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Friday, December 11, 2009
What happened to rest of 'NFC Stout'?

By Pat Yasinskas
ESPN.com

Think back to night of Nov. 2. The Atlanta Falcons went into the Superdome and pretty much played the New Orleans Saints evenly.

Matt Ryan/Michael Turner
At 6-6 and with Matt Ryan and Michael Turner out with injuries, the Falcons are long shots to make the playoffs.
The Falcons ended up losing, but, everywhere you looked that night, there was reason to believe Atlanta could at least contend in the NFC South. Michael Turner ran wild, Roddy White had a big night, Matt Ryan looked like he did last year and even the defense made some plays.

Just build on that, hope the Saints could get knocked off once or twice and there were lots of indications that, when the teams met again in Atlanta in December, the Falcons could win and take the division race right down to the wire.

Well, it’s December now and the Saints come to the Georgia Dome on Sunday and both teams will be carrying flags. The undefeated Saints already have earned an NFC South banner. The Falcons have thrown up a white flag.

“We’re not in the NFC South anymore,’’ Atlanta coach Mike Smith said in a conference call with the New Orleans media. “We’re in the Wild-Card Division.’’

Yes, the Falcons have pulled out of a union that traditionally had all four teams on the map until late in the season. But this season’s dramatically different.

Tampa Bay really never was in the picture. Carolina was pretty much out after an 0-3 start and any hope the Panthers had after winning their next two games disappeared forever with that pathetic home loss to Buffalo.

So what’s happened to a division that fans were calling the “NFC Stout’’ at the start of the season?

Well, let’s first give the Saints a ton of credit for putting so much distance between themselves and everyone else. But let’s also remember the Saints finished last in the division last season. They got dramatically better.

But let’s not forget the Falcons, Panthers and Buccaneers did a pretty fine job of pulling themselves out of a division that now should be called the NFC New Orleans and Nothing Else.

Let’s take a look, team-by-team, at how it came to this:

FALCONS: The Falcons still were in it after that loss in New Orleans. They were 4-3 and they went to 5-3 a week later with a blowout win against Washington. Then, the Falcons self destructed. Ryan struggled and Turner got hurt. Then, Ryan got hurt, Turner got hurt and almost the entire offensive line got hurt. And the defense, which already was shaky at best, got really shaky.

“We haven’t made plays when they’ve been presented to us and you have to make those big plays and those game-changing plays in this league if you’re going to get the outcome you want,’’ Smith said.

The outcome the Falcons wanted for this year was to get back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history, make the playoffs again and maybe even win the NFC South championship.

None of that’s going to happen. The Falcons are 6-6 and mathematically still in the playoff hunt. But let’s be realistic. With that defense and with Ryan and Turner looking like they each will miss one more game, there’s no reason why the Saints should lose this one to the Falcons. If Ryan and Turner stay out longer than this game, there’s no reason to believe the Falcons win anything until they’re back and, even then, the defense is capable of keeping any opponent in the game.

I still like Atlanta’s nucleus, but I like it for next year when it’s healthy again and there’s been time to fix that defense. For right now, though, seeing backup quarterback Chris Redman starting is like watching the Falcons wave a surrender flag.

PANTHERS: Call it overconfidence, complacency or a comedy of errors. Whatever you want to call it the Panthers have gone from 12-4 to one of the league’s most disappointing teams, and that’s probably going to cost coach John Fox his job.

He has no one to blame but himself and possibly general manager Marty Hurney, although I think Hurney still could have a job when Fox is gone. Yeah, Hurney’s the one who does the deals, but Fox is the one who told him what deals he wanted done. And the decision to bring back Jake Delhomme, as well as sign him to a contract extension, ranks as one of the biggest gaffes of the past offseason. A lot of coaches would have handed Delhomme his release after his five-interception game against Arizona in last season’s playoffs and a couple of horrible games late last season.

At the very least, it might have been wise to bring in an alternative to Delhomme. As much as the Panthers were proud of the fact that they were returning 21 of 22 starters, the downside to that was they paid a fortune to offensive tackle Jordan Gross and moody defensive end Julius Peppers. That left them with no salary-cap room to sign any depth and it has cost them dearly when injuries happened, and when some of those 21 starters turned out to be less than the coaching staff thought.

Fox brought stability to this franchise, but he might have brought too much for too long. His message no longer carries the same weight in some corners of the locker room, and there’s a feeling among some players that rules aren’t the same for everybody and some guys get, or have demanded and received, star treatment. It might be the quarterback, it might be the coach or it might be both of them plus a whole bunch of others, but someone’s going to have to take the fall for this mess.

BUCCANEERS: Let’s be real honest here. The Bucs took themselves out of this year’s NFC South race in February. That’s when they cut ties with Derrick Brooks, Jeff Garcia, Warrick Dunn, Ike Hilliard, Joey Galloway, Kevin Carter and several other older players who had just enough left to keep them close to making the playoffs last year. There was some logic in all that because the Bucs weren’t going to get any better if they kept the same crew around.

Instead, they got worse. Much of that was to be expected. But if this rebuilding plan had been carried out better, the Bucs would have been respectable early on and should be showing substantial progress by now. They’re not. Rookie quarterback Josh Freeman has brought some hope since taking over at midseason, but free-agent pickups Derrick Ward and Angelo Crowell haven’t brought anything to the table.

Coach Raheem Morris fired offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski before the season started and took the reins away from defensive coordinator Jim Bates after 10 games. Morris may get another year because ownership knew from the start this was going to be a project. But Morris and general manager Mark Dominik have a lot of work to do in the coming months.

So do Smith and Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff. Same for Fox and Hurney, if they’re still there, or for a new regime.

Long story short and we’ll borrow from Smith’s first quote: The Falcons, Buccaneers and Panthers have a lot of ground to make up just to get back into the NFC South.