Sunday, January 16, 2011

First Take: Packers 48 Falcons 21

Well, for a quarter and a half, this was a pretty good football game, right?

Of course, the moment Matt Ryan threw his second INT, it ceased being a football game and became a boat race, and not a very interesting boat race at that. Well, uninteresting outside of Wisconsin, of course.

This blog post is as it says: a first take. I am writing a gut reaction to the Falcons game that just happened (It did happen, didn't it? Or was it all a really bad, greasy-food-fueled nightmare?). I will be more than happy to get into statistics and curiously bendy things like facts in the week ahead, but for today, it's opinion. Rage-tinged opinion. I promise sarcasm at various junctures, so be mindful. Enjoy (or loathe) my words at your leisure!

I come not to praise Matt Ryan, I come to bury him. Actually, I will do no such thing; not this morning, not tomorrow, not next month. For now, I will reserve my judgment on the erstwhile Matty Ice (that nickname sounding more ridiculous today than it ever has) for another time entirely.

No, today, my harsh words of judgment are reserved for Mike Smith, head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, and the pervasive philosophy he has drilled into both phases of his team since training camp: the dreaded Play-Not-To-Lose philosophy of football. In NFL circles, there is another, cursed name for this loser's philosophy: Martyball.

Martyball is named after perennial post-season-losing coach, Marty Schottenheimer. Marty was a man who could guide a football team to double-digit wins in the regular season by coaching them to play an ultra-conservative ball control offense and a defense that relied on basic zone coverages to limit teams from gaining 20-plus yard plays, what Bill Walsh referred to as "explosive plays." Marty Schottenheimer is the ultimate Play-Not-To-Lose football coach. Marty's teams rarely strayed from a run, run, pass offense, and he never met a field goal he didn't want to kick. In the NFL's regular season, filled with teams such as the Bengals, Texans, Panthers, Bills, and Redskins, a team can do quite well with this kind of offensive and defensive philosophies. A trip to the post-season is a reliable preseason goal, and if the schedule breaks right, a first-round bye can be had.

This is what the Falcons accomplished this season under Mike Smith. The schedule wasn't incredibly easy, but it wasn't hard, either. The Falcons did beat more good teams than Marty's generally did, but they never looked particularly good in doing it; relying on the right arm of their young QB to save them from their unnecessarily conservative game plans at the very end of games. Unfortunately, as Marty's career has shown the NFL world, Martyball does not translate to wins in the NFL post-season. Marty had a regular season career record of 200-126-1, but owned a putrid 5-13 record in the playoffs. His last playoff debacle, losing as the favored, number 1-seeded team in the second round with the 14-2 2007 Chargers, led to his firing.

Mike Smith now owns a very Marty-like distinction on his post-season resume: He's lost his only two playoff games; games in which his team was favored. If you're a head coach in the NFL, this is not the kind of distinction you want on your resume, and Smith's dogged insistence in coaching his players to play 20th Century football in a 21st Century NFL is the yoke that holds the Falcons back from success in the playoffs, and will for years to come.

In the last ten years, the NFL has done everything in its considerable power to create more scoring (Because more scoring equals higher ratings in America... yes, it's why we hate soccer. Well, that, and because soccer is populated by girlie-men who take dives). In enacting rules to create more scoring, the NFL has evolved from a run-orientated league (you have to run the ball to win) to a pass-orientated league (Bill Walsh is smiling from Heaven). It's why teams with "game-manager" QBs never make the playoffs anymore, and if they do, they don't last long (hello, 2008 Titans). It's why teams like the 9-7 Cardinals can come within 2 minutes of winning a Super Bowl. Teams with good-to-great QBs now have an edge like never before.

Okay, so with all of these (Bill Polian-influenced) rule changes dealing with what defenses can and cannot do to QBs and WRs, teams are now favoring offenses that pass to set up the run (WestCoast and Spread offenses) and defenses that put a premium on pressuring the QB (like the 3-4 or exotic, blitz-heavy 4-3 formations). Teams like the Patriots, Steelers, and Saints, teams that have had success in the last decade in the playoffs, are teams who've adapted best and won Super Bowls. Teams that have aggressive, pressuring defenses, but conservative offenses, like the Ravens, Giants, and Jets, can also find success. The Colts have an aggressive offense and conservative defense, and they too have been (sorta) successful in the playoffs.

Teams that continue to play conservative on offense and conservative on defense, however, like the Jaguars, Titans, Bears, and now the Falcons, can, like the best Martyball teams, make the playoffs every so often. But they are quick to make an exit, usually when favored, and often in a very embarrassing manner. Sound familiar Cleveland, Chiefs, Chargers, and now Falcons fans?

The point must be hammered home: you cannot be conservative on both sides of the ball and expect to win in the playoffs, let alone take home the Lombardi Trophy. Even 20 or 30 years ago in the Super Bowl-Era, teams like Parcels' Giants or Noll's Steelers had super-aggressive defenses to go with their run-first offenses. The Raiders teams that won three Super Bowls were aggressive on both sides of the ball, as was the 49ers Dynasty. The modern Ravens and Jets can win playoff games with QBs playing horribly, because their defenses are outstanding. The Falcons came into their two games under Smith with both sides of the ball playing uncreative, vanilla football, and they've lost both games.

Mike Smith has some deep-dish soul-searching to do this off-season. He must realize that Playing-Not-To-Lose Martyball will never win a football game that matters. It never has. This is a fact (sorry to bring facts into this post, but I must) bourn out of every miserable failure Marty Schottenheimer had in Januaries past. Smith must adjust his personal coaching philosophy and his coaching staff accordingly, or the Atlanta Falcons will never win any game that truly means something in the NFL.

Defensive Coordinator Brian Van Gorder could be an easy scapegoat for the way in which the Falcons defense played Saturday night, but to blame BVG would be a mistake. Van Gorder coaches the defense as Smith would have him. At the University of Georgia, BVG's defenses were known as aggressive, creative, turnover-making machines (think of the Saints defense from last season), but this is not how he has coached the defenses with the Falcons. Understandably, a reason for that may be that the Falcons cannot recruit their players, but the finger of blame (you know the one) must be pointed in Smith's direction for how he compels BVG to coach. BVG can coach a defense, if allowed to. Mark Richt, the (soon to be former) head coach at UGA, knows better than anyone how well Van Gorder can coach if left alone, as he's done little without BVG.

Offensive Coordinator Mike Mularkey is often cited by various media outlets for his excellence in "creating" Matt Ryan, the NFL phenom QB. Truthfully, Ryan was an outstanding QB known for his exciting comebacks and calm demeanor while he attended Boston College, so I've always wondered just how much "creating" Mularkey has done. What Mularkey is as an Offensive Coordinator, is a horrible situational play-caller. It is no secret that the Falcons offense is more fluid, more dynamic, and more creative when they run the no-huddle. In the Falcons' no-huddle offense, Ryan, not Mularkey, is the offensive play-caller. Ryan is given a formation, but he decides the play to run, much as Manning and Brady do in their full-time offenses. In these situations, the Falcons' offense cannot be stopped. Unfortunately, Play-Not-To-Lose Mike Smith infrequently called for the Falcons offense to run the no-huddle as the season progressed. This lead to situations culminating in the Saints game in Atlanta, where Mularkey's uncreative offensive play-calling doomed the Falcons to a 3-point loss in a game they had no business losing (Brees had two terrible, momentum-changing INTs).

I know it is a long shot that Smith changes any member of his coaching staff, but if he is honest with himself and the performance of his coaches and his team in games that mattered, he would see that Mularkey needs to go, especially with Josh McDaniels, a great and talented offensive mind, currently out on the market. As an observer of the Falcons, I salivate at the thought of what JMcD, a coach who turned Matt Cassell and Kyle Orton into explosive QBs, could do with a Matt Ryan-led offense. Unfortunately, Smith is unlikely to make this needed change (which seems to be a problem for football coaches in the state of Georgia), so JMcD in Atlanta remains a pipe dream. For now.

Regardless if Smith does anything or not to change his coaching staff, he must create change within himself. He must take a long, hard look at the man in the mirror, and rid himself of the Ghost of Marty Schottenheimer. That particular ghost never won an NFL game that mattered, and Coach Smith would do well to stop emulating Marty's Play-Not-To-Lose philosophies of football.

If Smith doesn't change, he may soon enough join Marty on the never-was pile of NFL broken dreams.

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