We are now through 15 weeks of the 2014 NFL season, and the Atlanta Falcons stand at 5-9, a game behind the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South. The 16 game schedule offers an inherently small sample size for us to judge any team and we're not all the way through the slate, but I feel as though we can make some pretty definitive statements about this Falcons team.
- They have holes due to talent, injuries and scheming at running back, tight end, on the offensive line, at defensive end, at linebacker, at safety and at cornerback, with the pass rush remaining a massive liability most of the time. Those weaknesses have cost them multiple games this season;
- They are prone to inexplicable and infuriating errors in time management, on the field execution problems and weird decisions like Jacquizz Rodgers in a goal line set up the middle, as well as off-the-field mystery shenanigans, i.e. snap counts for certain players. Those weaknesses have cost them multiple games this season;
- They are still firmly in the playoff hunt, and need only win out against two mediocre NFC South rivals to wind up with a potentially winnable matchup against the Cardinals at home, which is ridiculous but gives the team something to play for;
- People are getting fired at the end of this year barring a Super Bowl run, which is unlikely bordering on insane to contemplate. Mike Smith and the coaching staff are the clubhouse leaders, but it's entirely possible Thomas Dimitroff and the front office are out in a clean sweep;
- Arthur Blank just took out a whopping $850 million in debt for the new stadium slated to open in 2017, which has seen projected costs rise $400 million over the last two years, and that could impact every facet of the organization.
In essence, this is a team with playoff aspirations, but the weakness of the division is masking the real, glaring problems with the roster, coaching staff and front office, weaknesses that have crippled the team's very real chances of cruising to an NFC South title in perhaps the easiest year they'll ever have. My preference all along has been for this team to recover from last year's debacle, prove all of us who expressed doubt wrong and return to the post-season with fire in their bellies and songs in their hearts. Instead, this season has been a maddening one, and the team's ongoing struggles and inexplicable woes have made point #4 above seem inevitable. One year could be a blip on the radar, but two years generally suggests there's a deeper rot in the organization.
For now, though, we have two games left to go, and most of us are still zeroed in on what lies directly ahead.The most common question I get at this point centers on how many games the Falcons would need to win in the postseason for Mike Smith to keep his job. The obvious answer is that it would require a deep, impressive run to change Arthur Blank's mind, because Smith has made some egregiously poor calls late in games, and his team is going to finish with a losing record. As the talent has been depleted, the injuries have piled up and the losing has happened, Smith's worst habits have naturally come to the forefront.
Yet Blank would have to be blind to scapegoat Smitty for all this team's many failings, and none of us know him well enough to say how in-depth he gets with the inner workings of the team, he's far from stupid. If the front office isn't cleaned out, Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli will certainly have a short leash with their second coaching hire, given that some of their high-profile acquisitions have been spectacular failures and the draft has been a decidedly mixed bag during the Comrade's tenure.
Any way you slice it, the status quo is neither sustainable nor desirable for Arthur Blank and the fans whose dollars he needs to keep the team humming. The reason for optimism comes from point #5. Blank knows he's dealing with a fanbase that doesn't enjoy losing, one that didn't exactly rush out to buy season tickets after the 2013 debacle. With the new stadium looming and the team taking on a ton of debt, the fastest way to gets the dollars flowing in would be to create tremendous excitement and then win. The best way to do that is to bring in a new coaching staff, some high-profile players and build a sense that this currently rudderless ship is heading the right direction.
This Falcons team is not in need of dynamite, thankfully. There are a handful of terrific pieces here, some quality depth and rotational guys and a couple of potentially strong drafts in 2013 and 2014 that may bear more fruit in 2015. Make no mistake, however: We're in for fairly major changes to the way this team, coaching staff and potentially front office are built, and while no one's going to call those changes a true rebuild, it's going to be enough of a re-tool that the 2015 team may and likely will look radically different.
What are your expectations for the offseason to come?