Time for Falcons to get introspective

January, 8, 2012
1/08/12
7:11
PM ET
Matt RyanAl Bello/Getty ImagesMatt Ryan and the Falcons struggled mightily against the Giants, ending an uneven season.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Their season ended sooner than expected, so the Atlanta Falcons haven’t had time to come up with a title for their highlight film.

I’ll throw them a few suggestions:

  • "Fourth-and-inches: Next year, we’ll just kick it."

  • "Explosive or implosion?’"

  • "How I lost that Jacksonville job," narrated by Mike Mularkey.

  • “That Allstate commercial is not going to happen, but maybe I can fill in for that Mayhem guy," hosted by Roddy White.

Hey, wait, we just got a submission from Atlanta coach Mike Smith.

"It was a lot like our season, very inconsistent," Smith said after his Falcons lost 24-2 to the New York Giants in the wild-card round Sunday at MetLife Stadium. "We played some that were good. We played some that were not so good. I think that’s really the story of our 2011 season."

Take any of those suggestions or add your own. There are seemingly endless ways to summarize how a team with Super Bowl expectations came up dramatically short.

Since the arrival of Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan in 2008, the Falcons had been to the playoffs twice before. They lost both those games, including a home game against Green Bay last season when the Falcons were the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

But this loss was far worse because the Falcons weren’t even competitive. That was mostly their own fault, because the Giants were as inconsistent as the Falcons during the regular season. On Sunday, the Falcons made the Giants look like champions.

The offense White referred to as “The Greatest Show on Turf’’ in the preseason didn’t score. Atlanta’s points came on a safety. How does an offense that has Ryan, White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner get blanked?

“I have no idea,’’ said White, who finished with five catches for 52 yards and dropped at least two passes, after leading the NFL in drops during the regular season.

Since White has no idea, I’ll throw out a few quickies: The Falcons couldn’t run the ball (Turner finished with 41 yards on 15 carries), Ryan was held to 199 passing yards and Smith (and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey) got outcoached by Tom Coughlin and his staff. All that calls out for more detail.

Let’s start with the coaching, because this has been a huge issue before. On two different occasions, Smith elected to go for it on fourth-and-inches. On two different occasions, that decision failed miserably. Smith decided on the same thing, with the same result, in overtime during a regular-season loss to New Orleans.

The first decision to go for it on fourth down came on the first play of the second quarter. The second came with 4:21 left in the third quarter, when the Falcons were trailing only 10-2. Both times, the Falcons had Ryan, who will never be confused with Michael Vick as a runner, try a quarterback sneak. Both times Ryan came up short. The second one was far more damaging, and even more insulting to anyone with common sense. It came with Ryan lining up with an empty backfield, a clear signal of what was coming.

“It was about half a yard, maybe even less than that,’’ Smith said. “That was the play. We go through the sequence all through the week, and we felt like that was the play that we had up and we just didn’t execute it. We felt like at any point in time that we ought to be able to move the football less than half a yard with a quarterback sneak.’’

Forget the fact the Falcons could have handed the ball to Turner, who has gained more than a half yard plenty of times in his career. The Falcons tried that approach in the New Orleans loss and that didn’t work, either.

What’s more disturbing is that, unlike the Turner play against the Saints, both of these opportunities came when the Falcons were in position to attempt a field goal. Both opportunities came at points in the game when a field goal would have meant a lot.

“You could have gone ahead and attempted the field goal,’’ Smith said. “I felt and we felt as a staff, with our offense, that we could move the ball and we wanted to get seven points.’’

Instead, the Falcons ended up with two points for the day. That’s not the sum total of just a couple of coaching decisions and play calls. That’s a sign of much larger problems for a team that clearly was shooting for the Super Bowl when it dealt draft picks to trade up to get Jones in April and paid a ton for free-agent defensive end Ray Edwards as soon as the lockout ended.

[+] EnlargeJulio Jones
AP Photo/Matt SlocumJulio Jones and Atlanta never got going on offense against the Giants.
Both decisions were based almost entirely on what Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff decided was lacking after last season’s playoff loss to Green Bay. They talked repeatedly about how Jones and Edwards would add “explosiveness."

Instead, the Falcons ended up with a dud of a season. People are going to start to question if Smith and Ryan ever can win a playoff game. They’re also going to start to question if the trade for Jones was wise, especially as the 2012 draft approaches and the Falcons are looking to rebuild an offensive line that was built for run blocking and showed it can't pass block no matter how many receiving weapons the Falcons have.

“Well, I think that’s a mistake,’’ Falcons owner Arthur Blank said after he was reminded the Jones trade is officially open to criticism. “Julio stepped up and did everything we wanted him to do this year. He’s going to be an outstanding receiver and player in the league. He has certainly proved his worth this year. He clearly showed his explosive capability throughout the year. You saw that in a number of games. You didn’t see it today.’’

You didn’t see much of anything offensively against the Giants and that took a toll on Atlanta’s defense as the game went on, which just compounded Atlanta’s problems.

“Our expectations for our football team and our organization are much higher than just making an appearance in the playoffs,’’ Smith said.

Blank didn’t sound like a man who was ready to do anything rash. But he sounded frustrated and made it clear he expects Smith and Dimitroff to do some serious introspective thinking as they look back at the season.

“I think the answer is you’ve got to do a thorough diagnostic on the team, the players, the coaches and personnel area on why we didn’t perform the way that we’re capable of,’’ Blank said. “The beauty of Smitty and Thomas is that they will do that. They’re not, by nature, defensive individuals. They’re thoughtful, they’re bright and they care obviously about the franchise and winning. They will do what I would want them to do which is to be objective and go through a detailed analysis and not be emotional about it. Do it from a thoughtful standpoint. Where that takes us, I can’t tell you. That’s not up to me to tell you. That’s up to them to figure it out and we’ll work on it organizationally.’’

One hint to Smith and Dimitroff: As you found out with fourth-and-inches, doing the same thing repeatedly isn’t going to work. Don’t do what you did last year and just fix two glaring holes. Fix every little hole on your team or you’ll never win a playoff game.

Pat Yasinskas | email

ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter

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