The haterade floweth freely against the Falcons. So many people scoff at their 13-3 record, citing mainly the lack of strength of schedule. The undeniable truth, however, is that the Falcons have it all going for them this year. They went 13-3 in an NFC South division that featured 34 wins as their division rivals all finished 7-9. They were phenomenal at home going 7-1 only losing a cleanup game to a feisty Buccaneers team. They don’t have to worry about the pesky Saints club this year that finished 7-9 despite a horrific start to the season in the midst of their bountygate scandal, and having their eyes set on a Super Bowl XLVII that would have proven to be a home game for them.
Matty Ice has had a career year posting his best numbers in yards, touchdowns and passer rating. Most notable of those numbers being the 4,700+ yards passing that should put him into the “elite” talk that sports pundits love to cite. Tony Gonzalez is having his best year since joining the Dirty Birds or rather since he was a young whippersnapper at the age of 32. The offense in general is looking well-balanced and efficient, and the defense is looking as stout as it has ever looked during Ryan’s tenure as the Falcons have scored an impressive 419 points and held their opponents to an even more impressive 299.
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All signs point to postseason success for a habitually underachieving Falcons team that have fizzled come January year after year. The only thing that has the Falcons looking like Plaxico Burress (shooting themselves in the foot) is sustaining key injuries to Dunta Robinson and John Abraham in the final game of the season. Let me just say, I feel bad for Mike Smith. He’s an old school careful calculator that knows how to put a good team together even if he lacks the gall to be modern NFL coach and lacks in leadership. You can tell he is frustrated, there is a sense of being backed into a corner in Atlanta both by fate and by the media. An easy reference to such frustration is the relationship between the Brees Saints and the Ryan Falcons in the last few years. You can go back to Ryan’s rookie days where Smith took the old school approach and trusted his defense.
In 2008 the Falcons were facing a 4th and 5 with about 3:30 left and 2 timeouts trailing the Saints 25-29. Smith decided to go the conservative route and punt the ball to Brees and lo and behold Brees closed out the game. Then fast forward to 2010, where the Falcons are trailing the pain-in-their-side Saints on Monday Night Football facing a 4th and 6 from their own 44 with two timeouts and 3 minutes to go. Smith decides to punt again and déjà vu Brees closes it out. The very next year the Falcons manage to take their big brother Saints to OT and face a 4th and inches from their own 29. You can only take so much right? Smith finally fights back, but with an outdated old school approach and chooses a run up the gut that the Saints were plenty ready for and handed them a victory.
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“Stigma” is the word. That sort of stigma doesn’t fade from the Saints-Falcons rivalry, and Smith has developed an even more significant stigma with postseason play.
In Ryan’s rookie year in 2008 the Falcons managed to earn a wildcard spot against the Cardinals going 11-5. The rookie Ryan’s nerves stunk up the football and the defense was itching to pounce on him. He started the game with a pick and Smith reacted by breaking out the Vince Lombardi playbook and called an old man’s game from there on. The Cardinals were all over it and forced a key fumble and another pick to end the Falcons run. Now I’m sure that loss didn’t sting too bad. You had a rookie quarterback that was nervous which isn’t rare by any means and you ran into a team of destiny.
When the Falcons returned to the playoff spotlight in 2010 they decided to try and get into a shootout with Aaron Rodger’s Packers, which is basically like trying to get into a shootout with Wild Bill. They did manage to trade punches for most of the first half, but the game was defined by one play. After throwing a pick in a 14-14 tie late in the second that led to a Packers touchdown, the Falcons managed to get into field goal range with only seconds to work with. Ryan dropped back, let one fly, and found himself trying to chase down Traymon Williams as he housed a pick 6 with as time expired to give the Packers a 28-14 lead that came from 14 points being scored in less than 3 minutes. The Falcons never recovered, fumbling twice in the fourth quarter and losing by 27. You could almost hear Smith saying “No I’m telling you this’ll work! It’s how I’ve always played the game.”
Last year the Falcons got yet another shot. After a huge momentum boost in getting a safety in what looked to be a defensive struggle and field position battle, the Falcons just quit playing. The offense did absolutely nothing and the defense began to lay down for the eventual Super Bowl Champion Giants. It was the same old game plan from the same old coach.
I have to admit, this year the team looks to be playing at today’s NFL speed and cunning. You see the zone runs and stop routes, the utilization of the tight end and some beautifully orchestrated play action.
The only thing is that the damage is done.
To win now under Smith the Falcons will have to play perfect, or get a visit from the Men in Black and have their memories erased with a poof of red light. Even with no Saints, a not-so-young quarterback that is now of veteran-elite status, and a stellar season at their backs, the Falcons have a looming air of failure. All it will take is one or two small things, a turnover, a missed block, a sack, even a three and out might do it. The memories of the failures of years passed will haunt them.
Smith will be haunted most.
There has to be a sense of injustice that besieges this poor man. In his eyes he’s doing nothing wrong, he putting a solid team together, and keeping true to the old school mentality of the way the game is played that he holds so dear. He’s getting results from his team with plenty of wins and success in the regular season and fails to see why it doesn’t work in the postseason. The answer is that you have to take risks to win in January. Teams save their best for playoff games, tricky plays, surprises left and right. If you are taught to stand your ground like a Smith coached team is, then it’s no wonder that you are caught flat-footed. The key to the Falcons winning in the postseason is ridding themselves of an outdated stigma named Mike Smith.