As it turns out, the Atlanta Falcons aren’t planning to jump over that playoff hurdle that’s been talked so much about.
They simply plan to plow right through it. The latest evidence came Friday night when the Falcons used their second-round draft pick (No. 55 overall) on Wisconsin center (more on that in a moment) Peter Konz.
It would have been very easy for the Falcons to overreact and do something crazy after an embarrassing January playoff loss to the New York Giants. Yeah, they could have made a leap in free agency for defensive end Mario Williams, which seemed to be the preferred rout by 99 of every 100 Falcons fans.
But the fact is, if the Falcons had landed Williams back in March, they wouldn’t be as good a team as they are today. Seriously.
Yeah, I know it sounds a little ridiculous to say the Falcons are better off without a guy who could have brought them double-digit sacks. But it’s the truth. Had the Falcons signed Williams, they would have had to gut their existing roster.
The salary-cap space Williams would have taken up would have prevented the Falcons from keeping guys like receiver Harry Douglas, safety Thomas DeCoud, defensive end John Abraham, center Todd McClure and running back Jason Snelling. They might not have been able to fit cornerback Brent Grimes under the salary cap with the franchise tag. Even if they did, they would have had to have made some dramatic moves -- like releasing receiver Roddy White, running back Michael Turner or fullback Ovie Mughelli.
Any or all of those moves seemed possible in the immediate aftermath of the loss in New York. But owner Arthur Blank, who earlier in his tenure may have been prone to overreacting, sat down with coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coolly came up with a plan on how the Falcons can take the next step.
Smith and Dimitroff have had four straight winning seasons, but have yet to win a playoff game. When you’ve had four straight winning seasons, you don’t blow a team up. You keep it together and fix the things that are wrong.
Without flash, that’s precisely what the Falcons have done and Friday night was just another step.
“We were really honed in on the offensive line as you can imagine,’’ Dimitroff said, moments after selecting Konz. “We need to get more stout on this offensive line.’’
There’s no doubt about that. Let’s consider this item from ESPN Stats & Information: The Falcons were one of 10 teams to average less than 4.0 yards per rush between the tackles last season. That came despite the fact they have a bruising runner in Turner.
The Falcons also didn’t do a great job of protecting quarterback Matt Ryan. That failure was the major reason why all the downfield passing we heard about after the Falcons traded up to draft Julio Jones didn’t fully materialize last year. The Falcons were soft up front and it cost offensive line coach Paul Boudreau his job.
Other than left tackle Sam Baker, a first-round pick in 2008, the Falcons really haven’t made huge investments in their offensive line. The arrival of Konz changes that.
Although he played center at Wisconsin, Dimitroff said “we’re listing him as a guard/center right now’’.
It’s no big secret McClure is at the end of his career. He’s 35 and it shows. The Falcons brought him back as insurance, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be their starting center on opening day. Guard Joe Hawley also can play center. Hawley also could factor into the situation at guard, where he played last season along with Justin Blalock and Garrett Reynolds. Add Konz to that mix and it’s pretty clear the Falcons are going to throw all their guards and centers onto the field in training camp and the preseason and see which of the three emerge as the best trio.
“Let’s come in here and have some great competition and see who can protect Matt Ryan the best,’’ Dimitroff said. “We want production and we want guys who can finish. In Peter, we have a guy who can do both of those.’’
Look, I’m not saying a guard/center from Wisconsin is going to come in the second round and push right through that hurdle all by himself. Konz is just a part of the puzzle and maybe fans can finally see that picture coming together now.
There’s a reason why Atlanta didn’t have a first-round pick this year. Jones was the first-round pick for last year and this year and he’s better than any receiver in this year’s draft. There was a reason why the Falcons didn’t make to splurge in free agency. They didn’t have the salary-cap room to do it without ripping a good team apart.
Little by little, they’ve made moves that have them gaining speed as they head for that hurdle. Just this week, they traded a late-round draft pick for four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Asante Samuel and quickly signed him to a cap-friendly deal.
In theory, Samuel should team with Grimes and Dunta Robinson to give the Falcons one of the league’s best cornerback tandems. In theory, Konz should team with all those other offensive linemen to make the Falcons tougher up front.
Yeah, there still are a few needs -- the pass rush, depth at tight end and maybe some more help on the outside of the offensive line. The Falcons are well aware of all that. They’ll address those needs in the rest of the draft and after it when the time and the price are right. But, now, you can see their offseason plan taking shape.
If the Falcons had gone out and paid a fortune for Williams, they wouldn’t be making solid, safe picks like Konz because they’d be desperately trying to repair all the other damage they did to their team.