Atlanta Falcons: Did Coaches Let Off the Gas or Was Tank Empty?

Christopher Beheler@@CBehelerCorrespondent IIIJanuary 29, 2013

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 20:  Head coach Mike Smith of the Atlanta Falcons talks with Mike Peterson (L) #53 and Stephen Nicholas #54 against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship game at the Georgia Dome on January 20, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons struggled with their identity in 2012. The formerly run-first team shifted to an aerial attack. Brian VanGorder's basic 4-3 defense was replaced by Mike Nolan's ever-shifting schemes. Both the new offense and defense required constant uptempo aggression. The Falcons seemed unable to sustain that for four quarters.

At local sports radio stations in Atlanta, the hosts took calls all season from fans complaining about the coaches "taking their foot off the gas."

The Falcons had established a pattern way back in Week 2. Facing the Denver Broncos, the Falcons jumped out to a 20-7 first half lead. The Falcons would struggle to hold on for a 27-21 victory. This hurry-up and hang on pattern continued into the playoffs. In the end, the San Francisco 49ers took advantage of this second-half slow-down and ended the Falcons' season.

But how much was scheme and how much was fatigue?


A Fish-y Release

When the Falcons released strength and conditioning coach Jeff Fish, D. Orlando Ledbetter expressed shock at the move. Ledbetter wrote,"The move is surprising because several players credited Fish with improving their strength, speed and agility."

Throughout 2012, the Falcons did indeed flash strength, speed and agility. Sometimes for a quarter. Sometimes for a half. Yet, the Falcons rarely kept a high tempo for four quarters. There is something very telling missing from those qualities: endurance.

Mike Smith had hired Fish in Smith's first year. There were no complaints with Fish's performance under the previous coordinators. Both Mike Mularkey's and VanGorder's defense were more stationary than their 2012 counterparts'. Relying heavily on discipline and execution, the Falcons former identity was far less taxing.

New OC Dirk Koetter went with a pass-heavy attack. Lineman had to sustain blocks longer while everyone else was sent sprinting downfield. Nolan had his players in constant motion. As an example, DE Kroy Biermann had primarily been an edge rusher under VanGorder. Under Nolan, Biermann was as likely to drop into coverage as he was to rush the passer. These stamina-devouring schemes seemed to take their toll during games.


Timing is Telling

Fish was released over a week after the Falcons' soul-crushing loss to the 49ers. It was done quietly on a Tuesday.

If the Falcons were looking for a sacrificial lamb, Fish could have been jettisoned on the Monday after the loss. The Falcons did not make Jerry Jones-style threats of "big changes" before releasing Fish either.

They simply and quietly parted ways. And that may speak volumes.

This is the time of year where 30 head coaches begin to examine what went wrong. Pouring over film, coaches search for anything they might have missed during the season. Perhaps, Smith saw his defense with their hands on their tips way too many times early in the third quarter.

In the end, only the Falcons front office knows the truth. Priding himself on professionalism, Smith focuses on driving the bus, not throwing former employees under it. So how much of the second half letdowns fall on Fish might remain conjecture.

What is clear, though, is that the Falcons have taken the first step to improving in 2013.