Where do franchises fall down? The truly dysfunctional ones do so in all sorts of hilarious, creative ways, but for decent-to-great ones, transitions tend to be the killer.
Think the Dolphins post-Marino or the Bills post-Kelly, as two teams fumbled their search for successors to legendary quarterbacks and quickly became irrelevant as a result. Or think of teams with too much hubris who think rock solid veterans are easily replaced by their genius drafts, only to watch those guys flame out. The Falcons have fallen into that latter camp a few times in the last decade-plus, and center is one of the most relevant examples of just that.
As we’ll see in the chart below, the Falcons had a 13 year starter at center who was still playing at a high level at the age of 35 coming out of the 2012 season. The team not-so-cannily decided that after nearly making it to the Super Bowl, it was time to clear out veterans and remake the team a bit to push for their next big run. They forced out Michael Turner (replacing him with Steven Jackson), John Abraham (replacing him with Osi Umenyiora), and Todd McClure (replacing him with Peter Konz). All three of those moves were bad, but the one to move on from McClure stands out for how badly it impacted the team over the next three seasons, even though the Falcons had a second round pick waiting in the wings and almost accidentally unearthed a solid undrafted free agent option at the position. Transitions are rarely easy, but the Falcons have had a habit of making them look even more difficult at the worst possible time.
Let’s take a closer look.
|2008||Todd McClure||Ben Wilkerson||Alex Stepanovich|
|2009||Todd McClure||Brett Romberg|
|2010||Todd McClure||Rob Bruggeman||Joe Hawley|
|2011||Todd McClure||Brett Romberg||Rob Bruggeman|
|2012||Todd McClure||Peter Konz||Harland Gunn|
|2013||Peter Konz||Joe Hawley||Harland Gunn|
|2014||James Stone||Peter Konz||Joe Hawley|
|2015||Mike Person||James Stone||Gino Gradkowski|
|2016||Alex Mack||Wes Schweitzer|
|2017||Alex Mack||Jamil Douglas|
As you’ll see above, the last decade-plus of Falcons football at the center position can be split into three eras. The first was the much celebrated Mud Duck era, with Todd McClure continuing a career that began all the way back in 2000 and riding it through the 2012 season, when the Falcons unceremoniously cut ties with him in one of the more clear cut mistakes under the current regime. McClure’s 2012 was a healthy, quality season in a long line of them, which helped cement his place as either the best or second best center in team history (I lean toward Jeff Van Note). McClure retired rather than play for anyone else, but his play hadn’t dropped off and the Falcons would enter a new and troubling era as the result of that particular blunder.
That era was defined by a revolving door at center. Peter Konz was supposed to be McClure’s heir apparent and the team moved on from McClure with that expectation, but Konz followed up a solid 2012 at guard with a very shaky campaign at center, and the Falcons decided pretty quickly he wasn’t the guy. It’s easy to forget now that Konz was absolutely regarded by just about everyone in the 2012 NFL Draft as the best center prospect available, but that class was largely a disaster and Konz unfortunately didn’t pan out.
From Konz, the team ended up going with former Falcoholic favorite and undrafted free agent James Stone, who started nine games in 2014 and fared well enough at age 22 that I thought he might legitimately be in play for the job in 2015. With the changeover in coaching staffs, however, Stone was relegated to a backup role and wound up only starting one game. He was replaced by the immortal Mike Person, who was a solid if unspectacular blocker but an unmitigated disaster as a center thanks to four fumbled or lousy snaps during that largely forgettable 2015 campaign. Person only spent a single year in Atlanta but reinvented himself under Kyle Shanahan last year as the team’s starting right guard, where his blocking was quality and he didn’t have to snap the football.
The Falcons had a plan coming out of the McClure era, but transitions are difficult and they botched this one repeatedly. Stone was probably the most worthy starter of the group and the Falcons didn’t even give him a shot beyond 2014, perhaps rightly reasoning that he wouldn’t be the kind of dependable, above average starter they would need over the long haul. After three years of largely subpar center play, then, the Falcons launched the third era.
That was the signing of Alex Mack, a worthy successor to Mud Duck if there ever was one. Mack is a Hall of Fame-caliber center who washed out of Cleveland because of...reasons? That worked out beautifully for the Falcons, who signed Mack to a monster deal in 2016 and haven’t regretted a dollar of it thus far, with Mack turning in three quality, durable seasons as the team’s pivot. Mack’s getting a bit older and you do have to wonder what the last two years of his deal will look like in Atlanta, but he should continue to age pretty gracefully and there’s little doubt that the Falcons are not going to the Super Bowl in 2016 with Konz, Stone or Person at center.
What will the next era look like? The hope would be that Mack can at least play out his contract, if not return for a couple more years of high level play, and that would keep us from really having to address the question until 2021 or so. As you can see from the depth charts above, the team has largely punted on having a true backup center these last three years, trusting that Mack would be healthy and (fortunately) not regretting doing so. They’ll need to start thinking of their succession plan here soon enough, so you should expect to see an early-to-mid round selection at center in the coming years, unless Sean Harlow magically turns into the long-term option we’ve been waiting for.
Overall, though, the center position has been a strength over the time period we’re examining, with yet another reminder of how difficult it can be to transition when a franchise great leaves or is forced out. The Falcons would do well to remember that when it’s time for Alex Mack to retire.