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Figuring Out the Falcons

After a forgotten 4-12 season, can a revamped Atlanta return to the playoffs?

It was like clockwork. The Atlanta Falcons (Matt Ryan and Mike Smith edition) posted a winning record by virtue of dominating their opposition in close games. For their first five seasons together, the only knock you could throw at Atlanta’s star quarterback and head coach was that they couldn’t do much in the playoffs. At the end of Year 5, when Atlanta came within one Harry Douglas slip in the open field of making the Super Bowl, even that went away. They were a credible Super Bowl pick heading into 2013. And then, suddenly, the bottom fell out. Injuries tore Atlanta apart to reveal a soft, chewy interior.1 Atlanta had nine players hit injured reserve by the turn of the year. Even worse? That ability Ryan had exhibited to pull out the close ones disappeared. It was some bizarro Falcons team that didn’t belong with its predecessors:

So, which one is it? Were the 2013 Falcons a sign that Atlanta needs to rethink and reshape its organizational philosophy before taking that leap forward into a Super Bowl? Or was it a blip caused by problems that are unlikely to recur in 2014? Let’s try to make both cases and see which one has more evidence in its corner.

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Atlanta Will Be Right Back

When Robert Mays and I were talking about Atlanta last year in our preseason podcast, we both agreed the team was likely to fall short of what were lofty expectations. I don’t say that to brag about getting predictions right — even we had them at 9-7 (Mays) and 8-8 (me), and that came right before we each boldly predicted that Tampa Bay would win the NFC South — but instead to suggest there were visible problems with the Falcons as constructed at that time. Nobody could have predicted that Atlanta would fall all the way to 4-12, but there were noticeable flaws with the personnel assembled by general manager Thomas Dimitroff. The good news, if you’re a Falcons fan, is that Dimitroff has used this offseason to work on fixing or at least concealing those flaws. Here are their main issues and how they addressed them in the offseason:

The lines were weak. The Falcons were a team built to throw the football around on offense and create takeaways on defense. That can be a viable game plan (see the recent vintages of the New England Patriots), but Atlanta went so far in that direction that it simply didn’t have enough to work with at the line of scrimmage. The offensive side of the line was particularly bad; while the Falcons attempted to address what had been an aging line with draft picks, the players they drafted just failed to develop into worthwhile players. 2012 second-rounder Peter Konz and third-rounder Lamar Holmes have been huge problems since arriving in Atlanta, with Holmes forced into the lineup after 2010 third-rounder Mike Johnson suffered a gruesome leg injury in August. 2009 fifth-rounder Garrett Reynolds wasn’t much better, and 2008 first-rounder Sam Baker, the first lineman selected by Dimitroff, simply hasn’t developed into the left tackle of the future that the Falcons envisioned. Put it this way: When you end up with Jeremy Trueblood as a regular starter on your line, bad things have happened.

Things weren’t much better on the other side of the line, where Atlanta was relying on a paper-thin rotation of regulars. The Falcons were stuck using useful spare parts like Kroy Biermann and Corey Peters as close to every-down players, and it wasn’t necessarily a surprise that each broke down with season-ending Achilles injuries during the campaign. Osi Umenyiora was a shell of his former self, and Atlanta’s pass rush was virtually nonexistent; the Falcons had a league-low Adjusted Sack Rate of 5.3 percent. Some of the blame there must fall on Dimitroff, who attempted to find his pass-rusher of the future in free agency with Ray Edwards in 2011 and came away holding a stump. The Falcons just finished paying for that mistake, as the final $4.65 million in dead money from the Edwards deal fell off their cap after 2013.

Dimitroff’s most important job this offseason was to fix those problems. First, the team fired offensive line coaches Pat Hill and Paul Dunn and defensive line coach Ray Hamilton, replacing them with respected offensive line coach Mike Tice and longtime NFL star Bryan Cox on the defensive side. Then, Dimitroff used his most valuable assets to upgrade on either side of the line. Perhaps owing to the presence of former Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli in Atlanta’s front office, the Falcons targeted Kansas City players and came away with guard Jon Asamoah and defensive end Tyson Jackson from the resurgent Chiefs. The biggest move, though, was signing 30-year-old Dolphins nose tackle Paul Soliai, who will be the anchor in an Atlanta defense that will show more 3-4 looks in 2014. Jackson is a natural 5-technique end, while Asamoah will slot in at right guard.

Most notably, though, Atlanta used the sixth overall pick on Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews. It’s unclear where Matthews will end up as a pro, because the strength of his game at the moment is unquestionably his run blocking. That’s a skill set more closely associated with right tackles, but he could follow the same career path as somebody like Joe Staley, who excelled as a right tackle before moving to left tackle and becoming equally as effective at the more critical position. Even if Matthews is just a decent right tackle this season, he would be an enormous upgrade on Holmes and his ilk on the edge, both in terms of keeping Ryan upright and opening holes for Steven Jackson.

The roster will be healthier. Oh, if only for the sake of Rembert alone, let’s pray this roster will be healthier. Atlanta had just six players start all 16 games last season, with a litany of key players walking wounded throughout the season. Among the notable players who missed time:

And that table even undersells the impact of those injuries: An already-slow Jackson appeared to be running at three-quarters speed after coming back from his hamstring issue, while White was tough but useless while trying to play through his ankle injury during the first five games of the year; he averaged three catches for a total of 26 yards per game during that stretch, with a more typical six-catch, 73-yard average after his return in November.

Of course, we already know that one player on that list will be returning to the sideline. Weatherspoon tore his Achilles in June and will miss the season, leaving Atlanta without its best linebacker.

They’re likely to be better in close games. It feels weird to type that in reference to the Falcons, and there’s no guarantee they’ll return to the days when Ryan was winning 70 percent of Atlanta’s one-touchdown contests, but the Falcons are just as unlikely to lose 70 percent of their close games next year as anybody else in the league. Many of their close losses came down to a single play or drive. They failed to convert two times from the 3-yard line in the final moments against New Orleans in Week 1. A missed Matt Bryant field goal gave way to a game-winning score with 43 seconds left for the Dolphins in Week 3. Four shots from the 13-yard line to tie it up against New England late in Week 4 failed to produce a touchdown. An 80-yard drive inside the two-minute warning from Geno Smith produced a game-winning Jets field goal in Week 5. A missed Bryant field goal and a failed fourth-down conversion cost them a win over the Packers in Week 14. You get the idea. There were plenty of games in which a Falcons loss came down to a play here or a couple of third-down conversions there. If the Falcons win 70 percent of those 10 one-touchdown games, the rate at which they had won close games previously under Mike Smith, their 4-12 record is an 8-8 season, and we’re not having this discussion about whether they’re done competing with this core.

The statistical combination of Pythagoras and plexiglass. Because the Falcons lost so many close games and were blown out by more than two touchdowns only twice all season, Atlanta ended up with the point differential of a 5.9-win team. That 1.9-win difference is meaningful; teams since 1989 that underperformed their Pythagorean expectation by 1.5 to 2 wins have improved by an average of 2.8 wins the following season.

Atlanta also benefits from the bounce of plexiglass. The “plexiglass principle” suggests that teams that make enormous leaps or suffer precipitous falls tend to regress toward the mean the following season, just as the Falcons did when they followed a 4-12 season in 2007 with Ryan’s 11-5 mark in 2008 before dropping to 9-7 in 2009. After going 13-3 in 2012, the Falcons were a full nine wins worse in 2013; as I wrote about in Monday’s Texans preview, teams that declined by six wins or more in a given season improved by an average of 3.1 wins the following campaign.

The Case Against an Atlanta Comeback

There’s still no pass rush. For all the improvements Atlanta made this offseason in adding run-stuffers, they didn’t spend a single dime on anybody who could really improve this team’s chances of getting to the quarterback in 2014. Jackson and Soliai aren’t pass-rushers, and while Biermann will be back, his value comes with his versatility and ability to drop into coverage; he had just three sacks in his lone season as a starting defensive end in 2010. Umenyiora and third-year reserve Jonathan Massaquoi will be Atlanta’s prime pass-rushers this season.

And the secondary is still a work in progress. After building and maintaining a top-notch secondary as recently as 2012, Atlanta’s last line of pass defense is a huge question mark. Of Atlanta’s five core defensive backs heading into the 2012 campaign, four (Asante Samuel, Brent Grimes, Dunta Robinson, and Thomas DeCoud) have scattered around the league. Just one remains, and strong safety William Moore wasn’t the star of the group. Atlanta will need its replacements to shine, especially if the pass rush gets stuck on the highway. 2013 draft picks Desmond Trufant (first round) and Robert Alford (second round) should each get better after their rookie season, but throwing them to the wolves as a starting cornerback combination is certainly a daring move from Dimitroff, especially given that Samuel remains a free agent. Backup corners Robert McClain, Javier Arenas, and Josh Wilson are stopgaps at best. And next to Moore will be former Jags safety Dwight Lowery, a former corner with the Jets who’s quietly emerged as a competent safety for the Jaguars over the past few seasons. Rookie third-rounder Dezmen Southward could figure into the safety plans by the end of the year, but this could very easily be a terrible pass defense, with a disappointing pass rush joining an inexperienced secondary to produce lots of 35-31 games.

Tony Gonzalez is gone. The one reliable star who seemed to stay healthy last year was Gonzalez, who managed to find his way into an 83-catch, 859-yard season at age 37 despite attracting double-teams on most plays with Jones out and White hobbled. Barring another unexpected comeback by Gonzalez, Atlanta will be turning the tight end position over to Levine Toilolo, a 2013 fourth-round pick who offers little more than a 6-foot-8 frame in the red zone. The Falcons are deep and talented at wide receiver when Jones, White, and Douglas are all healthy, but there will naturally be an adjustment period after losing their future Hall of Fame tight end.

Their schedule isn’t easy. Unlike Houston, which Vegas projects to face the easiest schedule in football, the Falcons are set to do battle with the league’s 11th-toughest set of matchups in 2014. Much of that obviously owes to a very difficult NFC South, but the Falcons also have to contend with games against the AFC North, the NFC North, the Giants, and the Cardinals. Things don’t start easy for the Falcons, either, as they open the season against back-to-back playoff teams. They host New Orleans in the latest edition of that always-entertaining rivalry to start the season before traveling to Cincinnati in Week 2.

They’re still top-heavy. Atlanta has added more talent to the places where it needed it most, but it still doesn’t have the sort of depth that teams like the 49ers and Seahawks enjoy. As I wrote about last year after the Julio Jones injury, that makes them a higher-variance team. Everyone faces injuries during the season, but the wildly disparate paths of 2012 and 2013 tell us just how important it is for Atlanta’s stars to stay both healthy and productive, and that’s easier said than done. Weatherspoon’s already out. Jones has now broken the same foot twice in three-plus years. While the likes of Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow emerged as useful contributors after injuries and poor play took down the guys in front of them last year, Atlanta’s not going to win the South with a team of undrafted free agents.

The Verdict

I don’t think there’s any question the Falcons will bounce back this year. The question, then, is whether that bounce will bump them back up into mere respectability or push them all the way into the playoffs after a single-year absence. Some of that depends on the teams around them, of course; it would be nice if 10 wins would guarantee them the NFC South, but that just isn’t the case; 10 wins would have won the South just once (2012) in the past five seasons. A six-win jump from 4-12 seems like a lofty improvement, but this is much of the same team that won 36 games from 2010 to 2012. Barring something dramatically unexpected, like an injury to Ryan, I think the Falcons get back to 10 wins and claim a playoff spot in the crowded NFC.

Filed Under: NFL, 2014 NFL Preview, Atlanta Falcons, Matt Ryan, Mike Johnson, Kroy Biermann, Sam Baker, Julio Jones, Sean Weatherspoon, Asante Samuel, Steven Jackson, Roddy White, Bill Barnwell

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell