|Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press|
|The Falcons' new-look offense, featuring Julio Jones (left) and Roddy White, has been inconsistent in 2011.|
Late in the third quarter Sunday, Falcons QB Matt Ryan dropped back with a purpose, knowing the pressure of Houston's top-ranked defense was going to force a quick decision. From the heel of his back foot, taking nearly no time, he heaved a 26-yard pass toward the right sideline.
Rookie wide receiver Julio Jones, using the 10-inch hands that were methodically measured by the Falcons' training staff leading up to the 2011 NFL Draft, exploded toward the ball for a sweet catch on the 4-yard line. The next play? Roddy White capped it off with a short touchdown.
These are the sequences that general manager Thomas Dimitroff dreamed up less than eight months ago, the ones that fueled the two-time NFL executive of the year to boldly jump 21 spots to the sixth overall pick to add Jones to his roster. But this wasn't just the fantasy -- it was the expectation.
"Julio is a big, explosive wide receiver that is going to add to the explosiveness of our team," Dimitroff said on the day of the draft.
"That's something that, in the offseason when we were studying, we know we've got to be more explosive."
Yet on the two-hour plane ride from Houston to Atlanta, following what turned into a 17-10 loss, few people (namely Jones) spent much time thinking about that one catch. Or the 20-yard catch later in the fourth quarter with 35 seconds to go in the game. Instead, Jones couldn't shake the memory of a dropped pass on the final play in the end zone, which resulted in a failed chance to tie the game.
"I should have made that play," Jones said Wednesday. "If you put any receiver, any athlete, in that situation, they'll feel like they should have made that play. I didn't, so I've just got to keep moving forward and try to get better."
The difference between these two moments -- between the expected execution and the missed chances -- do not by any means fall solely on the rookie. Averaging 16.6 yards on his 34 catches, Jones mostly is playing well in his debut season. However, there is no better symbolism, no better clarity for a strange season in Atlanta, than this one.
The Falcons have both the talent and the chemistry, just as Dimitroff dreamed up, to hang with the high-powered improvements made by teams within their division, and they've shown just that in bite-sized bursts during a 7-5 start. The highlight reel from the first 12 games will be nothing short of explosive.
But the lowlights -- which could include as many as 24 dropped passes (tied for third worst in the NFL) -- will be sobering. White added two more to his league-leading total, and Jones' own pair of drops Sunday didn't help, either. It also isn't a good sign when Ryan, for all his poise and accuracy, hasn't always helped his receivers by missing the mark on a number of deep balls.
"Our guys ran great routes and did exactly what we asked them to do," said Ryan, partly because that's what he has to say and partly because it's true.
"I just didn't put the ball in the right spot, and we've got to make those plays. That's as simple as it is."
In many instances, it really is that simple -- even if it's going to require more than one person to accomplish the task. If the Falcons have been missing one element this season, it has been on the on-field connection between Ryan and his receivers, which particularly is surprising since that's seemingly what has made this squad so special over the past three seasons.
For what it's worth, the offensive coordinator (Mike Mularkey) remains the same. The weapons are plenty: White, Jones, tight end Tony Gonzalez, running back Michael Turner and third receiver Harry Douglas. Even Ryan, who seems more and more comfortable calling his own plays in the huddle and at the line, should be improving on his chemistry with his players. Not losing it.
Yet in the past four games -- two of them losses -- the Falcons haven't eclipsed 24 points. So what gives? And what does it mean for the rest of this season?
First of all, I'm not convinced the Falcons are facing a doom-and-gloom situation, and they'll only reach that point if they convince themselves of such a scenario. Three of their next four games are divisional, which means it's certainly realistic for Atlanta to hold onto the sixth spot in the wild-card race as long as it doesn't fall off the rails.
During this span, though, it's time for the Falcons to find that missing groove, an accomplishment that's very possible. Something to keep in mind: Although Jones was the Falcons' major addition on offense, the team has worked toward adjusting its identity.
The Falcons added Jones because, if you're going to make a push in the playoffs, you need to have that explosiveness.
Although seemingly a minor tweak, the Falcons are working through the growing pains of shifting from a ball-control team to one with the capability of sparking something with a much more significant, more frequent big play. Drop a few here, overthrow a few there, and suddenly the idea of ball control has been majorly diluted.
The Falcons have the talent to be among the NFL's elite teams. They've been built through the draft, and they now possess a balance of players with varying skill sets -- something that was accomplished through the bold (and still very likeable) addition of Jones this offseason. Now, though, as the final quarter of the season approaches, it's time for this team to pull it all together.
A playoff run is plenty possible, even in the wake of the recent disappointments, particularly in Houston. So will the Falcons find their rhythm? Will they stop handcuffing themselves by a number of oddities on offense? They'll have the opportunity in the next four games.
Now, they'd just better not drop it.
"[Coach Mike Smith] talks all the time about being relevant in December," Ryan said. "That's one of the focus points at the beginning of the year. We're certainly relevant. We've got four games left in order for us to get to where we want to be."
Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @JeffDarlington.