Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Grading the Atlanta Falcons: 2010 NFL Post-Season Edition

There really isn’t anything good to say about the Falcons’ 2010 Post-Season performance that ended miserably, 48-21 at the hands of the Green Bay Packers. From coaches to players, but mostly coaches (coaches put players in positions to succeed or fail… rule of thumb in the NFL: good coaching and average talent will beat average coaching and good talent 90% of the time), the Falcons’ performance in their lone playoff game at home against Green Bay can be described by many words that all mean the same thing: horrible. If you want more words than that, pick up a thesaurus.

The Falcons succeeded in the regular season by playing it safe, by coaching their offense and defense in the most vanilla way possible. Martyball with the offense, basic 4-3, two-deep zone coverage with the defense. The Falcons had a remarkable 13-3 season because they were literally the most unremarkable team in the league. Mike Smith’s zeal to take as little chances as possible led to a team that was prepared and smart. The Falcons finished with the least amount of penalties and second least amount of turnovers. They were efficient, not aggressive, not flashy; just efficient. They were a Ford Focus, in other words.

Unfortunately for the Falcons coaches and players, simply being efficient can get you into the postseason, but it rarely wins any postseason games. There is a reason why Marty Schottenheimer’s regular season coaching record is 200-126-1 and his post-season coaching record is an abysmal 5-13. That reason is because his ultra-conservative approach and philosophy of football does not work when all things are equal, or even slightly in another team’s favor, as they usually are in the playoffs. In the playoffs, all teams are good. In the playoffs, any team can beat you. There are no Panthers, Bengals, Cardinals, or Redskins in the playoffs.

In games played in January, Martyball is scientifically proven to be a losing gambit. I guarantee you that Dom Capers and Mike McCarthy wanted nothing more than to play the Falcons and their Martyball ways in the second round more than going to Chicago. Those two guys saw how conservative and even scared Smith coached in the game Green Bay lost in December, saw how he routinely would not allow the Falcons to use their best offensive weapon, the no-huddle, for fear that he, Smith, couldn’t control the outcome. Yep. Capers and McCarthy had to be licking their lips to know a Marty Schottenheimer disciple (in spirit, as Smith isn’t on Marty’s coaching tree) was to man the sideline opposite their own.

There is nothing I can say that is even remotely positive about Mike Smith’s performance in this 2011 postseason. He coached his team scared. Instead of being the aggressor, which is what is needed in the post-season, Smith had a defensive game-plan installed that was softer than marshmallows. For the majority of the game, the Falcons’ defense didn’t rush more than four, and frequently, they only rushed three. In the few times the team brought a blitz, the blitzer would reach Aaron Rodgers only to whiff on the sack; much as they did in the Monday Night game against Brees and the Saints. The explanation for such a phenomenon can only be that the players were so unused to be asked to blitz that they forgot how to sack a QB. With little-to-no pressure in his face, Rodgers picked apart the soft zone coverage of the Falcons’ defense at a historic pace. As bad as the Falcons’ secondary played Saturday night, the blame cannot fall all on them. Their coach let them down. As for Smith’s Martyball offense, the less said the better. Where the Falcons could have really used some early game aggression was on offense, but instead of breaking out their no-huddle attack, they did much as they did in the Saints game: running Turner into 9-man fronts until they got so far behind on the scoreboard it was too late to catch up. While Smith must be commended for going for an early 4th-and-inches, it was the long 3rd down down-and-distance from conservative play-calling that put the team in that position. I think Smith gets too much credit for his 4th-down gambles. I feel they have more to do with situations his Martyball offense gets the team in more than any gambler mentality he may or may not have. What makes Smith’s performance in the post-season so maddening is the same thing Browns, Chiefs, and Chargers fans found maddening about Marty: the refusal to evolve, to change, when things weren’t working. The hope Falcons fans have is that this blowout, the biggest blowout of a number 1 seed in the second round in NFL history, can serve as a wake-up call for Smith. The only reason why Smith doesn’t get an F Minus for this performance is because at least he owned up to how poorly he coached this game.

It is beyond time for the Falcons to scrap their ultra-conservative, vanilla-flavored Martyball offense, and this game proved it. When teams take the run away the Falcons’ coaches literally have no answer, because they don’t adequately prepare their team for that possibility (excepting of course, for the offense’s brilliant performance against the Ravens; the only time this year they acted in an aggressive, pass-first mode). Good coaching staffs will take what the other team’s defense is giving them, then turn it around and dominate that team with whatever works. For the Falcons, they lack that killer’s instinct, especially on offense, and this is a coaching issue. Mike Mularkey remains one of the least-creative play-calling offensive coordinators in the league. This is a fact proven by how well the Falcons’ offense generally does when they run the no-huddle from which Matt Ryan, not Mularkey, calls the offensive plays. Green Bay’s defensive coordinator, Dom Capers, took advantage of a few facts many in the Falcons’ coaching staff don’t care to admit: the Falcons may run the ball a lot, but they don’t do so efficiently. The Falcons’ running game in 2011 was about quantity, not quality. Capers loaded the box with 9 men, much as New Orleans did three weeks earlier, because he knew Smith & Mularkey would continue to try to run the ball and not allow Ryan to audible out of those situations, no matter the fact that the Falcons were always outnumbered, not having enough blockers to put a hat on a hat. And with each Falcons’ drive predictably stalling (because of the predictability of the Atlanta offense), the scoreboard separation got larger and larger. Matt Ryan certainly didn’t help matters in throwing two INTs, but he definitely can be forgiven for one, if not both of them. On the first INT, WR Michael Jenkins planted his feet in the endzone to jump for the ball or prevent Tramon Williams from having an INT, and as he planted, his feet slipped out from underneath him in almost a comical manner. Jenkins made the mistake of trying to plant on the giant painted NFL Shield in the endzone (note to Arthur Blank: you may not want to have your grounds crew paint giant NFL shields on plastic grass, it makes for a slippery situation, okay?). On the second INT, instead of letting Bryant attempt a 53-yard FG before the end of the half, Smith got greedy and tried to get another few yards. Mularkey had Ryan roll to his left, and throw across his body (Ryan’s right-handed), resulting in the back-breaking TAINT (Touchdown After INT) by Williams that sealed the game for the Packers. Roddy White was largely absent, and Tony Gonzalez had an APB put out for him sometime around the 3rd quarter when he had his one and only catch. All and all, the Falcons offensive game-plan as well as the play of the unit was their worst output of the year. They sure didn’t pick the right time for such a poor game, but still, their performance was not as bad as…

I can’t imagine the stupidity of supposedly smart football coaches who create a game-plan that decides not to pressure one of the best QBs in the NFL, instead, letting him sit comfortably in the pocket all night long and pick apart their uncreative, non-aggressive, super-duper soft (double-quilted so it doesn’t chafe your butt) zone coverage. I don’t care if Mike Smith is the head coach, how Defensive Coordinator Brian Van Gorder could ever sign off on or help create a defensive game-plan like this boggles my mind. The only thing I have to say about this plan is that it would have made Willie Martinez proud. And that is not good. Some people will make mention that Christopher Owens, the obviously unprepared and overwhelmed 4th CB option of this defense, being thrown into the starting line-up (as most defenses playing the Packers abandon the 4-3 and play nickel coverage against the Packers’ base 3-wide sets) hurt the Falcons, and it did. But missing your regular nickel corner shouldn’t have hurt that badly. A special dunce cap needs to be put on the head of Dunta Robinson, who by scheme or by lack of ability, was burnt time and time and time and time and time again by Rodgers and his receivers… when they weren’t picking on Owens, that is. Now, in Robinson’s defense, he proved in Houston to be a fairly decent man coverage corner, and is ill-suited to play 10-yards off of receivers, as Mike Smith prefers, because he lacks the closing speed of a good zone coverage corner like Brent Grimes. Unfortunately, this is a fact Smith and GM Thomas Dimitroff should’ve considered before signing Robinson to a large contract. Or maybe, Smith should consider playing a little man coverage every now and again; at the very least on Robison’s side of the field. Either way, Robinson is a terrible zone coverage corner. Oh, and BTW… the Packers didn’t punt. Ever. Way to go, defense.

Eric Weems is the only reason the Falcons kept the game close for a quarter and half. His TD return on a Packers’ kickoff was amazing. Unfortunately, that return was the lone highlight for the Falcons all night. I was tempted to give Keith Armstrong, the ST Coordinator and incomplete because we never got to see one phase of the special teams all night: punt return. Seriously. But the coverage units were fine, and the return units were fine. And “fine” in this game gets you an A grade all around considering how “un-fine” the other units were.

And that’s pretty much it for the Falcons embarrassing performance in the 2011 playoffs. For a number one seed to be blown-out like this, at home, in their first game, in this way, was totally unprecedented. The Falcons set a new precedent for playoff-losing-futility. It’s a totally amazing and completely undignified way to end the season. But… dare we have expected a different final result from a team so steeped in the play-not-to-lose philosophies of Martyball?

What is the old adage? When you play not to lose, you can only prevent yourself from winning. I don’t know. It’s something like that. One can only hope Mike Smith truly understands that particular bit of wisdom now.

The Falcons could of course continue with their Martyball course without a correction, and have another winning season and another shot at the playoffs, but simply making the playoffs is not good enough, as the Atlanta Braves and their fans learned over 14 years. Eventually, you need to take your talent and win. Unfortunately, Mike Smith’s football philosophy doesn’t win when it matters most. If Smith and the Falcons’ management are able, they must be brutally honest when they review how this team is coached and run, and change their ultra-conservative ways.

We’ll have the next eight months to debate all of the changes in philosophy, coaches, and personnel the Falcons should make to become a better team, and that starts in the next column. ‘Till then…

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