We will not look back fondly on the 2014 Atlanta Falcons season. Guarded hope in the spring and summer gave way to an unmitigated disaster of a season, one that saw the Falcons go 6-10 and miss the playoffs in the weakest NFC South ever, fire their head coach of seven years and leave the roster in complete flux heading into 2015. Not a good year, I'd say.
Thankfully, we can nearly put this year behind us. Here's a look back at some of the top stories of 2014, a year that disappointed, befuddled and sometimes enraged Falcons fans.
We learned the schedule and gave in to some cautious optimism. Many were confused by the signings of Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai, but it did seem to send a clear signal that the Falcons were moving to a bulky 3-4 front. It was only later that we realized how foolish that notion actually was, when the Falcons ran nickel and 4-3 at their usual clip.
The Falcons made a couple of better free agent signings in the forms of Devin Hester and Jon Asamoah, who both were assets on offense and in special teams, though Hester was far better there than Asamoah. They also got Bear Pascoe, who has a great name.
The signing of the spring was definitely Dwight Lowery, however. The Falcons added Lowery, Josh Wilson and Javier Arenas for cheap to the secondary, and while Wilson had his moments, Lowery started most of the season and was beyond solid as the free safety of choice for the Falcons. Overall, even with Jackson and Soliai landing as duds, it was one of the better free agent periods in years for the Falcons, though that did nothing to save the season.
From there, the Falcons turned their lonely eyes to the NFL Draft. There was speculation aplenty in these parts that they would chase a pass rusher—Jadeveon Clowney was my choice—but they went with Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews instead, adding towering defender Ra'Shede Hageman in the second round. The draft class was heavy on linebackers, a seemingly smart decision that wound up not being impactful for reasons we'll outline shortly.
The team moved into summer with a seemingly promising rookie class and a free agent class that looked at least decent in light of the team's needs and the apparent shift to more 3-4 looks. Then disaster struck.
Sean Weatherspoon suffered an injury in early June that knocked him out for the entire 2014 season. Spoon's injury history was a point of criticism before this happened, and the attitude to this injury for many fans was "eh, we can do it without him." A later injury to Marquis Spruill, Yawin Smallwood being cut and Tyler Starr's permanent spot on the team's inactives would lead to one of the thinnest, weakest linebacking corps in the NFL, however, and it all began with this injury.
At the time, we knew none of that. We talked minicamp, geared up for Hard Knocks and tried to envision what this team might look like and where it might end up in what we thought would be a competitive NFC South. Hard Knocks was ultimately a good time but inconsequential, while training camp showed us a better offensive line and gave us reason to think the offense, in particular, would be sharper in 2014. We also had some optimism for the pass rush that looks incredibly misguided in hindsight.
We moved on to preseason, where Sam Baker was lost for the year and the Falcons scuffled mightily against teams like the Texans, setting off alarm bells. Then they made their roster cuts, kicking Smallwood to the curb, putting fifth round pick Ricardo Allen on the practice squad alongside fan favorite defensive tackle Travian Robertson, and making the puzzling-at-the-time decision to keep James Stone around.
Despite some of the misgivings that came from everything we had seen to this point, the fanbase was largely feeling pretty good about the team's direction heading into the season.
The Falcons made the optimism look smart almost immediately, pulling off a thrilling 37-34 win over the New Orleans Saints. They followed that with a flat road loss against the Bengals, one that engendered significant doubt. The see-saw start continued with one of the more glorious games in recent memory, a 56-14 shellacking of the Buccaneers that ranks as one of the most enjoyable experiences Falcons fans have had in the last two seasons.
At that point, things looked reasonably bright for the Falcons. They were 2-1 and headed into a winnable game against the Minnesota Vikings, albeit with a gimpy Jake Matthews and newly injured Harry Douglas. As it turns out, it was largely downhill from that point on.
The Vikings beat the Falcons in a disastrous game that saw the defense surrender 41 points. More critically, the team lost Joe Hawley and Lamar Holmes for the season, had to place William Moore on short-term injured reserve and saw Justin Blalock suffer a back injury that would linger for weeks. The offensive line, which had largely been a strength through the first three games of the season, would take a long time to turn into the passable unit it was near the end of the season, and that would have severe repercussions for the Falcons.
The team would lose its next four games to the Giants, Bears, Ravens and Lions (in London!), winding up at 2-6 heading into the bye week. Things looked so bleak that we were all openly discussing whether Mike Smith would be fired at the bye, and while I didn't believe he would be, I'd be lying if I said I didn't have something pre-written, just in case.
It was evident that the Falcons needed one hell of a turnaround in the weakened NFC South to salvage the season and save Mike Smith's job. Weirdly enough, they embarked on that immediately, winning games against the Buccaneers and Panthers, narrowly losing to the Browns thanks to one of the biggest time-management blunders of Smith's career and beating the Cardinals in impressive fashion at home. They followed that with two hang-tough losses against the Packers and Steelers, a fantastic road win against the reeling Saints and ultimately, the crippling loss to the Panthers at home in a do-or-die game that decided the NFC South's playoff berth. Mike Smith was fired the next day.
When I look back at my own personal predictions for 2014, I see that I was overly optimistic about the team's run defense and potential for a decent pass rush, as well as my projection for a record. The Falcons were tantalizingly close to going 8-8—the Lions and Browns games were decided that narrowly—but that would not have saved Mike Smith, and in retrospect I put too much value in the power of a run-stopping 3-4 front and an improved offensive line, the former of which never materialized and the latter of which was derailed by a series of injuries. Those who were preemptively skeptical were right to be that way, and the cynicism I regard most things with (and used to regard the Falcons with) is due for a return as we head into 2015.
That will be the enduring legacy of 2014. We were all terribly disappointed again, and while the change so many clamored for is coming, we're all more than a little bit skeptical about what tomorrow will bring. The next regime in Atlanta will have to earn back the fans' trust with real success, and that's likely for the best.