Can Atlanta Falcons Save Their Season?


To paraphrase and twist a semi-famous tirade, the Atlanta Falcons are not who virtually any of us thought they were.  The stirring week 1 overtime win over the rival Saints had Dirtybird fans everywhere dreaming of double-digit wins, a division title, and possibly even a conference crown to give the franchise its second trip to the Super Bowl.  How long ago that now seems.  Now I wonder, “can the Atlanta Falcons save their season?”

The last three weeks revealed just how intrinsically flawed this team is from top to bottom.   Sunday’s performance against another 2-3 team with consecutive losses may not have been the proverbial nail in the coffin of the Falcons’ 2014 season, but it certainly got the hammer ready (and I’m not talking about Jessie Tuggle).  That may just be the learned knee-jerk reflex of my youth to give up on bumbling Falcons teams even before I’ve decided on a Halloween costume.

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There are some Atlanta fanatics who remain positive and point out the fact that, with 10 games remaining, the Falcons are only 2 back in the loss column from first in the NFC South.  Winning that mediocre-at-best division is Atlanta’s only realistic route to the playoffs because it’s likely the wild card teams will have a better record than the NFC-S winner.

This just gave me another flashback of a famous post-game press conference tirade regarding discussion of playoff chances for a team that looks nowhere near deserving of such talk.  Yet, while all of my senses inform me that playoffs this year are just a pipe dream, I’m going to examine potential answers to my question above.

I don’t think there’s much that can be done personnel-wise at this point.  There are precious few trades to be had during an NFL season, and these Falcons aren’t one or two players away from anything anyway.  There aren’t any significant players whom are injured that will be coming back this season either.  Atlanta is basically stuck with who they have on the roster, and we have general manager Thomas Dimitroff to thank for this.

Should Thomas Dimitroff Watch for the Guillotine After Poor Start? Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Many fans have been screaming for Dimitroff’s head on a pike for weeks.  He was the architect of this swiss-cheese-like ship, but a GM’s work is largely done once the season starts.  Firing him will do nothing to get the Falcons the 9 or 10 wins it’ll likely take to win their division.  It would make Arthur Blank look almost Al Davis-like and might scare away quality football men from the organization in the future.

The defensive players at all levels from the line to the secondary continue to get exposed on a weekly basis.  There’s just not much talent on that side of the ball.  Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan may be hampered by the dearth of talent, but I wonder just how much he’s being held back otherwise.   How much freedom does he have to change scheme, players’ playing time, and player rotation?  We may never know.

The offense is another matter entirely.  The scheme seems to work well when the players are actually there and do their job as they’re paid to do.  The offensive line that was leaky at full strength has had some serious injury woes this year to make a bad situation flat-out catastrophic.  I swear I saw assistant coaches pulling fans from the stands to play on the line.

As for doing their job, I think I also saw Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Levine Toilolo huddled together spraying Extra-Buttery Pam on their gloves instead of stick-um.  Yeah, those drops were excruciating on Sunday, but they haven’t been a season-long problem.  QB Matt Ryan has looked rough occasionally this year, but that’ll happen when the opposition hits him on seemingly every drop-back.  So I’m not sure there’s much to be done on offense, except…

Get Antone Smith the damn ball!  Antone needs to channel his inner-Keyshawn sometime this week and demand touches.  Just look at these stats:

Sep 18, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons running back Antone Smith (35) scores a touchdown in the third quarter of the game at the Georgia Dome. The Falcons won 56-14. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

  1. 4 straight games with a TD;
  2. 3 straight games with a 40+ yd TD, tied for longest such streak in 13 years;
  3. 4 TDs of 40+ yds on the season leads the league;
  4. His 5 TDs are tied with Julio Jones and Roddy White… combined;
  5. 7 TDs on 31 career touches, a 22.5% rate that seems impossible.

He should get at least 12-15 touches per game out of a minimum 35-40 snaps per game.  I don’t care what anybody says or thinks about his pass blocking, and I’m looking at you Mike Smith.  He has to be on the field.  But what do I know?  The coaching staff is paid a lot more to coach football than I am to write about it, so maybe getting him 6 touches on Sunday was just perfect.

Of course it’s not, and that’s where I landed with what can be done… a crazy coaching shake-up that just might work (kind of like a Hail Mary just might work).

Firing Smith is worth looking at despite my discomfort at actually saying it out loud, so let me repeat that it’s a Hail Mary at best.  If it appears the players are no longer buying what he’s been selling for 5+ seasons then keeping him around virtually guarantees the end of the season.  I’ve not seen indications of that yet, but by the time we do the season truly will be completely over.

The obvious reality is that something dramatic must happen to turn this thing around, and Smith simply doesn’t do dramatic.  One of his strengths as a leader is that he’s not prone to being too up or too down.  There are draw-backs to this, though.  On the one hand, being even-keeled is a great quality to have in a head coach of a consistent winner, but the Falcons haven’t been that since 2012.  Conversely, this is the time for a little fire, let some heads roll, do something inspiring… and unfortunately Mike Smith is just isn’t that kind of guy.

That’s why I suggest firing Mike Smith now and promoting… wait for it… Keith Armstrong as interim head coach.  If the Hard Knocks experience showed me anything it’s that Armstrong commands the players’ attention and respect because he has the fire and requisite knowledge of the game that players will get behind.  He already seems destined to be a head coach anyway, so give him ten games to show what he has as the team’s main leader.

Should specials teams coach Keith Armstrong (left) take over as interim head coach of the Falcons? Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

His role as interim head coach wouldn’t impact his duties running the special teams as much as it would impact Koetter or Nolan running the offense and defense, respectively.   I thought about offensive line coach Mike Tice, too, but he has enough on his plate coaching up 3rd stringers forced to play heavy minutes because of injuries.

Here’s the kicker, though: going this route should entail allowing Koetter and Nolan virtually complete freedom to do what they want on offense and defense.  These guys would have ten games to show what they have as coordinators without anyone wondering if they were held back from what they wanted to do but were philosophically prevented by the head coach.

Yes, I recognize each man is hampered by personnel decisions and injuries, but that’s too bad.  Go earn your NFL coordinator’s salary and make something happen with your scheme.  Koetter, show me you can find a way to get Antone Smith the ball at least a dozen times a game.  Nolan, show me how much of a defensive genius you really are by scheming away the fact you have no pass rushers and seemingly have been forced into a long rotation of players instead of predominantly going with the best 11 guys you have.

Okay, I know, I know… this sounds like the typical Monday Morning Quarterback blather which we all hate.  I told you it was a Hail Mary at the outset, but I just don’t see what else can really be done at this point.  Truth is I don’t think anything can be done, but that wasn’t the point of this article.  I wanted to find something that, in theory, could possibly make a real enough difference to push the Falcons from 2-4 to a division title.

I’m not scapegoating Mike Smith at all, and I know that’s exactly what this looks like.  The problems with this team go far beyond any one man and, if I had to choose just one man to pin this mess on, it wouldn’t be Smith (paging Mr. Dimitroff).  The unfortunate reality is that Mike Smith is the head coach, and the quickest way to change direction is to change the leader.  Axing the head coach right now seems like the only thing that could theoretically work… sorry Mike, but it’s your head that rolls first here in this pie-in-the-sky scenario.