Now that the dust has somewhat settled on the 2014 campaign for our 2014 Atlanta Falcons, maybe we can analyze exactly what happened that led to a final record of 6-10, the firing of Head Football Coach Mike Smith, and the possibility of other swooping changes taking place.
At the start of Falcons Training Camp, with the excitement surrounding HBO’s Hard Knocks filming at Flowery Branch, the addition of characters such as Offensive Line Coach Mike Tice, Defensive Line Coach Bryan Cox, and peeks inside the infrastructure of the Atlanta Falcons Franchise, a “buzz” was created with this team. You did not feel that Hard Knocks was a detriment, but a strange and underlying theme existed throughout the year, and that was to prove to the naysayers that the team was tough.
Coming off a 4-12, 2013 Season it was evident that all folks involved were put on notice and training camp was different than years’ past under the Mike Smith Era. It appeared that this team along with player additions sought to become more physical on both fronts of the line of scrimmage. This was a great focal point by the Falcons’ Brass, however it did not produce the positive results we ALL hoped for.
Early in the regular season did start out with a bang, highlighted by a comeback victory over our heated rival New Orleans Saints and a blowout win on a Thursday night against another division foe, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but accompanying those two wins, were six losses leading to a 2-6 record at the Bye Week. Rumblings of Mike Smith being fired were in the air but nothing came of it.
The Atlanta Falcons came out of the Bye Week adopting the philosophy of going 1-0, concentrating on the one game in front of them, nothing more, nothing less. This philosophy did seem to galvanize the troops and collectively they looked better as a team but the Falcons went 4-4 the remainder of the season, with an ugly ending loss to the Carolina Panthers by the score of 34-3, leading to where the franchise is currently, in transition.
You saw some good, bad, and ugly with the 2014 Atlanta Falcons. Sure, the record statistically was “better” than the 2013 season but the team was clearly not as physically talented as others around the league. Sure you have some “sexy” parts in Quarterback Matt Ryan, Wide Receiver Julio Jones, Receiver/Punt Returner Devin Hester, and others but the core philosophy was flawed and the core “grunts” were missing from this team.
The attempts to get more beef on the offensive and defensive lines were noble but did not result in tangible improvement for the franchise. Due to injury, the offensive line was again decimated with losses to Center Joe Hawley, Tackle Sam Baker, and Tackle Lamar Holmes with in some eyes may have been addition by subtraction but in retrospect Offensive Line Coach Mike Tice did a masterful job given the talent that he had to work with including taking an undrafted Center James Stone and making him a player.
On the defensive line, the additions of Nose Tackle Paul Soliai and Defensive End/Tackle Tyson Jackson were thought to be some of the physicality that Atlanta needed but again they did not produce tangible results. Defensvie End/Tackle RaShede’ Hageman was drafted with the 37th pick to also bring “beef” and attitude to this defensive line but you saw only flashes and inconsistency with him from the very beginning. As far as the pass rush is concerned, it was nonexistent, transitioning to the only thing that was consistent.
The team had injuries along the linebacking corp when Sean Weatherspoon went down, but you had the return of Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu, and drafted Prince Shembo out of Notre Dame. I firmly believe that despite the stats put up in tackles particularly by Worrilow that athletically you have to improve this unit. You cannot continue to give up yards in the short passing game because of linebackers that cannot cover athletic tight ends. Shembo has potential but this position must be upgraded.
The secondary for the Falcons is its strength. Cornerback Desmond Trufant is solid and will be a staple at the Pro Bowl for years to come and I sincerely believe that opposite him Robert Alford will have the game slow down and eventually provide a solid tandem. Safety William Moore provides the nasty for this team. The “Missouri Hammer” brings the fear of the big hit to the opposition but is often injured. Dwight Lowery filled in admirably at the other safety position for the Falcons along with backups Dezmen Southward and Kemal Ishmael who were crucial towards the end of year.
Moving forward, the franchise has fired its most successful head coach in history. Mike Smith was the perfect person for what the franchise needed after the Bobby Petrino/Michael Vick Debacle. He has led this franchise to greater heights, giving it the much needed stability that the upper echelon teams in the National Football Teams have, however there is a bottom line when it comes to coaching and that is your win/loss record. Declining returns along with some questionable coaching decisions may have sealed his fate. He alone is not where blame should be shouldered however. General Manager Thomas Dimitroff came in the same time as Coach Smith, has built the team that “Smitty” coached, and I believe may be just as if not more culpable. At this time though, his job is spared.
The team going forward has good parts but has to obtain a lot of pieces to vault themselves back to the top. The Atlanta Falcons must establish an offensive identity. It was clear what they aspired to be but unclear about how to get there. Quarterback Matt Ryan is your field general but it is clear you have to surround him with the tools to make him great. The team needs to spend money on the offensive line in free agency and not hope for undraftees to pan out. They also need balance, going more to a 60/40 pass-run ratio. Ryan was at his best when a solid running game was in place and I believe the capabilities of all receiving parts would thrive.
Defensively, you must spend money in free agency on a top notch pass rusher along with drafting one with the 8th pick in this upcoming draft. The team must also upgrade the Linebacking Corp to be able to compete with the changing athleticism at Quarterback and Tight End. If credit is to be given to Thomas Dimitroff it is that the Falcons do not have the salary cap issues that other franchises have. The next Head Football Coach for the Atlanta Falcons must understand the dynamics in place as far as what you have, what you need, and how to embrace the inner workings of the fan base. I am looking forward to the 2015 campaign.
Jamie Walker is a Producer and Blogger for Sports Radio 92.9 The Game. You can follow him on Twitter @coachjdub21 or through email at Jamie.Walker@cbsradio.com.