miracle comeback to his resume?
When you change players and coordinators and you still have the same issues, the answer to your question becomes pretty simple: you have to look at the head coach.
These aren't small issues either: all of these issues add up to close games and narrow losses. The fact that Ryan has had so many fourth quarter comebacks is great, but also speaks to the fact that we've needed him to bail us out so many times. In over five years, the fact that these issues have persisted speak negatively about the coaching and the inability to correct these issues. And if your coach can't correct issues after 5 years, how much faith should you have that he can correct them in the future?
Lack of Player Development
Many Falcons fans remember the excitement around fourth round pick Lawrence Sidbury in 2009. He was considered a sleeper pick that could develop into a great pass rusher at the NFL level with the proper development. And every pre-season, fans would watch as Sidbury had his shots and would flash his high-motor and speed. And as the pre-season would end, fans would wonder why Sidbury couldn't get any snaps. This wasn't just for one season - this was for every season he was with the Falcons until he left (under poor circumstances) during 2012 free agency.
Whether Sidbury ever develops is not the point. The fact that he never saw playing time in four years is troubling. The word was that Sidbury wasn't very good on special teams, and subsequently couldn't earn any snaps on defense. And let's be honest, were it not for injuries this year, do we really believe that players like Paul Worrilow, Joplo Bartu or Maliciah Goodman would really be getting these snaps?
Some would argue that the talent hasn't been there for him to develop, but that is incredibly hard to quantify when those players never get meaningful snaps. Preseason games are not a good barometer for how a player will perform in an actual game, and not some glorified scrimmage. A player like Paul Worrilow may not be an immediate starter, but when given snaps, he's shown tremendous growth - something that only comes with playing time. It's up to the head coach to find those opportunities and exploit them whenever possible. Coach Smith simply hasn't done it.
Refusal to Play Best Players
Remember the commitment to give Antone Smith more snaps this year? That seemed to last for one game, despite his explosive plays and crazy good numbers. How long did it take for Konz to be replaced by the clearly better Joe Hawley at Center? Why was Michael Turner still a feature in our offense when he was no longer as good of a fit as guys like Quizz and Snelling in 2012?
These are only the first few that came to mind as well. Jeremy Trueblood has consistently gotten the snaps at right tackle and in less than 2 games, Ryan Schraeder - an UDFA rookie - has performed as well, if not better. Jonathan Massaqoui - once moved to RDE (instead of Osi) - has registered 3 sacks, 9 hurries and 13 tackles in 3 games.
Teams like the Packers don't seem to hesitate to put the best player on the field, regardless of draft position. The Seahawks invested some big money in Matt Flynn in their 2012 off-season, but did not hesitate to hand the reigns over to rookie 3rd rounder Russell Wilson. The best teams play their best players, regardless of where they were drafted or whether they're a veteran or not. Smith shows loyalty to his players (especially veterans), but often to a fault. If some of these bench players were allowed to play sooner, it's fair to wonder if the 2013 season would have been as bad as it has been.
I deliberately stayed away from issues like whether Smith has "lost the locker room" or whether he has "what it takes" to take us to the Super Bowl, because these are highly subjective arguments that are hard to quantify.
While this is the first losing season Mike Smith has ever had, it is a disastrously bad one. However, I'm also a believer that the best lessons are those learned under adversity. If that's true, then Smith and the rest of the team have invariably learned some incredibly valuable lessons this year that should help them improve their methods in 2014. But watching the same persistent issues creep up every season is tiring, and makes you wonder if Smitty is even capable of change.
In short, I don't think the argument for keeping/firing Mike Smith is as clear cut as either side would like you to believe. I see strong arguments on both sides of the equation. It depends on what arguments you want to put more weight on. Regardless, it's clear that something has to change in the 2014 season. If it's not a change in the head coach, then at the very least, it needs to be in some of the things our head coach has done poorly. Hopefully, that's something we can all agree upon.