Posted by: nhfalcon | January 8, 2008

The State of My Namesake

So some of you may wonder why my screenname is nhfalcon. The answer is that my favorite football team (remember, in an earlier post I told you I’m a huge football fan) is the Atlanta Falcons. Why the Falcons, given that I live in New England? Shouldn’t I be a Patriots fan? Oh, believe me, I’ve enjoyed the last seven years or so of the Patriots’ reign (Patriot Reign is a great book about the team by Michael Holley, by the way), particularly this year, but my heart is with the Falcons. Why? Well, the story is long and geeky, so I’d rather not get into it… oh, what the hell, I’ve already admitted in previous posts that I’m a geek, so here we go…

When I was in elementary school I had no interest in sports whatsoever. I was short, chubby, and asthmatic. I read a lot, mostly about dinosaurs, sharks, whales, cephalopods, and birds of prey. I had favorites of each, like triceratops, the great white shark, the sperm whale, the giant squid, and the peregrine falcon. One day I’m hanging out with some friends and they’re talking about their favorite teams (mostly the Patriots, but one kid liked the Dolphins and another liked the Chiefs) and they ask me what my favorite team is. I have no clue what teams are in the league, but they’re my friends and they know my interests, so they start blurting out “the Seahawks,” “the Eagles,” and “the Falcons.” Oooh, Falcons! OK, I’ll pick that team!

And so years of frustration began…

Despite making some playoff appearances, winning their division a couple of times, and even going to the Super Bowl back in 1998, the Falcons have mostly had a sad history. As a quick example of how sad, they’re the only team in National Football League history to not have back-to-back winning seasons.

This year has been one of the worst in the team’s history. They finished with only three wins versus thirteen losses. Michael Vick thoroughly embarrassed the team with his dogfighting scandal, and then proceeded to get caught smoking marijuana while on his probation. New head coach Bobby Petrino was disliked by his players from the get-go and eventually quit after only thirteen games, mere hours after assuring owner Arthur Blank that he was in it for the long haul. He announced his resignation to his players by leaving a one-paragraph note in their lockers. Blank has left current general manager Rich McKay, once considered a candidate to be the NFL commissioner, in limbo by rather off-handedly mentioning in a press conference that a new person would be brought in to look for a new head coach and taker over player personnel decisions.

*sigh…*

So where do the Falcons go from here? If some good decisions are made from here on out, things might not be as bleak as they first appear. There is talent on this team – it just needs to be supplemented, molded, motivated, and disciplined. What follows is a position-by-position breakdown.

Owner: Blank’s not going to sell the team any time soon, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I don’t think he’s a bad owner. He does have the team’s and the fans’ best interests at heart. However, he has demonstrated a tendency to wear blinders when it comes to a favorite player (see Michael Vick) and a proclivity towards having knee-jerk reactions when something goes wrong. He seems to panic and not think things through and just go after what may be the most popular or newsworthy solution. For example, when Petrino pulled his disappearing act, Blank immediately went after Bill Parcells to be the new general manager and pick a new head coach, even though Parcells has never demonstrated the ability to stick with a team for the long haul or, in my opinion, make good personnel decisions. Parcells quickly used the Falcons’ offer to leverage a better deal for the same job with the Miami Dolphins, leaving Blank with more egg on his face. Blank also instantly turned to Bill Cowher to be the new head coach, despite the fact that Cowher is retired and has publicly stated that he wishes to remain so for at least one more year. Former Green Bay Packer GM Ron Wolf was also mentioned as a target of Blank’s, despite the fact that he’s sixty-nine and has been retired for a bit. Wolf recently came out and made a public statement that he has no interest whatsoever in coming out of retirement for the Falcons.

Blank needs to calm down, take a breath, and formulate a plan that will not only turn the team around as quickly as possible, but also set the team up for long-term success. He needs to treat all of his players and other employees equally, regardless of their draft status, contract size, or other pedigrees. Finally, he needs to leave football decisions to whoever he hires as a general manager. It’s not that Blank doesn’t know the game, but I don’t think he knows it as well as he thinks he does.

General Manager: When a team declines from 11 – 5 to 8 – 8 to 7 – 9 to 3 – 13 and goes through two head coaches in that span, the guy who makes decisions about what coaches to hire and what players to draft, sign, or trade for has to be taken to task. Rich McKay had an impressive resume when he was hired away from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, having built their Super Bowl team of 2002, but he apparently left that magic in Florida.

His drafts, the backbone of any truly successful team, have been questionable at best. He chose seven players in 2004, of whom only three (CB DeAngelo Hall, WR Michael Jenkins, and OLB Demorrio Williams) are still on the team, two (Hall and Williams) of which are starters, and one (Hall) is considered a star. He drafted eight players in 2005, of whom four (WR Roddy White, DT Jonathan Babineaux, DE Chauncey Davis, and OLB Michael Boley) are still on the team, two (White and Boley) are starting, and one (Boley, though White really emerged this past season) is considered a star. McKay only selected five players in 2006 due to a trade that brought star DE John Abraham to the team. All five picks (DB Jimmy Williams, RB Jerious Norwood, OT Quinn Ojinnaka, WR Adam Jennings, and QB D. J. Shockley) are still on the team, but not one of them is starting. Last year’s draft acquired eleven players, all of whom made the team. At one point or another during the year, five of them (DE Jamaal Anderson, OG Justin Blalock, CB Chris Houston, WR Laurent Robinson, and DT Trey Lewis) started, though only Anderson and Blalock began the season on the first string. Not a bad last gasp, but not good enough for McKay to keep his job. When only nine of thirty-one picks are starting over a four-year period, you’re misfiring too many times.

So who replaces McKay? Peter King, one of Sports Illustrated’s best NFL writers, came up with a list of eight possibilities in his Monday Morning Quarterback article of Christmas Eve: Scott Pioli (New England), Chris Polian (Indianapolis), Jeff Ireland (Dallas), Tim Eckert (Philadelphia), George Kokinis (Baltimore), John Schneider (Green Bay), Bill Kuharich (New Orleans), and Chris Mara (New York Giants). Ireland was just hired by the Miami Dolphins. It seems unlikely that Pioli would leave the Patriots in the foreseeable future. Of the others, Polian has recently removed himself from consideration and Blank has already met with Eckert and Schneider, as well as Reggie McKenzie, a coworker of Schneider’s, and reportedly will meet with Mara. Out of that group being interviewed, I’d probably prefer Eckert, though my dream choice would be Pioli.

Head Coach: Whoever the new GM is, he’s going to need to pick a new head coach. After Petrino left the team, DB coach Emmitt Thomas (once considered to be a hot head coaching candidate) took over and actually won a game, but nobody seriously thinks he’ll get a shot at being the long-term answer. Neither will Hue Jackson or Mike Zimmer, the Falcons’ current Offensive and Defensive Coordinators 9it should be noted that Zimmer recently interviewed with the Bengals for their Defensive Coordinator position).

So if the Falcons won’t promote from within, who will they look at bringing in from outside the organization?

In another article written on New Year’s Day, King listed the following twelve possibilities to get a head coaching job in the NFL in 2008: Jim Caldwell (Indianapolis), Jim Fassel (retired, formerly of the New York Giants), Kirk Ferentz (Iowa University), Jason Garrett (Dallas), Jeff Zagodzinski (Boston College), Josh McDaniels (New England), Rex Ryan (Baltimore), Marty Schottenheimer (retired, formerly of San Diego), Jim Schwartz (Tennessee), Mike Singletary (San Francisco), Tony Sparano (Dallas), and Mike Tice (Jacksonville). After some recent firings, I would add Brian Billick and Cam Cameron to the list.

Of that group, Blank has already to interviewed Caldwell, Garrett, Ryan, and Sparano. Schottenheimer and Singletary have been rumored to either be interested in the job or to have the Falcons interested in them (in Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback article of January 7th, King states that the Falcons are now no longer interested in either Singletary or Schottenheimer). McDaniels has come out and publicly stated, apparently after being contacted by the Falcons and the Baltimore Ravens, that he has no interest in being an NFL head coach at this time. After the Petrino debacle and the rather dismal record of college coaches trying to coach in the NFL, I’m leery of Ferentz and Zagodzinski. After Cameron’s disastrous first year with the Dolphins, I’d only be interested in him as an offensive coordinator. Given the current state of the team, I believe youth would be better served here, so my preferences would be Singletary, Caldwell, Garrett, and Sparano, with Singletary being my top choice. He’s a former player, a Hall-of-Famer, has experience as a coach, and would instantly bring stability and respect from his players. If, in fact, Singletary is no longer in the Falcons’ sights, then I would go with Caldwell.

Quarterback: This was a horrible position for Atlanta in 2007, though I think Joey Harrington and Chris Redman played better than most people give them credit for. Both should be retained for next year as backups. Byron Leftwich can go. He was ineffective, is injury-prone, and wants to be a starter, something he won’t get the chance to do with the Falcons. D. J. Shockley should also be released. He has raw ability, but he’s too much like Vick in his playing style, and that has proven to rarely be successful in the NFL.

As far as Vick is concerned, he’s in jail now and will certainly be cut. The question is how much of an impact will his release have on Atlanta’s salary cap? The team is involved in legal proceedings to try to retrieve as much of the money as they’ve given him in bonuses since he signed his 10-year, $130-million dollar contract back in 2004 as they can. The resolution of those proceedings will have a lot to say in how much money the Falcons will have to play with in free agency.

To improve the position, the Falcons need to look to the draft. Like the head coaching spot, Atlanta’s best bet is to bring somebody in who can be the answer for the next decade or so, not the next twelve months. Free agents or potential waiver wire pickups like Mark Brunell or Chad Pennington are not the answer. The draft offers three or four first-round caliber QB’s in Matt Ryan (Boston College), Andre Woodson (Kentucky), Brian Brohm (Louisville), and Colt Brennan (Hawaii). Of the bunch, my preference would be Ryan. He may not have the arm or raw athletic ability of a John Elway, but he has great intangibles and is a winner.

Running Back: Atlanta was once one of the best running teams in the league. In 2007 they were one of the worst. Petrino’s offense required players who weren’t on the roster. The new head coach will likely also run a system that need backs and lineman who are different from the ones currently on the team.

Warrick Dunn will have to go. At 5’ 9” and 180 pounds, Dunn has always been too small, but in the past he’s been able to make up for it with surprising strength for his size and tremendous speed and elusiveness. At thirty-two years old, those traits appear to be leaving him, though the change in offensive style certainly didn’t help. He only has one year left on his contract, so cutting him will have a minimal impact on the Falcons’ salary cap.

Of the other backs on the roster, Jerious Norwood and Jason Snelling should stick around. Norwood has tremendous speed and home run hitting ability. He catches the ball well, and has proven to be a very good kick returner. He may not have what it takes to be an every-down back, but should be an excellent change-of-pace guy, third-down back, and kick- and perhaps even punt returner. Snelling doesn’t have Norwood’s speed, but he’s much bigger and stronger and can pound the ball between the tackles. He could serve the team well as a short-yardage specialist, plus he can play fullback in a pinch and is a decent special-teamer.

What the Falcons need is a feature back. The only surefire star coming out of the next draft is Darren McFadden, but if Atlanta uses its fist-round pick on a quarterback – which they should do – then McFadden will be long gone before they have a chance to pick again. Free agency, however, offers other possibilities. Current San Diego Charger Michael Turner would be the best free agent option. He’s 237 pounds, runs very well for his size, and is a better receiver and pass-blocker than people think. To date he’s only been LaDanian Tomlinson’s backup, but he has the traits of a feature back. Other free agent options might include Julius Jones (Dallas) and Tatum Bell (Denver), but those two haven’t proven capable of being the man, so they would have to split carries with Norwood more than Turner would. Other draft options that might be available at the top of the second round would be juniors Kevin Smith (Central Florida), Rashard Medenhall (Illinois), Jonathan Stewart (Oregon – if he declares early), and Jamaal Charles (Texas).

Fullback: This is one of the few positions that can be left alone. When used properly, which was rarely done under Petrino, Ovie Mughelli is a hammer in the running game, reliable picking up the blitz, and better than you might think running and receiving. Corey McIntyre is a decent backup and a good special teamer. If the Falcons wanted to upgrade over McIntyre, West Virginia’s Owen Schmitt would be a nice pick in the draft.

Tight End: Another one of the few positions on the team that doesn’t need to be addressed. When Alge Crumpler is healthy and used properly, he’s one of the best in the league. Dwayne Blakeley and Martrez Milner have intriguing potential, though they’re probably better receivers than blockers.

Wide Receiver: For the first time in a long time in Atlanta, receiver is not a position screaming for help. Roddy White had a breakthrough season. Michael Jenkins has been solid, if not spectacular, for two years in a row now. Rookie Laurent Robinson improved as the season went on, culminating in a tremendous game against the Seahawks in the season finale. Adam Jennings was disappointing as a punt returner, but was a decent backup kick returner and still has some potential. Joe Horn was very disappointing and should be cut if he doesn’t retire. A couple of more receivers should be brought in to be the #4 wideout and to try to improve the punt returning.

Offensive Line: This unit was a mess, and everybody knew it was going to be a mess before the season started. A lot of the players weren’t very talented to begin with, and they were all brought in by the Jim Mora, Jr. regime, which used a totally different blocking scheme than Petrino wanted to used, so they were square pegs in round holes. LT Wayne Gandy will either retire or should be cut. C Todd McClure and RT Todd Weiner might be the most talented O-linemen on the team, but they’re getting older and are very undersized. Surprisingly, considering they were recently signed to contract extensions, cutting or trading McClure and Weiner would only cost the Falcons roughly 4.7 million combined in salary cap hits. The only linemen worth keeping are Justin Blalock, Kynan Forney, Tyson Clabo, and Doug Datish – all interior linemen. Fortunately, there are a few good offensive tackles available in free agency, such as Jordan Gross (Carolina) and Flozell Adams (Dallas). Another intriguing possibility would be trying to lure Tarik Glenn (ex-Indianapolis) out of retirement. Depth can be acquired via the draft.

Defensive Line: This unit, when healthy, is actually fairly talented. DE John Abraham and DT Rod Coleman are two of the top pass rushers in the league. Rookie DE Jamaal Anderson was a disappointment, but he was often lined up over the opposing RT, whereas in college he was usually lined up wide, so a dropoff almost should’ve been expected. Give Anderson time and some more strength, particularly in the lower-body, and he should be fine. It’s worth noting that while he didn’t have a single sack in his rookie campaign, Anderson did tie for second on the team in QB hurries. What the Falcons really need is more size inside. The only player of remotely starting caliber talent who is over 300 pounds is Trey Lewis, and he’s not a natural 300+-pounder. Somebody like Frank Okam (Texas) or “Red” Bryant (Texas A&M) would be nice picks in the draft.

Linebacker: Quite likely the most talented unit on the team. SOLB Michael Boley was a near Pro-Bowl performer this year, and it will be the team’s top priority to re-sign him, as he is due to be a restricted free agent. MLB Keith Brooking missed the Pro Bowl for the first time in a while, and would be better suited on the weakside. WOLB Demorrio Williams has great speed. Rookie Stephen Nicholas gave Williams a run for his money when he was healthy. Rookie MLB Tony Taylor is a good run defender and special teamer. Ideally, the Falcons need to get a true middle linebacker so Brooking can move to the weakside. Perhaps Dan Connor (Penn State) at the top of the second round in the draft? And whatever happened to Al Wilson (ex-Denver)? If he can still play, he’d be a great option in the middle.   

Secondary: CB looks to be in fairly decent shape. DeAngelo Hall, for all of his attitude, is one of the best in business. Rookie Chris Houston looks to be a great nickel corner at worst, and a good starter at best. Rookie David Irons was a terrific special teams performer and could be a good nickel or dime back. Ben Grimes, a late season promotion from the practice squad, showed enough to be the fifth cornerback. Free agent acquisition Lewis Sanders began the season as the starter across from Hall but simply doesn’t have the speed to be effective. Upcoming free agents like Nnamdi Asomugha, Drayton Florence, Dominique Foxworth, Terrance Newman, or Marcus Trufant would be a significant upgrade over him.

At strong safety, Lawyer Milloy can still bring the wood against the run, but his age is starting to catch up to him in coverage. He only has one year left on his contract and there doesn’t appear to be a better option available via either free agency or the draft, so expect him back in 2008. Rookie Darren Stone played well on special teams and has intriguing athletic ability. FS Chris Crocker rebounded very nicely from a disappointing 2006 season, finishing second on the team in passes defensed. He will be a free agent, so the team needs to make a concerted effort to bring him back. Jimmy Williams, the top pick of the Falcons’ 2006 draft, has been a bit of a letdown to date. He played at cornerback his rookie year and was unimpressive. This past season he was shifted to free safety and given every chance to earn the starting job, but failed to do so. At one point this past year he was even benched from the special teams unit. Nevertheless, he has too much physical ability to give up on just yet. Antione Harris and Omare Lowe (who spent 2007 on the Injured Reserve list) will compete for the fifth safety spot. I would give the edge to Lowe, who can play all the secondary positions and has proven to be a demon on special teams.

Special Teams: The Falcons were one of the best teams in the league at returning kicks and covering punts. Conversely, they were average at best at covering kickoffs and returning punts. Getting Omare Lowe back from injury may help the kickoff coverage teams. Trying out Jerious Norwood, Laurent Robinson, Brent Grimes, or perhaps even DeAngelo Hall (if the team wants to risk further exposing him to injury) might improve the punt returning.

Michael Koenen is a solid punter and very good on kickoffs. He even has experience (if not much success) kicking field goals and extra points.

 The placekicking position is a disaster. For the last two years in a row the Falcons have had to dust the cobwebs off of Morten Andersen (who was reputedly Methuselah’s best man) to save them at this position after trying the likes of Koenen and Michael Prater. The draft doesn’t offer any surefire solutions (oh, how I wish the Falcons had picked Mason Crosby last year. I wonder what Green Bay would want for him in a trade?), so Atlanta will have to turn to free agency. Fortunately, the free agent market offers the likes of Josh Brown (Seattle), Jason Elam (Denver), Rob Bironas (Tennessee), Shaun Suisham (Washington), and Lawrence Tynes (New York Giants).

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