It's a question everyone's asking. How is it even possible that the Atlanta Falcons, a team that seemed poised for greatness after coming so close to a Super Bowl bid last season, could have fallen to the depths they have exhibited in the 2013 season?
Is it all Matt Ryan's fault?
Matt Ryan has been exceptional throughout much of his time in Atlanta. His last four games, however, have been among the worst in his career. Ryan had three interceptions on the season going into the matchup against the Cardinals in Arizona, and since that time he has thrown nine interceptions total against Arizona, Carolina and Tampa Bay.
Matt Ryan, in the grand scheme, is an excellent quarterback. Over the last four games in particular, however, Ryan is part of the problem. Ryan's struggles aren't occurring in a vacuum. Poor performances along the offensive line have dramatically impacted Ryan's game, forcing him to develop a quicker release. Poor pass protection has also limited the vertical passing game. Ryan does not have enough time in the pocket for his receivers to run deep routes.
It's not like the Falcons have any kind of ground game to soften up defenses and set up the passing game. The Falcons, thankfully, are no longer the very worst team in the NFL in terms of rushing offense, but they are 31st out of 32, so it's not a huge improvement.
And what a rag-tag bunch of receivers Ryan has had to work with this season, which brings us to the next potential cause for the Falcons' struggles this season.
Are the injuries the primary factor?
The Falcons have been decimated by injuries on both sides of the ball this season. On offense, they're missing Julio Jones, and when Roddy White has been on the field, he has not looked particularly Roddy White-like. Starting fullback Bradie Ewing is on injured reserve for the second consecutive season. Steven Jackson missed considerable time with a hamstring injury suffered in week two.
The Falcons had to adjust the offensive line in preseason, establishing Lamar Holmes as the starter at right tackle after Mike Johnson suffered a season-ending injury in training camp, and starting left tackle Sam Baker, who is really bad when he isn't healthy, hasn't been healthy all season, and is now on injured reserve. Tony Gonzalez isn't practicing with a toe injury, and Jason Snelling has missed some time due to injury and a marijuana-related arrest, and that's just the offense.
On defense, starting defensive end Kroy Biermann is on injured reserve with an Achilles injury, and starting outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon just returned from injured reserve/designated to return after suffering a Lisfranc injury early in the season. Asante Samuel missed some time due to injury, as did Akeem Dent and Stephen Nicholas.
The offensive injuries are a greater contributing factor in the Falcons' struggles this season. While Matt Ryan has, at times, made guys like Harry Douglas and Darius Johnson look like stars, it's a very different experience to throw to players like Julio Jones or Roddy White, players who run crisp, clean routes and are physical enough to get the separation to make plays. The Falcons offense was built to outscore any team, and when you remove, or hinder, so many key elements of that offense because of injury, it's much more challenging for the Falcons to fulfill that purpose.
Is it the defense?
The Falcons defense was never intended to be a powerhouse defense. This is a defense that was intended to do just enough to allow the offense to outscore any opponent. The problem this season is that, because of the offensive struggles, the Falcons offense is averaging just 21.4 points per game, while the defense is allowing, on average, 29.2 points per game. Neither unit is living up to expectations.
The injuries have been a factor on defense, certainly, although the silver lining is that it has been encouraging to see young players like Jonathan Massaquoi, Malliciah Goodman, Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu get the opportunity to develop as a result. The Falcons continue to be susceptible to the big play, giving up 36 passing plays of 20+ yards, and eight rushing plays of 20+ yards. They aren't getting adequate pressure on opposing quarterbacks, tied for 26th in the league with 21 sacks on the season. They aren't creating opportunities with turnovers, with just six interceptions and two of six forced fumbles recovered this season.
Is it coaching?
While there's no denying Mike Smith's excellent track record as a head coach over the past five seasons, this season is a train wreck, and the team seems to be getting worse with each week that passes. It seems like each week brings another Mike Smith press conference in which he insists that the team is in the process of evaluating what is going wrong so that it can be corrected. What if the coaching is what's going wrong?
We've seen questionable play calling, and have heard Smitty insist that this Falcons team is built to run the ball when they need to, despite the fact that the Falcons rushing game is very nearly the worst in the league. The coaching staff finally pulled the trigger on some offensive line personnel changes for last week's game against the Buccaneers, but the offensive line's performance has been generally unacceptable all season. Making changes to the starting lineup along the offensive line might have had more impact several weeks ago, before the season was out of reach. The same can be said for finally benching players who are under-perfoming. Those players have been playing poorly all season, and waiting until week 11 of the NFL season to address it is a questionable coaching decision.
So which of these things is the primary cause of Atlanta's struggles on the field this season? Unfortunately, the correct answer is "all of the above." It's a perfect storm of offensive injuries, which are contributing to the offensive struggles. The offensive struggles are keeping the offense from scoring as consistently as this team has been built to score, which, along with the defensive injuries, keeps the defense from fulfilling their purpose of just keeping teams from outscoring the Falcons. And questionable play-calling and intractability about personnel decisions from the coaching staff is just the icing on this horrible, horrible cake this season.
The good news is, getting healthy players back next season will help to resolve these issues, so while it certainly feels like it will be a very long road for the Falcons to get back to being competitive, healthy key players should serve as a shortcut of sorts. Hopefully the front office and the coaching staff are learning from these struggles, and will be discerning in addressing glaring needs through the draft and free agency.
The bad news is, it really is all about next season at this point. This season is terrible, and it's going to be terrible until it's over.
What do you think is the root cause of the Falcons' struggles, and how should the team address it?