Caleb's post yesterday about the coaching staff sparked a lot of discussion. Some bemoaned the way everyone from Mike Smith down to Joe Zelenka have performed this season, while others were alarmed by the headline, which featured the words "hot seat" prominently. The argument, essentially, was what the hell are we doing talking about the most successful coach in team history being on the hot seat after a 1-2 start to the season?
Over the last two months, I've seen a lot of angst about these Falcons. There were concerns about the team throughout pre-season, concerns that in retrospect seem totally fair. For the first time in the Mike Smith era, the Falcons have stumbled badly out of the gate, to the extent that many are now concerned that the team will suffer its first losing season since 2007. The fall from grace has been rapid.
Everyone is welcome to their opinions here, and I don't write this seeking to stifle anyone. I do have a message for every fan who is despondent now, though, wondering why the Football Gods have forsaken them.
Take the long view.
I've been a fan of this team for a little over two decades now. If you're not familiar with my history as a fan, I'll give you the extremely short version. Born in Massachusetts, spent my formative years in Patriots country and grew up as a Falcons fan for no clear reason I can remember. Having picked my team, it never occurred to me to abandon them, so I've stumbled and bumbled my way along with them for 21 years.
That's not to say that the Falcons haven't tried my patience over the years. For much of my life, they've either been a terrible, mediocre or slightly above average team. In their flashes of brilliance, such as in 1998, they've still managed to fall short. It used to be that I could commiserate with the sea of Patriots fans who surround me, but the last decade has wiped out their collective memories of the terrible times. As it should.
The way you survive as a Falcons fan is by imagining that better days are around the corner. For literally decades, it's been the only way to make it through another season where the Falcons went 7-9, 4-12 or 9-7 and got bounced in the first round of the playoffs. The road to the present is littered with the corpses of once-promising seasons.
Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff changed all that. Suddenly, the Falcons were perennial playoff contenders. They built a young, hungry team.
As much as I hate to say it—especially because the team hasn't won a playoff game in that three-year span—the success simultaneously spoiled fans and didn't change their outlooks at all. Suddenly, every loss became a funeral. Every setback, every injury and every boneheaded mistake was the heralding of a grand collapse. By and large, Falcons fans simply couldn't shake the sense of impending doom that has been part and parcel of this team for four-and-a-half decades.
When it didn't happen—think last year after the Steelers game to open the season—fans were still wary. National pundits and fans of other teams scoffed at the Falcons, calling them paper birds of prey. The loss to the Packers seemed a fulfillment of every dark word we collectively spoke last season, and the Falcons spent the off-season taking a hell of a lot of abuse for a team that was the top seed in the NFC in 2010.
And now we're here, sitting at 1-2 with very real problems along the offensive line and with the aggressiveness of the team's schemes, and many have settled into a comfortable narrative. The coaching staff must go! The players must be replaced! These bums are going nowhere!
I don't want to live like that. I want to appreciate that this is the best football played in Atlanta in many, many years, and that a 1-2 start does not mean that the Falcons are totally screwed. I want to be able to point out the good things without being called a fool. I want to be able to debate the real problems this team has without every discussion devolving into a "FIRE MULARKEY!" meme, without half the fanbase taking their 13-3 playoff boasts made in the pre-season and transforming them into 5-11 predictions on the basis of three games.
I want to do that because football and The Falcoholic are joys for me, and to leap headfirst into a pit of despair after every game wears a man down. I want to do it because for all its flaws, it is a joy to watch the Falcons' young safeties pick passes, to see the promise in a 5'6" running back who is still just a rookie, and to see Matt Ryan uncork a beautiful pass with only nanoseconds before his teeth are rattled in his head and connect with Roddy White downfield. There is promise and greatness even in the midst of three (mostly) bad games, and I see enough to have faith that the Falcons will be a damn good football team again if they can fix their Achilles heel on the offensive line.
Take the long view. Remember that even the greatest teams ever—the unstoppable Raiders of John Madden's heyday, the mighty Steelers of the Steel Curtain era, the steam-powered Patriots of the 2000's—have fallen on hard times in the middle of their runs. They've missed the playoffs, they've made the playoffs and been humiliated, and so on. What defined these teams was a commitment to excellence, to holding the core together and always striding forward. If these teams had blown up their coaching staffs and traded away their elite players based on a single stretch of games or even a bad season, I wouldn't be sourcing them right now.
Keep this all in perspective. The Falcons can get better as soon as the next game. Win against the Seahawks and you're 2-2. Continue that improvement against teams like the Saints and Packers and maybe you come into mid-season at 5-3, positioned to make a second half run after plowing through the hardest part of the schedule. Even if they falter and this season goes poorly, the core will be there in 2012, the same core that has without question transformed Atlanta Falcons football since coming aboard in 2008.
I'm not saying changes shouldn't be made, that perhaps Mike Mularkey should be seeking a new job by mid-season. But if you really want to blow this up entirely and start over, you risk going back to the days when the Falcons were awful. Short memories are and have always been the enemy of lasting success.
Forgive the rambling, but this has been on my mind. Feel free to weigh in, my Falcoholic friends.