How the Atlanta Falcons Suddenly Became a Mediocre Team
The old adage is that you are what your record says you are, and the Atlanta Falcons' record is 1-4. That says that the Falcons aren't a very good football team.
Now headed into their bye week, the Falcons are five games out of the NFC South division race with the New Orleans Saints. Any hopes that the Falcons could repeat as division champs is out the window. There is still a chance they can compete for a wild-card slot, but their 2013 season seems to be circling the drain right before their eyes.
And while it may be easy to look at more recent causes as to why the Falcons have suddenly become a mediocre team, these issues go back multiple years.
There's no doubt that the Falcons have been hit hard by injuries this year. Much more so than in any season in recent memory.
Key starters like Roddy White, Sean Weatherspoon, Kroy Biermann, Asante Samuel, Sam Baker and Steven Jackson have missed significant time this year. If you were listing the 10 best players on the Falcons, I just rattled off half of them. And if you miss that many key players, it's going to affect your play on the field and subsequently your season.
The large amount of injuries have exposed the Falcons' depth issues.
While these injuries will be beneficial for many of the young players in the long run by giving them much-needed experience, it is hurting the team in the short term. But the issues with depth are exposing the fact that Atlanta's draft record in recent years hasn't been particularly stellar.
The injury to White exposes the fact that the Falcons haven't really developed good depth at wide receiver.
Kerry Meier, a fifth round pick in 2010, was a bust after appearing in only 12 games over three years with the team. They finally cut ties with him this past offseason, but in his stead no other player has really emerged.
Drew Davis flashed some skill last season, but his limited reps on offense this year indicates that he is far from ready to contribute. Davis is one of several undrafted free agents the Falcons have tried to mine for talent in recent years thanks to their inability to find reliable receiver depth in the draft.
The story is similar at linebacker, where undrafted rookies like Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow are being asked to step up and contribute as starters with Weatherspoon out and Stephen Nicholas on the decline. That's because picks like Robert James (fifth round, 2008) and Spencer Adkins (sixth round, 2009) didn't really develop for the team into reliable depth options.
The Falcons pass rush has been a problem ever since Patrick Kerney left in 2007.
The team tried to replace him with Jamaal Anderson, and that ended in miserable failure. Things only got worse when they signed Ray Edwards in 2010 to replace Anderson. And after dumping Edwards midway through last season, they brought in Osi Umenyiora this year in free agency.
In the meantime, the Falcons have used a series of middle- and late-round picks to try to develop pass-rushers in their rotation.
Biermann has been their lone success, but again, he's currently sidelined for the year with a torn Achilles. 2009 fourth-round pick Lawrence Sidbury is no longer with the team and thus not contributing. Cliff Matthews (seventh round, 2011) and Jonathan Massaquoi (sixth round, 2012) are having to pick up the slack. Massaquoi has flashed potential but is far from achieving the sort of success that really enhances the Falcons pass rush.
Along with their lack of developing quality edge-rushers, their interior pass rush is not compensating.
Jonathan Babineaux is their most disruptive interior presence, but like John Abraham before him, he's on the decline and no longer able to provide consistent pressure. The Falcons' top pick in 2009, Peria Jerry, has been an outright bust. 2010 third-rounder Corey Peters is an excellent run-stuffer but a less reliable pass-rushing threat. And 2012's seventh-rounder in Travian Robertson has been inactive for much of this season.
The Falcons have had a revolving door at nickel cornerback over the Mike Smith era, starting with failed picks like Chevis Jackson, Chris Owens and Dominique Franks. They stumbled upon Robert McClain last year, but his play has regressed this year. And because of that, the team is forced to rely on bigger contributions from Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, who have had the usual ups and downs of a rookie cornerback in the NFL.
The overwhelming trend is that the Falcons just haven't gotten much production from several of the early and middle-round picks and almost none from their late-rounders.
You look back at the team's drafts from 2009 to 2012, and outside William Moore, Weatherspoon and Julio Jones, there isn't a lot to be excited about. Peters and Jacquizz Rodgers are also steady contributors, but when arguably the next-best player acquired in those years is a punter in Matt Bosher, it's not a strong indicator for good drafting.
And one cannot deny how much trades like those for Tony Gonzalez and Julio Jones are also affecting things. The trade-off is you get two outstanding players, but you are also losing out on much-needed depth. In those two trades, the Falcons lost a first-round pick, two second-round picks and a pair of fourth-round picks. Those are five players who would almost certainly be Falcons today and could have alleviated these depth issues.
It's not to suggest that the Falcons shouldn't have made those trades. Because they certainly wouldn't have achieved the success they've had up to this point without making those moves. That is certainly their positive impact. But they've also had a negative impact, and it's being reflected with the team's lack of depth.
Another issue that the Falcons can blame as why they suddenly look mediocre is complacency. That complacency comes from the fact that a lot of the current issues the Falcons are dealing with aren't new issues. But last season players such as Matt Ryan, Jones, White and Gonzalez were so good, it hid many of these issues.
The Falcons struggled to run the ball last season. But it wasn't a problem because their passing game was so efficient and effective.
Their offensive line wasn't particularly good. But it didn't really matter because Ryan's quick trigger and the receivers' ability to get open quickly negated it to a significant degree.
And the Falcons couldn't get consistent pressure on quarterbacks last season either. But when you can consistently outscore your opponents and create turnovers, that never becomes the liability that it is.
In those three critical areas the Falcons were near the bottom of the league, signs of a mediocre team. But because they could offset it with great quarterback play and the best trio of receivers in the league, it was ignored.
Unfortunately, the Falcons find themselves in a scenario where those issues can't be ignored any longer.
They are now being exposed for the mediocrity that they've been for some time. And the complacency comes into play because the team largely paid lip service to these issues. Rather than investing heavily into improving these areas, they basically opted to shuffle in some new players for old ones and hoped the fresh faces would lead to better slightly results, while Ryan and the rest maintained the status quo.
And what we're seeing in Atlanta this season is that hasn't been the case.
Steven Jackson hasn't been an upgrade over Michael Turner because he has yet to really play. Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes haven't netted better results than declining veterans like Todd McClure and Tyson Clabo did. And Umenyiora hasn't brought anything more to the table than what Abraham did.
Basically for Atlanta, it's made several good personnel moves over the years. And what has occurred is that many of those moves masked many of the mistakes made in those same years. But now that several of those good acquisitions are sidelined and no longer contributing on Sundays, it's exposing the multitude of poor personnel moves.
And it's simply math—when you have more negative than positive, the scales will tip the wrong way.
There really hasn't been anything sudden about it. It's been very subtle over time. The only thing that is sudden is the rash of injuries that have worn away the facade and exposed the crumbling foundation of this team.
Simply put, the 2013 Falcons are a little too old and beat up, and it's resulting in a team that is in dire need off getting its season on track before it's over.
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