The Atlanta Falcons have played a physical brand of football under head coach Mike Smith before. In fact, they established a smash-mouth identity early on in Smith's tenure.
It was Week 12 of the 2008 NFL season and then first-year Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith had a decision to make. His upstart 6-4 Falcons squad was clinging to a 24-21 lead over the division-leading Carolina Panthers, and it faced a 4th-and-goal from the Carolina 1-yard line with a little over seven minutes to go in the game.
Rather than settling for a field-goal attempt, Smith opted to go for the touchdown. The Panthers stacked the box, but Smith's offensive unit rewarded the coach's faith when Michael Turner went into the end zone standing up to give Atlanta a 31-21 lead.
The Falcons went on to win that game 45-28, but more importantly the play sent a message to the team about what Smith would expect from them moving forward. This wasn't going to be a finesse bunch. Smith's squad would live and die by pounding its opponents into submission.
Even though Smith set that tone back in 2008, something has changed about these Falcons over the last two-and-a-half years. As such, the fact that the Falcons rank 32nd in the league in rushing this season appears to be a symptom of a larger problem.
Put simply, the Atlanta Falcons have gotten soft, and for those of us who saw what this team did in 2008, it's been painful to watch.
Two years ago this team was beaten up in an embarrassing opening-day loss at Soldier Field to the Chicago Bears. Later that year, the Falcons were outmuscled in a loss to an undermanned Houston Texans squad and stuffed on three now infamous 4th-and-1 plays in a regular-season overtime game against the New Orleans Saints.
The Falcons seemed to get the hint when, a few months after they were manhandled in a playoff loss to the New York Giants, they spent two draft picks on offensive linemen (Peter Konz, Lamar Holmes), two on defensive linemen (Jonathan Massaquoi, Travian Robertson) and one on a fullback (Bradie Ewing).
Nevertheless, the team still struggled to run the ball in 2012, but nobody was too concerned since the Atlanta was able to mask its lack of physicality by either a) taking advantage of opponents who played a similar brand of finesse football (Chiefs, Broncos, Chargers, Saints, Eagles), or b) putting themselves in fortunate positions to win games even when their opponents were more physical (Panthers, Raiders and Cardinals).
It wasn't until late in the season last year when the Falcons lost at Carolina and blew leads against its two hard-hat opponents from the NFC West in the playoffs that the team's lack of physicality was exposed again.
The problem is that Atlanta didn't really do much to address the issue in the offseason.
Because of the way last season ended, the Falcons came into this campaign with high expectations.
The hopes and dreams that came with those expectations probably blinded many fans from being as concerned as Mike Smith was when he wondered why none of his offensive linemen went to help Matt Ryan after Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro hit him late in New Orleans' Week 1 win over Atlanta.
A much more damning accusation came out later that week after Smith's comments when an anonymous Falcon told NFL Media columnist Michael Silver that Atlanta's linemen were "punks" (h/t Mark Sessler of NFL.com).
Though the remarks that Silver reported dealt with Atlanta's offensive line, the Falcons entire team has shown that they aren't the physical club they once were, and the rest of the league seems to know it.
In the weeks since Atlanta's loss in New Orleans, we've seen the Falcons get manhandled by the Jets, Cardinals and Panthers.
How did Atlanta get so soft and why is the issue standing out so much this year?
Some die-hard fans may point to the team's curious decision to fire popular strength and conditioning coach Jeff Fish back in January. According to D. Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, several players praised Fish's conditioning program.
Other fans may point to the fact that ex-Falcons offensive linemen Todd McClure, Tyson Clabo and Harvey Dahl are no longer with the team and that they, along with ex-Falcons defenders Mike Peterson, Curtis Lofton and John Abraham, were key to the smash-mouth image that Smith initially brought to Atlanta.
Even more fans may point to Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff for his failure to bring in a top-tier offensive or defensive linemen from any of his six drafts in Atlanta, despite spending numerous draft picks on linemen. Is Dimitroff doing a poor job of evaluating that position?
Whatever the issue is, Mike Smith and his staff need figure out a way to get back to their physical roots if Atlanta is going to get back to being a contending team in the future.
The Falcons have tried to play like the Packers and Saints but it hasn't worked, and now the team has proven to be very vulnerable against opponents who can line up and run the ball on offense and defend the run on the other side of the ball.
It may be too late for the Falcons to salvage a playoff berth, but we'll find out this weekend if the team is ready to adjust its attitude and play the physical brand of football that it once did under Mike Smith.
Who do you blame for this team's lack of physicality?