As the reigning NFC South champions prepare to host this year's division leaders, the New Orleans Saints, on "Thursday Night Football", they are a shell-shocked shadow of their former selves. Coming off a 41-28 beatdown by the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers four days ago, the Falcons are 2-8 and completely mystified as to how they fell so far, so fast.
With six games left in this lost season, embattled coach Mike Smith and his players are still coming to terms with the notion that they're in the thick of the race for the No. 1 overall pick in next spring's draft rather than gunning for another shot at the franchise's first championship ring.
"It's disappointing to have our team playing the way we've been playing," Smith said Tuesday night, two days after being given a public vote of confidence by owner Arthur Blank. "I really believe each year in the NFL, the dynamics change, and there's always a different feel to it than the previous year. But yeah, this has been (surprising). We've got to keep fighting through, just like any other season."
According to several sources familiar with the situation, Smith, who won more games over the previous five years than any coach except the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick, has been told personally by Blank he'll return for the 2014 season, regardless of how miserable this one turns out. Not surprisingly, general manager Thomas Dimitroff -- a two-time NFL Executive of the Year who hired the previously unheralded Smith shortly after taking over in 2008 -- is also safe.
Asked after the defeat to the Bucs if he still had complete confidence in Dimitroff and Smith, Blank told reporters, "I do. I absolutely do. They've earned it over the last five years. This is a tough business ... The guys are proven leaders and proven by success. Their records speak for themselves. They'll do the work that has to be done with my full support."
This is not to say that Blank isn't exceptionally frustrated with the current state of affairs. If the owner had ultra-high expectations coming into the 2013 season, he certainly wasn't alone. The Falcons, who'd captured the first playoff victory of the Dimitroff/Smith era by winning a dramatic divisional-round game over the Seattle Seahawks at the Dome, came tantalizingly close to repeating the feat in the NFC Championship Game, jumping out to a 17-0 lead over the San Francisco 49ers and finishing 30 feet from salvation in an eventual 28-24 defeat.
Just as that '99 Atlanta team was waylaid by the crushing loss of an irreplaceable star (via halfback Jamal Anderson's torn ACL in Week 2), this year's Falcons haven't recovered from Pro Bowl receiver Julio Jones' season-ending foot injury in Week 5.
The similarities stop there, however. Whereas the '98 Falcons had been a bunch of upstart underdogs whose stunning NFC Championship Game victory over the heavily favored Minnesota Vikings seemed more like an aberration, Atlanta's 2012 success had been steadily building over a five-year period, as Matt Ryan evolved from rookie prodigy to elite quarterback and Dimitroff surrounded him with playmakers.
Once the 2013 league year began, there was little doubt that Dimitroff was loading up for a Super Bowl run. From the signing of Ryan to a five-year, $103.75 million contract extension, to the coaxing of future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez back for a final season, to the free-agent acquisitions of potentially declining veterans like running back Steven Jackson and pass rusher Osi Umenyiora, this was a franchise intent on taking the next step.
Instead, the Falcons face-planted, following up a winless preseason with a run of heartbreaking early-season defeats that seemed to sully their collective self-esteem. The first of those, a 23-17 setback to the rival Saints in the Superdome that marked New Orleans coach Sean Payton's return after a season-long exile for his role in the team's pay-for-injure scandal, served as the ultimate tone-setter, and not in a good way.
As in the NFC Championship Game, the Falcons, needing a late touchdown to win, got chillingly close to the goal line -- and couldn't convert. In the final minute, the Falcons faced a third-and-goal at the 3-yard line, but a Ryan pass to Jackson that looked exceedingly catchable caromed off the halfback's hands. The quarterback's fourth-down pass, intended for Gonzalez, was intercepted by Roman Harper.
By the time Jones went down, in a 30-28 Monday night defeat to the New York Jets at the Dome, the Falcons were in a full-fledged funk. And while they certainly suffered a disproportionate share of health-related misfortune, with key players such as linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, Jackson and left tackle Sam Baker missing significant time, Smith doesn't want to hear that as a rationalization for underperformance.
"Oh, no," he said. "Injuries are going to occur in the NFL. Believe me, you can't use those as an excuse. Every team has the injury factor they have to deal with, and we haven't dealt with it well."
In fairness, Jones' absence -- combined with the nagging injury issues experienced by his bookend receiving threat, perennial Pro Bowl wideout Roddy White -- has had a ruinous ripple effect on the team's passing attack. It nullified Atlanta's greatest and most unique strength (the NFL's most feared tandem of wide receivers) and allowed opposing defenses to gang up on Gonzalez, especially in the red zone.
While Harry Douglas, an underappreciated slot receiver and third-down threat, stepped up admirably to increased responsibilities, Ryan clearly has suffered from the lack of exceptional skill players -- and, though his pay grade would suggest he's capable of doing otherwise, has been unable to put the team on his back.
A significant drop-off in the performance of his offensive line hasn't helped, either. Baker has been a shell of the player who, Dimitroff believed, was in the top third of NFL left tackles in 2012. The conversion of Peter Konz, a second-round draft pick in 2012, from guard to center (to replace the retired Todd McClure) has been a disaster, too. And though Jackson returned in late October after having missed four games with a hamstring injury, the running game has continued to struggle, with the Falcons habitually viewing third-and-short as a passing down.
Defensively, the Falcons have fallen off considerably from last season, with safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore often singled out for criticism. Amazingly, if South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney decides to forego his senior season and enter the 2014 NFL Draft, Atlanta could be in position to acquire the player regarded as the NFL's top pass-rushing prospect in several years.
That scenario, of course, would hinge on the Falcons staying near the bottom of the league (they're one of four 2-8 teams in knock-kneed pursuit of the 1-9 Jacksonville Jaguars) -- a strategy which, not surprisingly, Smith would never endorse. Smith's bosses aren't amenable to tanking, either. Consider the unwillingness of Blank and Dimitroff to consider dealing Gonzalez, whose quest for a final run at a championship had clearly turned futile, to a contending team before the Oct. 29 trade deadline.
"If that had happened," said one Falcons source, "it would have sent a horrible signal to our fans -- and to our team -- that we were giving up."
Instead, the Falcons will keep fighting. And ultimately, Dimitroff and Smith will spend many weeks evaluating what went wrong and how to fix it, given that Blank still has faith in their ability to guide his franchise to the top.
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"I appreciate Arthur's support," Smith said. "But my focus in on one thing: the next game. We've got to go out and play football like we're capable of playing. If we do that, we're gonna like the outcome of the game."