If it wasn't already obvious that Mike Smith's fate as head coach was sealed, Sunday's 34-3 loss to the Panthers served as sad, deflating punctuation to his tenure in Atlanta. With a chance to earn an unlikely postseason berth, their coach's job on the line all the while, the Falcons dropped an absolute stink bomb in the Georgia Dome that guarantees major changes will be made this offseason.
Whether a fifth playoff appearance would've ultimately saved Smitty's job is at this point uncertain. But considering the pregame report concerning Arthur Blank's hiring of search firm Korn Ferry, it seems more and more likely that the outcome did not matter because Blank had already begun the formal steps to replace his seven-year incumbent head coach.
Falcons have hired the search firm, Korn Ferry, to identify HC candidates in the event the team makes a HC change, via @mortreport and I.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 28, 2014
It's hard to keep a strong opinion about Blank since he rarely comes across as the overbearing, egocentric type of owner you see in Dallas or Washington. But for that report to surface when it did is both confusing and frustrating for a number of reasons.
First, to be clear, the Falcons wouldn't have hired a search firm unless they were sure they needed the vacancy filled. This essentially sends a message to the public -- and the players -- that Smitty is on his way out regardless of how the Panthers game unfolded. It's impossible to say just how much that affected the effort given in that loss, but damaging team morale with the season on the line is never smart.
What's more disappointing, as AJC columnist Jeff Schultz notes, is that this was most likely an internal leak, one that either came from the top or simply wasn't as guarded as it should have been on the day of the regular season finale.
Strange, too, is the fact that Blank feels the need to hire a search firm. Maybe this is just standard practice, but I would think there are only so many people capable of taking over as an NFL head coach.
We know it's fan wallets he's trying to cater to as he prepares for the team to have its Beyblade Super-Stadium ready in 2017, and it certainly doesn't reflect positively on ownership when this sort of report surfaces on one of the most important days of the season. Indeed, these sorts of reports have been surfacing all season.
Whatever the reason, that information worked its way out of Flowery Branch on Sunday and the Falcons fell flat on their faces a few hours later. It was an incredibly messy way for things to end for Smith, even considering all the missteps that have been made the past two seasons.
You almost feel bad for Smith, who certainly didn't sidestep any blame at the conclusion just his second losing season as head coach. And it's equally unfortunate that the dreadful end of his tenure will likely overshadow all of the accomplishments he managed in his first five seasons at the helm.
But ultimately, Sunday's struggles highlighted what has proven to be Smith's undoing: shoddy defense, a lack of production out of the defensive line and abhorrently little pocket protection for the franchise quarterback. Part of the blame should also be shouldered by general manager Thomas Dimitroff, but that's a discussion for another day.
For now, we wait what should only be a handful of hours until the Falcons officially part ways with Smitty. It was an impressive run, all things considered, marked by a certain degree of certainty and consistency from a franchise that hadn't even posted consecutive winning seasons before he took over.
With Smith and his staff likely out of the picture, the future is now defined by its uncertainty.