By: J. Scott Smith
I predicted the Atlanta Falcons would win the NFC South and garner the number one seed in the NFC for the second straight season. Barring New Orleans losing Drew Brees to a season ending injury, I feel pretty confident that neither of those predictions will come true. With the New Orleans Saints off to a 5-1 start, the Falcons will have a hard time winning their own division, let alone capturing the number one seed. The Falcons are a disappointing 1-4, having lost close games on the road at New Orleans and Miami, a Sunday Night home game against the New England Patriots, and an embarrassing Monday Night home game against the New York Jets. Falcons’ head coach Mike Smith finds himself in Tony Dungy territory when he was fired from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after the 2001 season despite having taken his team to playoffs four times in six years. Both coaches took over desperate franchises, particularly Mike Smith taking over the Falcons coming off of Michael Vick’s dogfighting conviction and coach Bobby Petrino bailing on the team after 13 games. Smith’s performance has been remarkable, but a NFL reclamation project is only complete with a Superbowl title and the Falcons have already placed their playoff chances in jeopardy as only five teams starting 1-4 have made the playoffs in the current playoff format.
Remember, Dungy transformed the Bucs from pretender to perennial contender when he became their head coach in 1998. But Dungy could never get the Bucs over the hump, as his teams went 2-4 in the playoffs over his six seasons in Tampa Bay. The Bucs made a now legendary trade with the Oakland Raiders, trading two first round and two second round picks for head coach Jon Gruden, who subsequently took the Bucs to the Lombardi trophy in 2003. Like Dungy, Mike Smith is a defensive coach that has been unable to take his team from good to great. But unlike Dungy, Smith has an immense amount of offensive talent (sans offensive line) that might better suit an offensive head coach (looking your way Jon Gruden). Through four games, Smith and his coaching staff have made a variety of coaching blunders that have resulted in the Falcons being 1-3 instead of 3-1.
Getting Outcoached at Halftime
Prior to the Monday night game against the Jets, the Falcons had been consistently outcoached at halftime. In the first half of games through the first four games, the Falcons outscored their opponents 57-36, but in the second half, opponents outscored the Falcons 68-37. In their first three losses, the Falcons were dead even with their opponents at the end of the first half, with the Falcons and their opponents scoring 33 points each. Yet, in the second half of their three losses, the Falcons were outscored by their opponents 47-30. One might question how much possible change to a game plan could happen in the locker room at halftime. On this issue, New Orleans head coach Sean Payton said:
Halftime is about 7 ½ minutes so you’re in (the locker room) and guys are getting something to drink, going to the bathroom and we talk amongst the coaches on a few things we want to hit on. There may be a couple of important things, maybe not.
Essentially, only slight adjustments can be made to the game plan, but these adjustments can and do matter. The first half game plans for the Falcons have been productive, giving themselves a chance to win every game in the second half. That’s all one can hope for before the game starts. Maybe Smith’s message has worn thin in Atlanta or maybe the coordinators haven’t had a good feel for play calling in the second half. Whatever the reason, the Falcons are in trouble and their staff should think they are coaching for their jobs, because they are.
This is not a problem local to Mike Smith, but poor time management by coaches is one of the more maddening experiences a fan can endure. In Week 3, the Miami Dolphins were driving in the fourth quarter when QB Ryan Tannehill hit Charles Clay for 21 yards, putting the Dolphins at first and goal from the eight yard line. With 1:21 seconds on the clock, instead of taking their first time out, the Falcons allow Tannehill to run the play clock all the way down and he hits Brandon Gibson for seven yards to the one yard line. Only then does Smith burn his first timeout with 43 seconds left. As a result, the Falcons lost somewhere between 25-30 seconds that could have made scoring a touchdown more plausible.
Additionally, William Moore should have let Gibson score from one yard out, which would have saved a timeout and another five seconds. Those decisions come directly from the sideline, most notably Bill Belichick allowing Ahmad Bradshaw to score a touchdown in Superbowl XLVI to give Tom Brady more time to score another touchdown. Mike Smith should have afforded Matt Ryan the same opportunity.
Playing Not to Lose
A staple of Mike Smith’s teams is that they refuse to put a team away when they have an early lead. This is marked by the Falcons defense playing soft zone, which does not permit big plays, but allows the team to march down the field and score. In the division playoff game last season, the Falcons took a 20-0 lead into halftime over the Seattle Seahawks, but squandered that lead needing a field goal at the end of the game to beat the Seahawks 30-28. In the 2013 NFC championship game, the Falcons lead the 49ers 17-0 early in the second quarter, only to allow the 49ers to defeat them 28-24. This season, the Falcons had a similar lead (24-3) against the Rams at halftime, having to score a late fourth quarter touchdown to ensure a 31-24 victory.
Along with the defense, the offense plays more conservative when they have a lead, trading field goals for touchdowns. Against the Dolphins, the Falcons were driving in the fourth quarter and an 18-yard run by Jacquizz Rodgers gave the Falcons a first down on the Dolphins 23 yard line. As a Falcon fan your thoughts are, “Don’t put this in the defense’s hands, score a touchdown. Make it a two-score game and we win.” You have these thoughts as a Falcons fan because they never put away their opponents. 1st and 10 is a straight handoff to Jason Snelling for four yards. You’re thinking, “great, go play action on 2nd and 6 and either take a shot at the end zone or pick up the first down in the flat.” The Falcons run Snelling off right guard for two yards. The Falcons are 25th in rushing in the NFL this season and were 29th in rushing last season. The run call signals the Falcons are content with a field goal. On 3rd and 4 the Falcons boot Ryan right and he throws incomplete. The series is wasted, Matt Bryant subsequently misses a 35-yard field goal, and the Falcons lose 27-23.
Know Your Personnel
This is a mantra that I learned playing high school basketball and it applies to every coach for every sport. You need to have an honest assessment of what your team can and can’t do. The debacle of the Jets game could not have demonstrated this more. With less than a minute left in the first half, the Falcons have a 1st and goal from the 4 yard line. As previously noted, the Falcons can’t run the ball. This becomes exacerbated in the red zone when more defensive players are in the box.
1st and goal play – handoff to Jason Snelling right tackle for -1 yards. Timeout 28 seconds left.
2nd and goal play – Jets’ pass rush makes Ryan throw early and Harry Douglas can’t make what would be a brilliant catch.
3rd and goal play – Quick screen to Julio Jones to the 1 ½ yard line. Timeout Falcons with 7 seconds left in the half.
With the Falcons offensive line and a field goal making this a one score game, you have to kick here. Tony Dungy himself made that exact point the week before when the Falcons went for it on 4th and 2 and did not convert against the Patriots. But you could physically see the pressure weigh on Smith and knew he had to win that game before the bye week.
4th and goal play – Play action to Tony Gonzalez on a corner route, who subsequently gets mauled by two Jets defenders. Pass interference is called and the ball is placed on the one yard line.
Rex Ryan was begging the Falcons to run the ball. And they did. Know your personnel. There’s a fine line between believing in your team and deluding yourself, but if you think the Falcons can gain one yard when the entire stadium knows they are going to run then you haven’t been paying attention to the Falcons for the last three seasons. Where is the back shoulder throw to Julio Jones that Dez Bryant gets every week? You could say that offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is to blame and not Mike Smith, but he chose him to be on his staff. The head coach of a NFL team is always the fall guy.
In today’s offensive-driven NFL, one has to question whether a defensive head coach can be successful anymore. The days of kicking field goals and putting your defense on the field in the fourth quarter to make a stop appears to be gone as demonstrated by scoring this season at 23.1 per team, which is the highest it’s been since 1965. If you’re going to compete for a Superbowl, you have to score touchdowns and the Falcons are 25th in red zone touchdown efficiency. The Falcons went into their bye week hoping to get healthier, but instead lost Julio Jones to season ending Injured Reserve and will go into week seven without wide receiver Roddy White, who is out with an injured hamstring. In order to have a chance to make the playoffs, the Falcons have to win at home against the Bucs and on the road against the Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers. Winning all three games would place the Falcons at 4-4 before a divisional playoff rematch against the Seahawks week 10. If Mike Smith hopes to avoid Tony Dungy’s fate with the Bucs in 2001, they’ll have to open up the offense and realize the only way to win in today’s NFL is to score at will. All of these criticisms will certainly become moot if the Falcons win, so like Al Davis says, “Just win baby!”