Everyone's got a favorite scapegoat for the season. Thomas Dimitroff. Mike Smith. Matt Ryan, bizarrely. Injuries. The list goes on.
Ultimately, though, if you want to understand why this Falcons team is sitting at 2-5 and floundering badly, it helps to take a look at the whole picture. The Falcons' losses and the bitter disappointment we all feel didn't come out of nowhere, and it isn't on the shoulders of any one person. It's a story of one domino crashing into another crashing into another, taking a season with it.
Here are ruminations about the path that led us here.
- The Falcons go 13-3 in the regular season before losing a hugely disappointing playoff game to the Packers. The conclusion the Falcons draw from this game is that their weapons are not up to snuff—reasonable at the time, given that Matt Ryan was throwing to Michael Jenkins and Brian Finneran in addition to Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White—and thus began a fateful off-season. The Falcons brought in Ray Edwards to try to shore up their pass rush, chose to keep Tyson Clabo and Justin Blalock but let Harvey Dahl go. Both lines were subsequently weakened.
The big move came in the 2011 draft, when the Falcons gave up a king's ransom to get Julio Jones. This gave the team some of the most imposing weapons in the NFL, and the Falcons actually hit on most of their picks from that year, grabbing Akeem Dent, Jacquizz Rodgers, Matt Bosher and Cliff Matthews. The departure of Dahl and the whiff on Edwards would have future repercussions.
- The Falcons regressed a little but still went to the playoffs, where that vaunted offense only scored two points against the New York Giants. It was a hideous embarrassment for the organization, one we were all too eager to pin on the longtime coordinators. Look at the way the game unfolded and you see something familiar, though: Michael Turner running poorly behind a weakened line, a defense that wore down as the game went on and a passing game that didn't live up to expectations.
That game led to Mike Mularkey and Brian Van Gorder "finding new opportunities" instead of being fired, with replacements coming in the form of Mike Nolan and Dirk Koetter. The front office saw the blocking up front was a major problem, one that was limiting that high-flying offense. They proceeded to hire Pat Hill to coach the line and sink their second and third round picks into Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes. A depleted draft thanks to the Julio Jones trade meant they really had to hit on all their picks, but two years out this draft is looking very weak, even if Holmes and Konz can make significant strides.
- For one year, at least, the Falcons were able to do great things despite no major off-season changes besides the coordinators. They were very, very close to a Super Bowl, and while they were certainly lucky to go 13-3, it was a good football team that got by with an average offensive line. Unfortunately for the Falcons, they drew the wrong lessons from that loss.
The Falcons decided Michael Turner was the problem, that their secondary needed an overhaul and that everyone just needed another year in the new coordinators' systems. They also decided (mostly rightly) that Dunta Robinson, John Abraham, Tyson Clabo and Turner were old, wearing down and needed to go. It's what they decided to do with their off-season draft capital and free agent dollars that wound up being the problem.
They signed a 30-year-old running back to replace a 31-year-old running back. They brought in Osi Umenyiora to replace John Abraham, a slightly less expensive, slightly younger slight upgrade on Abe. And they sunk their first two picks (three, if you count the third they traded to get Desmond Trufant) into cornerbacks, investing two more picks at defensive end in the fourth and fifth rounders. They went into the season with two second-year players starting on the offensive line and no discernible upgrade for the pass rush. On one hand, they had brought in veterans and were clearly in on the Super Bowl push, but they were also going to be relying heavily on some unproven players.
This leads us into 2013.
- You can't talk about 2013 without the injuries. If the Falcons were built on an unsteady foundation of too many skill position players and not enough beef in the lines—which they were—problems were bound to crop up at some point. Without the injuries, though, the Falcons are likely sitting above .500, with fans grousing about the line and pass rush but still holding on to hope in a tight NFC playoff race.
Instead, the injuries exposed every major weakness on the roster and drained it of talent. Roddy White and Julio Jones being out/limited transformed the offense. Steven Jackson has been injured most of the year, making his signing a disappointing investment. Sam Baker has been hurt all season and thus lousy when he has played. Kroy Biermann and Sean Weatherspoon's injuries took arguably the two most important, versatile cogs out of Mike Nolan's defense and pressed inexperienced players into service. The injuries blew holes in this roster that the Falcons couldn't fill with quality play, which leads to our next two points.
- I've outlined the previous years because it helps to outline the philosophical change that occurred after 2010. No longer was this a team that was going to win games in the trenches, and they already weren't really doing so on the defensive side of the ball. The change meant the playmakers the team was leaning on so heavily needed to step up, and the Falcons' defense was heavily reliant on turnovers and forcing mistakes to win instead of brute physical play at the line of scrimmage. That kind of deception and reliance on receivers can work, spectacularly, if everyone is healthy. Once the injuries started rolling in, the need for a more balanced offense and better pass rush up front came into sharp relief.
The Falcons, due to the injuries and the way they've assembled this team, could not approximate what they were doing before and lacked the personnel to make a change to the very way they play football. Mid-season, there's no way they're going to get there.
- While I think Thomas Dimitroff has had a pretty good hit rate as a general manager, making multiple trades to move up was going to inevitably hit the team's depth unless he nailed every single remaining pick. He hasn't.
The Falcons haven't invested a pick in a linebacker since 2011, and got lucky that Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow were able to step up in a way most UDFA linebackers could not. They haven't used a top 3 pick on a defensive lineman since 2010. The team relied heavily on its starters and didn't, as a rule, give the younger guys they did have enough snaps to know what they were capable of. Predictably, some of those guys haven't been good enough and others simply aren't ready. This issue has been compounded by the way the Falcons have spent their free agent dollars. While Steven Jackson wasn't particularly expensive, he was a 30-year-old running back the team thought it needed, behind a horrendous run-blocking line it actually needed to upgrade.
The important thing to understand, here, is that the Falcons got to this point through a combination of systemic failure and terrible luck. Take away the injuries and a few bad bounces and this team's underlying issues are the kind of thing we only grumble about when the Falcons win narrowly against an inferior opponent. With injuries happening at an alarming rate, though, it's impossible not to notice the failures in acquiring talent, developing talent and prioritizing fixes that have built up over time. Sometimes you can't see the mold until the roof collapses.
The good news is that there's talent here, a franchise quarterback in place and all the incentive in the world to fix this. The bad news is that it was always going to take a train wreck of a season to actually get the Falcons to change the way they do business, but if they make those changes, we'll all be better off in the long run.