Our Naughty Nurse takes vital signs in Atlanta
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Mar 17, 2011
(Click here to see our pre-draft reviews of each NFL team, conducted with a little help from our Russian mail-order Naughty Nurse.)
By Jonathan Comey
Cold, Hard Football Facts statistical trauma surgeon
The Atlanta Falcons were a very strange football team in 2010. They weren't really great at anything, but they did a lot of things pretty well and made the most of it. Had Bill Belichick's Patriots not gone 14-2 despite overwhelming evidence that this was impossible, Mike Smith would have been a very good choice for Coach of the Year.
Matt Ryan's numbers weren't particularly great, but he always seemed to make the right throws at the right times (playoffs excluded). The defense wasn't good – in fact, it allowed 5.6 yards a play, sixth worst in the league – but the offensive ball control did enough to minimize the damage and keep the games close.
However, the Falcons' flaws were exposed badly in the playoffs, just as they were in 2008, leaving Atlanta fans to wonder just where they stand heading into 2011 (along with every other football fan in the known universe).
A closer look at the NFC's long-forgotten No. 1 seed.
The 2010 storyline: The Falcons were supposed to be an improved bunch, but they went all the way from improved to best in the NFC regular season. Of course, it didn't do them much good, as they promptly got bitch-slapped by Green Bay in their playoff opener. Still, it didn't take all the bloom off the rose of a 13-3 season and rebound efforts by Ryan and Michael Turner.
The Vital Signs
2010 record: 13-3 (25.9 PPG – 18.0 PPG)
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 5-3 (21.0 – 21.3)
Last five seasons overall: 44-36 (.550)
Best Quality Stat in 2010: Scoreability (2nd)
Worst Quality Stat in 2010: Defensive Hog Index (25th)
All Quality Stats
Passing YPA: 19th
Defensive Passing YPA: 18th (new Quality Stat for 2011)
Quarterback Rating: 10th (new Quality Stat for 2011)
Defensive Quarterback Rating: 13th (new Quality Stat for 2011)
Offensive Passer Rating: 11th (breaking it out as a stand-alone Quality Stat in 2011)
Defensive Passer Rating: 14th
Offensive Hog Index: 5th
Defensive Hog Index: 25th
Relativity Index: 4th (once-proud Quality Stat being reintroduced for 2011)
Statistical curiosity of 2010: The Falcons were fifth in scoring offense despite being 16th in yards. On defense? They were also fifth in scoring despite being 16th in yards allowed.
Best game of 2010: 26-21 win vs. Baltimore (Week 10). It's interesting in looking at the Falcons season that they didn't really have one spectacular victory to call their own. They beat a lot of good teams (five Quality Wins), but didn't do it decisively – their only blowouts came vs. Carolina (twice) and all four teams in the NFC West. They were just about an even bet against the Quality Teams on their schedule, and even the win over the Ravens came down to the last play of the game.
Worst game of 2010: 48-21 loss vs. Green Bay (divisional Playoffs). This wasn't just the worst game of 2010, it was the worst performance of the entire three-season Mike Smith era. The Falcons were -3 in turnovers (tied for worst in the Smith era), they lost by 27 points (tied for worst in the Smith era) and were outgained by 248 yards (worst in the Smith era).
Not exactly good timing, to play your worst game of the year at the most crucial time, and the loss did a lot to damage the sterling reputations of both Smith and Matt Ryan. But let's not forget that they came in together back in 2008 to turn around one of the most beaten-down franchises in the NFL.
Strength: Scoreability (offensive efficiency). Generally, when you average 5.0 yards per play on offense and allow 5.6 yards per play on defense, you expect to see a pretty mediocre team on the field. Instead, Falcons fans saw a 13-3 team that could have hosted all the way to Dallas if the team played its cards right.
How did they do it? They made the most out of every yard, and got a lot of hidden ones. Eric Weems didn't exactly lead the league in jersey sales (he wears No. 14, by the way), but he quietly had the kind of season in the return game that makes a difference in the standings. Weems averaged 12.8 yards a punt return and 27.5 a kick return – both well above league averages – and didn't fumble it once. Kicker Matt Bryant and punter Michael Koenen were also real assets.
Generally, ball control was the difference between winning and losing – had they lost just three or four more fumbles along the way, Atlanta might have been the 10-6 team its stats suggested instead of a 13-3 team. But they were never any worse than -1 in plus-minus in a regular-season game, and that was the difference.
Repeating success in Scoreability, unfortunately for Atlanta, can be difficult. The 1-2-3 teams in 2009 were New Orleans, San Diego and Minnesota. In 2010 they finished 20th, 8th and 30th.
Weakness: Defensive Hogs. The Falcons have put the resources here, for sure. They've had seven top-40 picks in the last four drafts, and picked DE Jamaal Anderson, ILB Curtis Lofton, DT Peria Jerry and OLB Sean Weatherspoon.
All of that blue-chip talent didn't pay off last year, as Jonathan Babineaux was their best interior player. Jerry and Anderson look like busts, and Weatherspoon didn't do much as a rookie. Atlanta's defense thrived on a talented and opportunistic secondary (22 INTs), but the lack of pressure and inability to stop the run (4.6 YPA) was a real problem and will hold them back going forward.
General off-season strategy/overview: Right tackle Tyson Clabo was excellent for the Falcons in 2010, and linebacker Mike Peterson has been a pivotal piece as well. Retaining those two in free agency will be key – but more important than anything will be figuring out a way to make some impact on both sides of the ball.
Every team needs difference makers, and the Falcons currently have two, one on each side of the ball. It's Roddy White on the offense and John Abraham on the defense, and neither has much company. Not only was White the No. 1 receiver on the team with 1,389 yards, it wasn't even close – Michael Jenkins was the next-best wideout with 505 yards. Tony Gonzalez still has the name, but a 9.4 yards-per-catch average was easily the worst of his career and subpar for a receiving tight end. Adding a prime No. 2 option for Ryan is important.
The situation is even more dire on defense, where Abraham had 13 sacks and the next best total was four by Babineaux. Kroy Biermann applied his fair share of pressure, but couldn't come up with the finishes (three sacks), and the Falcons had just 31 sacks as a team despite a soft schedule.
Atlanta has more than its share of solid pros; this offseason it's time to roll the dice and try to add some home-run hitters.
Totally premature 2011 diagnosis: The schedule gave the Falcons six games against the NFC West and lesser half of the AFC North (Cincy and Cleveland), plus two vs. Carolina. This year, it's the balanced AFC South and the NFC North – no gimmies there. Add to the equation free-agent problems on the offensive line, another year added to the birth certificates of Turner (29) and Tony Gonzalez (35) and a pretty weak defense, and a step back toward mediocrity is quite possible.
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