We've spilled a lot of ink about Mike Smith's departure already, and we will write more as we get a little more distance from the firing. Suffice to say I agree with the move, but I'm sad regarding the outcome, even so.
Needless to say, the blinking neon question mark left in the wake of the Falcons' firing of their seven-year head coach regards the future of this team, including the next head coach. The larger philosophical questions that the Falcons must face in the here and now loom larger than just the coach, however.
I covered my anticipated outcomes for the 2014 and the upcoming offseason back at the end of November, and everything I said there still applies. I do believe Thomas Dimitroff will be retained, that this offseason will be heavily focused on trimming players who are no longer useful and nailing the draft, and that 2015 will be viewed as somewhat of a transitional year. With that likely roster-sculpting in mind, here are the most important questions ahead for the Falcons.
1) What will be the defensive identity?
Yes, the Sean Weatherspoon injury made an immediate impact. No, the Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai signings didn't really work out, and yes, the lack of a pass rusher more or less doomed this unit from the start. For all that, the Falcons took pains to build a bulky front and field a unit that looked like it would be suited for more 3-4 looks. Instead, the defensive identity managed to be the most opaque aspect of the Falcons in 2014.
The Falcons ran a lot of nickel looks to emphasize the secondary and mask their depleted linebacker ranks, but they wound up throwing Tyson Jackson, Paul Soliai, Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Babineaux/Malliciah Goodman along the front all too frequently. That's a big, bulky group that has no business being on the field right to left at the same time unless the opposing team is holding up a sign that says "look, we are running the football!" The fact that you sometimes saw three of those four guys on the field on third downs at the same time was downright maddening. Again, you can pin some of this on personnel shortcomings and injuries that exposed those, but it often wasn't clear what the Falcons were attempting to accomplish, and early in the season, nothing Mike Nolan tried seemed to work.
So identity is a key in 2015 and beyond. If you're going to commit to stopping the run and trying to be opportunistic, scheme accordingly and acquire talent that can legitimately do that. If you want to become a fast, mobile defense that can pack up and get after the quarterback while still having the range to chase down ball carries, so be it. The Falcons just need more talent and a clearer idea of what it is they want to excel at.
2) Will they learn to run again?
Ever since Michael Turner went into a rapid and heartbreaking decline phase, the Falcons have not run the ball effectively. This has had a ton of repercussions on the offense, and you need look no further than Atlanta's one-dimensional offense Sunday to see that in action.
The team isn't loaded with effective run blocking up front, but when the line is healthy and the team is committed to running the ball, they shouldn't consistently struggle to do so. The Falcons need to figure out whether they have a workable committee with the pieces they have or they need to acquire more talent (likely), and then they need to consider how the gameplanning and blocking up front is impacting their ability to work with a balanced attack.
3) Will the young talent develop?
I think it's safe to say that a team with a young franchise left tackle, promising interior terror, dynamic young running back and quality borderline starting pass rushers, cornerbacks, linebackers and safeties with youth and development time on their sides would be attractive for the average coaching staff even if you tossed aside the quarterback, wide receivers and elite young corner in the fold. The question is, do the Falcons have any of those?
We saw promising signs from Jake Matthews, Ra'Shede Hageman and Devonta Freeman this season, but I don't think any of them are surefire top-tier starters for the Falcons, and this is a team that desperately needs that young talent to step up. The next coaching staff has to be able to coax good-to-great play out of several members of the last couple of draft classes to have a prayer of contending in the short term. It's a great, sort of frightening unknown for the next era of this Falcons team.
Three's a crowd with questions, so I'll turn it over to all of you. What do you believe are the outstanding questions for Atlanta heading forward?