No one walked away from the 2013 season feeling good about the team. Arthur Blank, Thomas Dimitroff, Mike Smith, the players and the fans all knew that a 4-12 year, coming as it did in a season with high expectations, was a lousy one. Whether you were or are pessimistic or optimistic about the team's chances of rebounding in 2014, it was all too familiar to watch the Falcons stumble and bumble their way through an entire season again.
Peter King gives Dimitroff, the front office and the team's draft feature treatment in this week's Monday Morning Quarterback, and what stands out to me is how frank this team is about its failings, and how an inability to see the fall in the works can crush any organization:
When coach Mike Smith and GM Thomas Dimitroff looked at their team in the last couple of years, there were things they didn’t like much. But when you coach and manage a team for five years, and you win 56 games and lose just 24, and you make the playoffs four out of five years, you tend to say, "We’re okay."
Said Smith: "Human nature, when you’re getting positive results, is not to stress the negative. But when you get humbled, which happened last year, you’ve got to be realistic about your team."
Certainly many of us were guilty of this, myself included. The Falcons had gotten by for years on the arm of Matt Ryan, an opportunistic secondary and disciplined play that enabled playoff runs, including on that took the team to the NFC Championship Game. During that stretch, the line was only rarely better than average, the pass rush never was and the Falcons were one or two major injuries away from going to pieces.
Why did the team not see that, and why did many of us not? Because rocking the boat during the best times, beyond pointing out obvious flaws, is something most of us are not built to do. It's easy to say the Falcons should have made drastic changes now, coming off that 4-12 season. It's vastly more difficult to do so when you're making the playoffs every year, even if the ragged holes in your armor are obvious to everyone else. It often takes a catastrophe to fully open your eyes, even if it shouldn't.
What King doesn't note is that the Falcons jettisoned a few too many veterans during the 2013 offseason, putting them in a bad place when injuries hit. The team knows the issues ran deeper, however.
"We have been the hardest on ourselves, and Mr. Blank was hard on us too," said Dimitroff. "But I welcome that. We deserved it. I’ll be damned if I ever say adequate is okay."
Blank talks about his vote of confidence for Dimitroff and Smith, though it's clear he gave them the business over it. The Scott Pioli hiring was, as this piece makes clear, something Dimitroff and Blank wanted to counter-balance some of the Comrade's well-known tendencies. You can see him in this piece cautioning against trading back up into the first, at least in the early going, and we know that he's got a reputation as someone who acquires talent in the trenches. It's tough to say how extensive his impact was, but the offseason focus seemed to match his M.O.
A few thoughts to share after reading the piece:
- Blank's brief comments in the story also make me suspect Dimitroff and Smith will have more than just 2014 to turn this around, assuming they show legitimate growth in year one of a new-look defense and beefed-up offense. The owner's a smart guy, and he's going to recognize that drastic changes don't always meet with immediate success. There's not a lot of sense in keeping your brain trust around if you don't trust them to execute on a long-term plan.
- Dimitroff was looking for one more "impact" guy, and he clearly thought Dee Ford could be that. It's less clear whether Demarcus Lawrence was on the radar, but the Falcons knew pass rusher thinned out fast after the first round and sought to get back in for that edge rusher. Missing out was clearly disappointing to Dimitroff, but I remain convinced that Ra'Shede Hageman is going to be one hell of a consolation prize.
- Analytics joins "toughness" and "grittiness" as the buzzwords of the offseason. The Falcons are using technology to try to figure out ways to decrease injury and forecast which players will be prone to getting hurt in the pros. It's clear that 2013's nightmare injuries shook the team deeply.
- Prince Shembo looks like the pass rushing fallback plan, and the more we read about him, the more it's clear the Falcons were homing in on him as a player with real upside. If he can start delivering on his potential early, it definitely makes the rotation at outside linebacker a little easier to like.
At the end of the day, whatever you think of Smith and Dimitroff, they were confronted with the team's failings at last and made major changes. It was too late to prevent the 2013 debacle, but even under pressure from a caring owner, the front office and coaching staff could have elected to stick to the pass-at-all-costs, finesse defense that had gotten them to the best run of sustained success in the franchise's history. Instead, they elected to transform the face of the team in one offseason, a move that may or may bring the Falcons more success this year and in the future. It's a risk, but it's arguably the right risk for this franchise.
Be sure to read the entire piece and share your impressions here.