The 1-4 start to the Atlanta Falcons’ season has hit this city and franchise like a ton of bricks. The transition from Super Bowl contenders to stunned bottom-dwellers hasn’t gone over well.
But Fox Sports analyst Jay Glazer broke news Tuesday that was more like a nuclear blast.
Breaking: Falcons fear Julio Jones likely OUT for the rest of the year w a foot injury. He's getting a second opinion tomorrow to determine— Jay Glazer (@JayGlazer) October 8, 2013
Initial determination by falcons is that Julio Jones season is over. They are hopeful 2nd opinion says otherwise but not optimistic— Jay Glazer (@JayGlazer) October 8, 2013
If Julio Jones is injured to the extent of missing the rest of the season, the Falcons are not just in trouble; they’re finished. While there wasn't much chance of a playoff run before the Jones news broke, there's no way this team could put a run together and make the playoffs without Jones.
Before Atlanta makes a decision on the rest of the season for Jones, he'll travel to Charlotte Wednesday for a second opinion, according to head coach Mike Smith at his weekly press conference Tuesday:
Julio injured his foot last night. He saw our doctors this morning. He is going to have a second opinion tomorrow over in Charlotte, North Carolina. The first reports were not encouraging, but we will wait to see what the second opinion comes back as.
So what do the Falcons do?
What they won’t do is overreact. From the top to the bottom of the front office and coaching staff, there’s too much experience and dedication for guys like general manager Thomas Dimitroff and Smith to panic.
And forget about the idea of the Falcons making an attempt to bolster their 2014 draft status. There will be no “Suck for Luck” situation in Flowery Branch.
No matter what's going on. A player on a team would smack the hell out of you if you ever mention the word tank to them in the NFL— Greg Linton (@agentlinton) October 8, 2013
It’s absurd to think that an NFL athlete, or his coaching or executive staff, would consider losing games to move up in the upcoming draft. As much as the Falcons could use a guy like potential top pick Jadeveon Clowney, there’s no way this team will ratchet down its efforts in order to draft an explosive defense end.
And I’d sure love to be around when anyone seriously asked a guy like tight end Tony Gonzalez—someone who put off retirement for one more season to give a Super Bowl run one last shot—to tank games. The resulting few seconds would not be pretty for the bearer of that message.
That said, if the Falcons aren’t going to tank the season (and once again, they aren’t) what happens to this offense? What happens to Matt Ryan?
Well, the Atlanta offense is already floundering a bit. The Falcons rank sixth in total yards per game (391.4) and third in passing yards (313), but only 13th in points per game (24.4) and 25th in rushing yards per game (78.4).
Jones has accounted for 30 percent of Atlanta’s total yards this season and 37.1 percent of the team’s passing yards. Losing him will be a crippling blow to this offense, and not just because of the loss of his output.
With Jones on the field, the defense always has to be aware that he can get behind the secondary. Jones is lightning-fast, and his ball skills and height make him a must-cover, must-focus option in Atlanta’s offense. If opposing defenses don’t have to worry about Jones getting behind them, the attention they’ll be able to focus on the field in front could be terrible news for Atlanta’s offense.
Wide receiver Roddy White is a possession receiver, a move-the-chains kind of guy. He’s not a huge threat to take the top off a defense. The same rings true for Gonzalez at tight end and slot receiver Harry Douglas.
Because none of those guys is a true deep threat, defenses are going to creep up and take away some of Ryan’s options in the passing game. Also, remember that Ryan won’t have three Pro Bowl-caliber receiving threats now, making it much easier to blanket his options.
The running game will also be hit hard by this injury. Without Jones in the game, teams may not choose to use two deep safeties. Where will that extra safety play? Likely in the box, to help with the run or in coverage over the middle of the field. There goes the drag route option.
Who will step up for Julio Jones in Atlanta?
At least the Falcons have plenty of experience to step in for Jones. White is still there and should be healthy after the bye week. Douglas has shown flashes of brilliance when needed. There are two younger players who will be asked to step up.
Wide receiver Drew Davis doesn't have a reception this year, but he had four receptions and a touchdown for the Falcons last season. He’s played 67 snaps so far compared to Kevin Cone's 22, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and should be the third receiver when Atlanta goes into true passing situations.
Another option could be rookie tight end Levine Toilolo, who has five receptions and two touchdown catches. Toilolo has come on in the last few weeks, and there is definitely a blueprint in place around the NFL for a two-tight-end set that can move the ball down the field through the air.
This injury will hurt the Falcons, and it’s going to slow down Ryan too. Expect red-zone woes to continue, and expect Atlanta’s ability to move the ball well between the 20s to diminish too.
Jones did so much more for this offense than catch footballs. He opened the field in the middle, he stretched defenses and he was everywhere to pick up a fumble or lay a block. And no receiver on this roster ran a better bubble screen than Jones.
This news hurts just as much as the Falcons' 1-4 start to the 2013 season—and it takes away hope for a recovery.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.