The Falcons disappoint. If there is a common thread that runs through this franchise's long, bitter history, that thread would be failure and loss. That's a sharp, harsh statement, perhaps, but an accurate one nonetheless.
The question with the Falcons throughout that history has been when they'll disappoint you, not if. I never stop hoping that will change, because hope is succor to football fans and the majority of futile franchises eventually find their way to a Super Bowl ring or two. (See Patriots, New England). But I'd be a fool to deny that the outcome has always, inevitably been the same for Atlanta, and while I'm many unsavory things, a fool isn't one. Whether it's a regular season game, a Conference Championship, a Super Bowl or a season, we know how it ends.
The dread came immediately after halftime. As I sat and watched the Giants creep back and eventually overtake the Falcons from a sleepy little sports bar in the White Mountains, I realized how fully I could anticipate the defensive shortcomings, the slow collapse of the offensive line and the inevitable squandering of a handful of terrific plays, including a pair of fumble recoveries. It was a painful realization made all the worse by how fully and eagerly I bought into the first half and that fleeting, beautiful 10 point lead. It's even more painful to realize I'm not going to stop doing so, because if I can't surrender myself to the thought that the Falcons might win on a given Sunday, there's not much point to watching the Falcons play football on a given Sunday.
I'm an optimist at heart, which is no secret to anyone who frequents this blog. It wasn't difficult for me to look at last year's injury and personnel issues as a low for the current regime, something that could be at least partially remedied by a sound offseason. The Falcons skipped on the flash and made a series of signings I legitimately felt represented upgrades, even if they were unlikely to be transformative. I don't blame Tyson Jackson, Paul Soliai and certainly not Devin Hester for what's happened, and you can certainly point to the Sean Weatherspoon injury in particular as a devastating one for a team that has massive problems at linebacker. But the team's issues go deeper than that, and they're now 0-3 on the road, making unforced errors on both sides of the ball and playing cover-your-eyes-so-much-blood-from-so-many-cute-little-rabbits defense. The way this team has been built, the way they're coached and the way they play is, too often, lousy.
The Falcons are at 2-3 now, tied with the Saints and a game behind the Panthers in a weak NFC South. Despite the proximity to the top of the division and the relatively respectable record, fans are feeling grim. Unless Atlanta can summon better play in the near future, we're likely looking at a reboot of the franchise's coaching staff and subsequent major personnel changes to go with them. Arthur Blank is a loyal man and one who would like the brain trust he installed to succeed, but the team can only display crushing, fundamental flaws for so long without a change coming. Winning cures all, of course, and it's early enough that we may still be guilty of premature panic. Even the most dour fan among us will hope for the best, but it's up to the Falcons to provide us with a reason to be anything but skeptical.
On to the individual performances.
- Antone Smith caught an innocuous-looking short pass, broke a tackle and hit the outside. Once that happened, you knew he was going all the way to the house, and sure enough, instant 74 yard touchdown.
Should Smith be used more? Yes, no question. I don't expect the calculus to change here—those sporadic plays where he gets to the outside are game changers, but his other two catches for 9 yards and one carry for two yards suggests those will likely continue to be sporadic—but Smith deserves the shot at a real workload. The Falcons desperately need a spark.
- Devonta Freeman worked his way back out of the dog house fairly quickly. While he picked up some of his touches in garbage time, Freeman went for 38 yards on four carries and reeled in five catches for 44 yards. You don't want to keep him off the field once he gets rolling, so I anticipate Freeman will slowly start to eat into Jacquizz Rodgers' snaps, at the very least.
- I know the swords come out at the mere mention of an almost-made play, but Desmond Trufant was close to an end zone interception and made another nice play punchign the ball out on what otherwise would have been a catch. With Dwight Lowery, Josh Wilson and Robert Alford looking like living tire fires all around him and Kemal Ishmael, it was nice to see competence, even if Trufant himself was far from perfect in this one.
- Mike Smith's decision to go for it on 4th and 1 was a good one, or if you're feeling less charitable, the only one he could make. The defense had rolled past its semi-effective stretch of the game and was back to being the familiar burn ward we've seen through most of the season. You have to trust your offense more than your defense there, and as shaky as the offensive line was, it was the shot I would have felt more comfortable with. I'm not going to kill him for the results when the process was sound.
- Matt Ryan scuffled, there's no way around that. We can point to the collapse of the line in the second half, which drove the performance, or we can point out the quality goal line defense that prevented a second touchdown pass that might have changed the complexion of the game. This week, though, Ryan couldn't and occasionally wouldn't do much more than dump the ball off on screens and short passes. I suggested the Falcons lean heavily on that strategy and I stand by it, given the limitations of the line, but everything has to be clicking for you to move the football effectively. It wasn't.
- The line held up in the first half, a testament to Mike Tice's preparation. In the second half, they collapsed, and as I already noted, the offense went with them. There's a temptation to point the finger at Thomas Dimitroff, the ultimate architect of this roster and the man who has repeatedly bungled the pass rush, but you don't lose four starters since August on the offensive line and come up with a strong line. That's not how the NFL works.
Of course, knowledge of that does little to change the fact that the line effectively steered the offense into an oil derrick. It's fair to pin a ton of blame on the defense for allowing 30 points, but the Falcons had real opportunities to score more than 30 and were undone by blistering pressure making its way to Ryan, at minimum. The Falcons will likely be okay if Justin Blalock returns soon, but if he doesn't, Harland Gunn and James Stone at left guard next to Peter Konz doesn't engender much confidence. Konz, to his credit, was fine.
- When I saw Paul Worrilow effectively lining up at safety, I knew Mike Nolan was alive and well. When the Giants easily completed a 40-plus yard pass on him, I knew we were in for a long day.
We've exhausted the easy jokes about this defense. The linebackers combined for a veritable buttload of tackles but were trucked by opposing running backs, Tyson Jackson's heroic effort for a sack was thwarted by a penalty, Robert Alford was burnt to a crisp in an unusual display of incompetence from a solid young cornerback and the defense looked overmatched, overwhelmed and overly reliant on gimmicks again. This isn't going to get better any time soon, even if Arthur Blank launches Mike Nolan to his next coaching job via ornate cannon.
- Jake Matthews is the guy who is supposed to hold up. With the line collapsing beside him and perhaps simple adjustments from Jason Pierre-Paul, he was oft-abused in the second half.
- This team's struggles have made us insane. I saw fans saying a playoff berth is the same as a 4-12 season, that we shouldn't even discuss injuries as a factor and that we should hire Coach X, who in many cases was Jon Gruden. Fans hold their team accountable and offer suggestions, but let's not invite further misery when we're already so accustomed to the misery we have.
Game MVP: Surely you jest.
Game Theme Song: This is roughly how I felt during this game.
One Takeaway: There are no immediate answers for this team. Any moves right now will be stopgaps and feel-good ones, and while there's nothing inherently wrong with that, legitimate improvement from within is the best bet until the calendar rolls over to 2015.
Next Week: A merciful return to the Georgia Dome and the Chicago Bears, represented ably by Windy City Gridiron. Go say hi.
Final Word: Notagain.