It was somber in Atlanta's locker room Sunday evening, and Roddy White, without a hint of his trademark smile, spoke to the media following yesterday's catastrophic loss that was the final straw for head coach Mike Smith, who was released from his contract this morning. The team looked wholly inept, particularly on offense, despite being built to excel offensively. Despite the way these two seasons have gone, White expressed appreciation for Mike Smith and the success the team has experienced during his tenure.
"It's been really good, man. Smitty has been a good head coach to us over these last seven years," White said. "He's done a lot of good things. We've been to the playoffs a bunch of times and won a lot of games, and it's been good, man. It's been a very, very, very good time, and I love that guy to death."
But White also said some things that pointed directly to coaching as the reason for yesterday's loss, and he didn't say it to shift blame or throw the coaching staff under the bus. White said this in an attempt to explain what went so terribly wrong offensively against the Panthers. "They mixed up a bunch of different coverages and didn't play a whole lot of man coverages, just dropped back," White said. "They dropped eight, dropped seven, and they rallied to the ball. They did a good job of that and kind of confused us early on in the game, and they did some coverages that we weren't prepared for. And we made some adjustments at halftime, but they did a good job, man."
The Panthers, of course, are a team that Atlanta should be intimately familiar with in the grand scheme. They play the Panthers twice a year, and the Falcons should have a good feel for their personnel, their coverage schemes, their strengths and weaknesses. Everyone knew going into this game that the entire season, not to mention the fate of many careers, all would hinge upon what happened on the field against Carolina, and you would expect that the team would have had a solid game plan in place, a game plan that was informed by the team's familiarity with their opponent. White said that the team let the coaching staff down with the lack of offensive execution, but if you read between the lines, it sounds like the coaching staff let the players down, also.
"I felt like we did [let the coaching staff down]. I felt like we were prepared today," White said. "I felt like we had a good week of practice. We went out there and executed [in practice]. I felt like we had a really good plan, and they did a lot of things different from the first game to the second, and we should have known they were going to make changes because they always do, and we should have adjusted a little bit faster."
That last bit is a little jarring. Yes, the team should have known that Carolina would shake things up and would come into Sunday's matchup with a completely different game plan. That seems patently obvious. In terms of game preparation, coaches come up with a game plan based on what they see from the upcoming opponent on film and what they know about that team's personnel and strengths and weaknesses, and then they spend most of the week installing the game plan. By the Saturday walk through, the players are well prepared to execute that game plan. If that game plan is flawed - for instance, if the game plan is based on the expectation that the opponent would not change their game plan substantially from the last time the Falcons faced them - executing anything effectively is instantly a lot more challenging for Falcons players.
That said, the offense simply didn't execute, and the offensive mistakes cannot be blamed on coaching. Without the 21 points Carolina scored off turnovers, the game would have been well within reach for the Falcons. "It's frustrating because we let ourselves down on offense," White said. "You know, turning over the ball, giving them scores and stuff like that. That was the most frustrating part about it. It's not that we were punting the ball, going three and out and they were going down there and scoring touchdowns. It's like we were putting our defense in bad spots and turning over the ball and giving them touchdowns, so it's a bad feeling on the offensive side of the ball."
The team will be under new coaching leadership next season, and it's reasonable to expect that it will be a priority for the team to hire a coaching staff that has a reputation for quality game planning and game day execution.