The Falcons roster was expected to have heavy turnover this offseason. If you assumed the defensive roster would blown up like an over-shaken can of Duff beer, you were not the only one.
The Roster Tear Down
Many assumed the team would free Sam Baker and Tyson Jackson from their expensive contracts. Other names made sense. Justin Blalock looked to be a poor scheme fit. Paul Soliai looked to be purely a 3-4 nose tackle. William Moore has struggled with his health and effectiveness.
I imagine Dan Quinn looking at the Falcons defense like Bob Villa looks at an old, dilapidated house: A complete tear down makes the most sense. At the very least, some major changes and maybe some paint over that outdated Tyson Jackson.
And yet, here we are. The notable cuts: DE Jonathan Massaquoi, LG Justin Blalock,
RB Steven Jackson, and WR Harry Douglas. The Falcons allowed a few defensive players to leave the team without a contract extension: LB Sean Weatherspoon, DT Corey Peters, DE Osi Umenyiora, and FS Dwight Lowery.
That is a group with a big lack of recent on-field impact.
The Lack of Additions
Where are all the changes? The team had nearly $30 million in cap space entering free agency. Weeks in, they still have nearly $20 million in cap space, and could probably shake out a few million more with some cap maneuvering through contract restructuring and a few more cuts.
The team could have been more aggressive, and still could pay for big defensive changes. Quinn was widely linked to, but decided against going after his former linebacker Malcolm Smith, who signed a two-year deal worth $7 million, as well as former corner back Byron Maxwell, who broke the bank with a six-year agreement worth $63 million.
What is Going On?
Quinn successfully negotiated an impressive level of control over the team's roster for a rookie head coach, and has reportedly been working very closely with Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli.
After going through the game film, the trio has apparently found there to be no major problems with the talent on the roster. At least not to the point of requiring them to overspend, or even throwing more money at free agent DE Derrick Morgan. They paid respectable money to linebackers Justin Durant and Brooks Reed and defensive end Adrian Clayborn, but have otherwise been signing players to cheap contracts.
If the problem was not with the players, what was the problem? Based on the moves of the brain trust, it must have been the coaching. That should not be a terribly shocking statement: most of the staff was fired. The people who brought in the defensive talent kept their jobs.
There is little question the team was poorly coached in 2013. In 2014, the defense went off the rails. The Falcons brought in a number of players to run a 3-4 defense, that in practice could be summed up as, "I dunno, just rush three defensive tackles in obvious passing downs." Former defensive coordinator Mike Nolan so badly mismanaged the team that some of us were calling for his head in early October.
For weeks during the season there were promises about changes coming to the team: the roster; the game plan; the scheme; and the depth chart. Those promises were as empty and hollow as, "We are going to get Antone Smith more touches." So many players were badly misused and ignored that it would be difficult to intentionally make a worse, more confusing assembly of (usually, but not always) 11 players. An extra shred of common sense would have sent the team into the playoffs in a weak NFC South, but there were so many breakdowns and failed opportunities in nearly every game.
General Manager v. Coaching
After capping off a second consecutive disappointing season, team owner Arthur Blank had plenty of options. He fired head coach Mike Smith. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter was allowed to leave for another team in the division. Nolan was allowed to leave. Blank retained the Pioli/Dimitroff duo, and even kept a number of the position coaches. Blank must have predominately blamed the poor performance on the coaching, and not the roster. And now Quinn, with his significant roster power, seems to have agreed.