When your team is sitting at 2-9 after going 13-3 and making the NFC Championship Game the year before, cognitive dissonance is a powerful tidal force. It's impossible to believe that such a thing could have happened without something going majorly wrong, or a series of mistakes over several years. The urge to find a compelling narrative that explains this is mighty strong.
Sometimes we hit on truths. This team had true weaknesses along the lines and wasn't built to suffer one or two catastrophic injuries, much less a half-dozen. The coaching staff is too often at a loss when forced to change the game plan. Top to bottom, the execution this year has been inexcusably sloppy and lousy, which means the hard part is actually finding just one scapegoat.
Other times, we we take a perfectly reasonable conclusion and make too much hay of it. The following are three topics that I'd like to share my thoughts about.
- Matt Ryan is garbage this year. There's a reasonably large, very vocal contingent of the fanbase who believes Matt Ryan is not the answer. They want another quarterback now—and probably have for years—and each Ryan interception cements it further for them. If you really want to cash Ryan in for a rookie quarterback and punt the lines until the second round, that's what you want. If you can make a reasonable case for it, more power to you. But Ryan hasn't been as awful as all that.
I'm not going to take on Ryan's leadership or whether he should have tried to make it into the end zone on that run against the Saints, because I think you can make the case that he should be a more vocal leader if you wish, and you can certainly make the case that sliding five yards out is weak alfredo sauce. I'm also not going to argue that the four game stretch where Ryan was awful represented a failing on everyone's part but Ryan's, because hell, I'm not completely blind.
So has Ryan been any good in 2013?
The answer: Yes. Just not nearly as good as last year. Consider, for a moment, that the Falcons have a bottom ten pass and run blocking offensive line, no ground game, no Julio Jones and a still-limited Roddy White. Consider that the most targeted receivers a week ago were Harry Douglas and Darius Johnson and you start to see context for the way Ryan has performed. His slash line right now is 67% completion/3,160 yards/7.1 YPA/18 TDs/12 INTs, numbers that are worse than his last two years but roughly in line with career averages, interceptions excepted. The biggest and most justifiable knock against Ryan has been the interception rate, and I"ll be clear: Several of those have been purely his fault. He's got to stop forcing the ball into traffic when he's got an open man. Yet he's working against the odds in a way I don't think we're properly appreciating.
"But Dave," you say, "look at what Tom Brady has done with his inferior options!" This is where I attempt to dispel another myth. The Patriots are winning, but Brady's having maybe the worst year of his career with a much better offensive line. The upswing in his performance in recent weeks has everything to do with the return of Gronk and Danny Amendola, but he's still sitting on a 60%/2,896/6.7/17/7 line for the year. If you chalk team wins purely up to the QB, you're going to have to explain to me how Brady and Ryan's numbers account for a six win swing.
As I've noted again and again, Ryan is not Brees, Manning or Rodgers. He needs a better line in front of him and a reasonable array of weapons to do great things. In my humble opinion, it's not a crime to be a Top Ten guy who isn't in the Top 3-5 stratosphere, and his contract isn't going to be the albatross many think it is. It's the price you pay for a reliably excellent quarterback. If that's a deal breaker for you, if you believe the only way the Falcons are going to win is if they can get an even better quarterback that costs less money through the draft, then that's your right. You have every right to be critical of Ryan's play this season. You're just not going to get another QB in Atlanta in the near future, and there's every reason to believe a healthier and hopefully better Falcons team will mean a return to form for Ryan in 2014 and beyond.
- The Falcons are a piece or two away on the lines. I've gone on record numerous times saying that I think the Falcons can drastically improve next year by making the lines a priority. They are not one or two pieces away, however.
Take a look at these lines, as currently constructed. Left to right you have one injury-prone starter with two quality season under his belt (Sam Baker); a second-year pro who has improved enough to be considered a league-average left tackle (Lamar Holmes); an always solid left guard who is getting older and isn't suddenly going to improve drastically (Justin Blalock); a bearded center who took over from a terrible second-year, second-round pick who may be the best option by default (Joe Hawley); the aforementioned terrible second-year pro who is maybe an average right guard (Peter Konz); and an always mediocre right tackle who is on the wrong side of 30 (Jeremy Trueblood). At best, you squint and see some combination of Sam Baker and Holmes at tackle, Blalock at left guard and Hawley suddenly blossoming into a decent center and you've got...a mediocre offensive line. Maybe average.
The Falcons are not a piece away here. Drafting Jake Matthews means they'll be breaking in a potentially elite tackle, but there's still major holes elsewhere. The Falcons either need Konz and Holmes to make dramatic strides in the off-season or invest significant draft and free agent capital on the line. I'd say the latter is more likely.
Then there's the defensive side of the ball. The Falcons have Osi Umenyiora and his on-again, off-again production for another season, and if they're willing to pony up, both Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters remain quality options at defensive tackle. Returning Kroy Biermann adds stability and versatility to the other side of the line. Still, this is a unit without a single elite playmaker, and even giving Malliciah Goodman, Jonathan Massaquoi and Stansly Maponga the benefit of the doubt, they're not going to have one in 2013. It's easier to imagine plugging a Top 5 draft pick in on this unit and seeing dramatic improvement, but again, they're going to need to sign multiple guys to make real strides. That's particularly true because Peters, Babs and Peria Jerry are all free agents, leaving the cupboard potentially bare at defensive tackle.
The lines can be fixed, but the Falcons are not a player away in either unit, unless you're thinking a player away from league average.
- Desmond Trufant is a long-term #3 cornerback. I want to tackle this one in particular because I see this so often. I see three common forms of this meme:
1) "Robert Alford is better and should be starting over Trufant"
2) "Trufant isn't a playmaker and can't tackle, so he should be the #3 guy"
3) "Trufant doesn't cover that well and so he should be the #3 guy"
All of these are wrong, wrong, wrong. Alford has played quite well this season and has a bright future, but he's been considerably worse in coverage than Trufant by almost any metric you can use. Pro Football Focus has Trufant at a +3.7 in coverage this year and Alford at -0.9. Trufant has graded out that highly despite being used on 698 snaps to Alford's 296, and his yards per target are lower. Alford has been remarkably solid for a second round rookie, and he's shown us flashes of the athleticism and instincts that could make him a great cornerback. Trufant has been a Top 25 corner as a rookie. Both should be starting a year from now, but right now, Tru is better.
Trufant has been a solid tackler throughout the year. He seems to be good for one not-so-great attempt every couple of games, which many seize upon to confirm the idea that Trufant isn't a solid tackler. He's only been credit with only a couple of missed tackles on the year, however. As for the idea that he's not a playmaker, it's worth noting that the league leader for interceptions is just five. Trufant would have two if William Moore hadn't knocked him out, which would be good for a tie for 30th in the league with about 50 other players. His 14 pass deflections, meanwhile, tie him for 4th in the NFL. I know we would all like to see more picks, but he's out there making more plays on the ball than anyone else in the secondary.
I don't even know how to address the idea that Trufant isn't good in coverage. Saints receivers he covered managed only four catches for 50 yards, and he added three deflections. He has consistently limited the damage despite being a frequent target for opposing quarterbacks who want to test a rookie. No one else on this Falcons team has done as well in coverage, actually.
Plenty of Falcons fans appreciate Trufant's excellence this season. Those that don't aren't likely to be swayed by anything I've written here, but suffice to say Tru's been better than any of us could have reasonably expected.