Naughty Nurse: Atlanta Falcons 2011-2012 vital signs
By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts Keg-Stand Champion
History is written in short, bite-sized chunks in the Not For Long League. And the four-year history of the Mike Smith/Matt Ryan Atlanta Falcons is starting to get baked into a hard crust: four pretty nice performances in the regular season, zero playoff wins and two bad losses in the past two postseasons, each more embarrassing than the other and each for different reasons.
The Falcons defense couldn’t make a single stop against the Packers in the 2010 playoffs; management responded with mindless panic, making one of the worst draft-day moves in history and watching as that move backfired like a broken old Civil War cannon in the 2011 playoffs.
The organization enters 2012 struggling to find an identity and asking more questions than Socrates in a Plato dialogue.
The 2011 storyline: The Falcons put all their bags in the Matt Ryan-Julio Jones basket. All those eggs cracked when the offense stumbled badly in the playoffs.
The Vital Signs
Coach (record): Mike Smith (43-21 with Atlanta; 43-21 overall)
2011 record: 10-6 (25.1 PPG – 21.9 PPG)
Record against the spread: 7-7-2
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 2-4 (18.2 – 24.3)
Record last five seasons: 47-33 (.588)
Best Quality Stat in 2010: Offensive Hog Index (6th)
Worst Quality Stat in 2010: Defensive Hog Index (22nd)
Statistical curiosity of 2011:The Falcons traded five picks for WR Julio Jones in the 2011 draft. The result? They scored fewer points (402 vs. 414), won fewer games (10 vs. 13), watched as the defense unraveled before our very eyes (288 PA in 2010 vs. 350 in 2011) and the offense got blanked in a 24-2 loss to the Giants in the playoffs. On the bright side, the Falcons do not have a first-round pick April to help stitch up some of the team’s statistical wounds.
Best game of 2011: 23-16 win at Detroit (Week 7). The Lions were 5-1 and sporting the look of a primetime contender when the Falcons rolled into town with a 3-3 record while struggling to find an identity and consistency (L, W, L, W, L, W). Atlanta put together a solid all-round effort, outgaining Detroit on the ground (129-104) and through the air (218-183) while holding the Lions to just three field goals and a 20-9 lead well into the third quarter. The Falcons largely dominated despite losing the turnover battle 2-0 (two Matt Ryan INT). Oh, by the way, is it any coincidence that Atlanta had its best win of the year – a Quality Win on the road – on a day it played without Julio Jones? The Shiny Hood Ornament Man Law says no.
Worst game of 2011: 24-2 loss vat N.Y. Giants (divisional playoffs). Atlanta’s effort in its wildcard loss may have been the most embarrassing loss any team not named the Colts suffered during the 2011 season. You know the story: the Falcons were dominated in every phase of the game (outgained 442-247) and scored their only points early in the game when Giants QB Eli Manning was penalized for intentional grounding in the end zone. Once-in-a-lifetime game-changing receiver Jones caught 7 passes for 64 ineffective yards.
Strength: Offensive line. The Falcons have become something of an Offensive Hog dynasty under Mike Smith. They were a disaster in 2007, the year before he arrived on the scene to right the rocky ship; they’ve been fairly great on the offensive line since 2008, especially when it comes time to protecting QB Matt Ryan.
The Falcons have done it with few big names on the OL, either. Smith’s only Pro Bowler was tackle Tyson Clabo after the 2010 season. The down side? QB Ryan has not been fully able to take advantage of all that great projection, average 7.0 YPA with a humble 88.4 passer rating in his four NFL seasons.
Weakness: Defensive line. Thomas Dimitroff. As good as the Offensive Hogs have been, Atlanta’s unit on the other side of the line of scrimmage has consistently failed to dominant and has ranked no better than No. 22 overall on the Defensive Hog Index dating back to 2007, the season before the Mike Smith Administration.
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The Falcons entered the 2011 draft with one obvious statistical weakness: a porous defensive front that couldn’t stop anybody on the ground.
GM Thomas Dimitroff looked at this team and its glaring statistical holes, the biggest of which were on defense, and decided that single Shiny Hood Ornament (almost always a bad first-round decision in the best of circumstances) was the answer to all his teams problems.
He whiffed badly, with one of the worst upper-management decisions in modern football history, and the inevitable results unfolded before our very eyes during the 2011 season, a year during which the promising Falcons of 2010 took a big step back by every empirical measure.
Now the team is left with limited draft resources to rebuild the ship. This is
General off-season strategy/overview: The biggest problem with the Falcons? They have a notable number of big “names” but in reality not a whole lot of big talent.
Ryan remains on the outside looking in at the game’s elite quarterbacks. In fact, in 2012, he may be only the third best QB in the NFC South, behind Drew Brees and the rapid-rising-star Cam Newton; the defense still has few playmakers; and the team’s only Pro Bowler in 2011 was WR Roddy White, with his second consecutive 100+ reception season.
Julio Jones is clearly a physical phenom with the potential to be a dominating wide receiver – but if you have a brain and know the Shiny Hood Ornament Man Law, you know that quarterbacks make wide receivers; wide receivers do not make quarterbacks.
The team’s most accomplished defender, John Abraham, is likely to walk, as are linebacker Curtis Lofton and cornerback Brent Grimes. Who’s going to make the big plays on defense in 2012?
Defensive tackle Peria Jerry and LB Sean Weatherspoon, the team’s top picks in the 2009 and 2010 drafts, respectively, have yet to prove themselves. Jerry, injured as a rookie, is now a back-up. Weatherspoon made progress in 2011, his second season, but has yet to prove the big-time stud you expect out of the No. 19 overall picks.
All things being equal, the Falcons were a better offensive team than a defensive team. The need first and foremost to strengthen the defense and hope they can find more offensive consistency: Matt Ryan & Co. suffered meltdowns against NFC powers Green Bay (14 points), New Orleans (16 points) and N.Y. Giants (0 offensive points).
Totally premature 2012 diagnosis: The Cold, Hard Football Facts feel like Han Solo in the Death Star trash compactor: we got a bad feeling about the 2012 season.
Look around the NFC South: The Saints are still loaded on offense, provided they work out the Drew Brees situation, and were actually better than Atlanta in several defensive indicators; Cam Newton has S-T-U-D written all over him after just one season, thought the Carolina defense has more issues than your high school girlfriend. And only the Buccaneers look like easy pickin’s in the NFC South.
The overall schedule is not too daunting (AFC West, NFC East), but includes visits to Philadelphia, Detroit and San Diego and a visit from the Super Bowl champ Giants.
Without major improvements in several areas, namely more prolific play at quarterback and a rapid return to the 2010 defense, the Falcons could be an 8-8 team in 2012.