One could certainly begin a spirited debate on whether Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith should retain his job.
A key aspect of that debate would be factoring in Smith's past success in Atlanta versus that lack of success currently seen on a 2-8 franchise in 2013. And it becomes about finding the balance between the two aspects in order to determine if Smith is the right man for the job moving forward.
And the smackdown that Tampa Bay put on Atlanta on Sunday is going to be the tipping point in favor of Smith's dismissal.
Smith has earned his reputation as one of the league's most respected coaches through building Falcons teams that have been disciplined, determined and detail-oriented.
Aspects of that have been showcased by the fact that they've consistently been one of the least-penalized teams in the league since Smith's arrival in 2008. They've also had a knack for winning close games, thanks to Matt Ryan's performance and record in clutch situations.
But none of those aspects have manifested in the Falcons' 2013 season. They've been penalized a lot more, indicative of lacking mental toughness previously shown by this team. In 2012, the Falcons were penalized only 55 times through the entire season. After Sunday's loss to Tampa Bay, this season's total has already reached 60, and there are still six games left to play.
And despite some earlier opportunities this year in close games, Ryan has yet to lead the Falcons on a game-winning drive. The Falcons inability to pull out victories in close games early in the season has given way to blowouts in recent games.
In the past four games, the Falcons have been outscored 135 to 61, an average margin of 18.5 points per game. But that margin would be much larger if not for late scores against the Buccaneers on Sunday that made that 41-28 loss look closer than it was. The Bucs held a 32-point lead with two minutes remaining in the third quarter, and only thanks to 22 points scored by the Falcons thereafter made that game look more competitive.
Two weeks ago the Bucs were 0-8 and considered to be one of the two worst teams in the league alongside the Jacksonville Jaguars. Now, the Falcons have swapped places with their NFC South counterpart and will be in contention for the bottom rung of the NFL's ladder.
Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schiano is currently coaching to save his job, and now Mike Smith needs to as well. But Schiano at least appears to be succeeding with improvement from the Bucs in comparison to their sluggish start in 2013, while the Falcons have hit an all-time low under Smith.
Injuries could be attributed as the primary cause for why the Falcons lost games earlier this season. Being in close, competitive games against quality opponents like the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots despite not having key players like Steven Jackson, Sean Weatherspoon and Kroy Biermann was a strong indicator of how hard the Falcons were competing under Smith. And the rhetoric following those games was about the Falcons finding that last little bit to turn those losses into wins.
But now, the Falcons aren't even competitive against a bad team like the Buccaneers. And they can't blame injuries for that. As far as injuries are concerned, Atlanta is probably the healthiest it has been all year long at this point.
Yet they can't move the ball consistently on offense, and they turn it over too often and get few stops on defense.
And you can spend every last breath talking about how that wasn't the case between 2008 and 2012 under Smith, but it doesn't change the fact that Atlanta looks lifeless right now.
Smith is under contract through the 2014 season, and generally speaking, teams don't allow coaches to go into the final years of their contracts without extensions. But nothing that the Falcons have shown this year indicates that owner Arthur Blank should be willing to extend Smith's deal beyond next season.
That leaves open the possibility for a "lame duck" head coach, which isn't a great sign. An example of when that recently happened was in Carolina with John Fox in 2010. And it resulted in Fox's worst season, as the Panthers were atrocious on their way to a 2-14 season and the top pick in the 2011 NFL draft.
The hope would be that with their backs against the wall next season, Smith and the Falcons could get things turned around and back to where they left off in the 2012 NFC Championship Game. But it still raises the question: If that's the case, then why can't they do that now?
Atlanta appears to be a team that has utterly quit on their coach based off their performances over the past month, especially against Tampa Bay. With those recent performances, there is no reason to think things are going to get better for the remainder of the 2013 and subsequently 2014 with an offseason in between.
If Blank does opts to retain Smith, all the questions and coverage surrounding the team this offseason is going to center around Smith's lame duck status and the amounting pressure on whether the Falcons can get back to the playoffs and potentially further.
Simply put, if Smith is as good a coach as his reputation suggests he is, there is no compelling reason to explain why the Falcons have become as bad a football team as they have become.
And that confusion and doubt will ultimately cost Mike Smith his job.
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