Let's start with the good. Falcons fans could have easily watched their team beat the Jags 41-14 and believe that in the past six quarters, including the second half of Atlanta's 31-23 win over the Panthers last week, the Falcons have played their best football of the season. There's truth in that, as Atlanta has looked really good on both sides of the ball. But because the level of competition was so bad, it is hard to reach that conclusion. There is no question that the Falcons looked excellent Thursday night. From the first play on offense to the first play on defense, they dominated the game. It was clear this game was going to be over faster than the Mike Tyson-Michael Spinks fight.
The Falcons did what a good team must do in these situations: not play down to the level of competition. For the Falcons to win, they now know they cannot alter their style. Their formula for winning is the same it has been the past three years -- feature RB Michael Turner, run play-action passes and not expose their offensive line by having to drop-back pass protect more than 40 times a game. Adding receiver Julio Jones this offseason, the Falcons thought they could expand their offense and alter their approach. They wanted to keep up with the Packers. The problem is the Falcons offensive line consists of good zone-run blockers who can get onto the second level, but struggle with physical power. They have a hard time pass protecting, which creates problems for QB Matt Ryan.
This is not a secret around the NFL. Opponents know that if they take Michael Turner away, it will put the Falcons offense in a bad situation. Or if a good opponent makes the Falcons play from behind, they will struggle to consistently protect Ryan. The 49ers offensive line is similar. When they run the ball, they can then feature the play-action pass game, but when they have to drop back and pass, it gets dicey. Just look at how San Francisco fared against Baltimore and Arizona. For the Falcons and 49ers to win, they must run the ball well and not play from behind. This formula works, but can it beat the Packers or the Saints? That is where I have my strong doubts.
Now for the bad. In my 20-plus years in the NFL, I don't think I have seen a high first-round pick look as scared or as out of place as Blaine Gabbert. The game looks entirely too big for him. When the ball is in his hand, he treats it like a hot potato. His play was embarrassing, considering he was a top 10 pick. I believed Gabbert was a good prospect and wrote about it leading up to the draft. When everyone was concerned about his down-field throws, I thought he would be able to adjust. But never did I think his eye level would be this low, his unwillingness to hang in the pocket this bad. I readily admit my mistake. Now the Jags need to do the same. The longer they play him, they run the risk of losing the team. How can they expect the players around him to buy in? Gabbert cannot fool his teammates. If he continues to play like this, no one will want to play with him.
Now, I understand it is really early in Gabbert's career, and the Jags have a pedestrian offense and no receivers around him. But his play borders on that of an undrafted free agent. Organizations that are the most successful are the ones that ignore draft status and evaluate the players on how they play. I realize the Jags have a significant investment in Gabbert, but they have a bigger one in winning games.
Jags GM Gene Smith has a huge problem. He has to lure a coach into Jacksonville and convince that potential coach that what he is seeing on tape is not the player who Gabbert really can become. Who would want the job saddled with a first-round bust? Smith can find anyone to agree to becoming an NFL head coach, but the good candidates will walk away, or won't even interview.
New owner Shahid Khan has to feel excited about finally being a part of a super-exclusive club. I am not so sure he should feel as excited about his team or its future. The one thing I know for sure -- his Jaguars won't be on national television again any time soon.
The First 15
- The game of the week has the Broncos and Tim Tebow facing the Patriots and Tom Brady. Can Tebow continue his magic? The Broncos must keep the ball and limit the Patriots' possessions. Since Tebow has become the starter, the Broncos have scored more than 30 points only twice; the Patriots have scored less than 30 only three times all season. For the Broncos to win, it will have more to do with their defense than Tebow.
- The 49ers have struggled offensively in two of the past three games. If they are going to go far in the playoffs, they must stop kicking field goals and score touchdowns. The Niners lead the NFL in field-goal attempts with 42, seven more than the next closest team. For perspective, Green Bay has attempted 25; New England 26. The Niners won't be able to settle for field goals once the playoffs start.
- I would have given my game ball last week to Broncos safety Raheem Moore. He is a really bad tackler and was benched this year because of it. However, his missed tackle on Marion Barber forced the Cowboys RB to run out of bounds and allowed the Broncos to get the ball back. Had Brian Dawkins not gotten hurt, maybe the Broncos would not have won. And why didn't the Bears just run a quarterback wedge three times in a row? As bad as it was for Barber to run out of bounds, Lovie Smith's game management might have been worse.
- If you just landed in Cincinnati last Sunday and knew nothing about the NFL draft, watching Texans QB T.J. Yates and Bengals QB Andy Dalton play, it would be hard to tell which one was the second-round pick and which one was the fifth-rounder. Yates is the real deal. He is poised, he can move and -- unlike Gabbert -- the game is not too big for him.
- Another fifth-round pick, John Skelton of the Cards, is 3-1 as a starter. He has looked like the better player than Kevin Kolb and should get consideration to be the full-time starter. Who says you can't find quarterbacks in later rounds? Skelton and Yates look as good if not better than early picks Christian Ponder, Dalton and Gabbert.
- Minnesota has announced it is going to bring back coach Leslie Frazier next season. I was hearing that had Frazier not won any games down the stretch, his return was questionable. The Vikings need to rebuild, so the fundamental question they must have asked themselves before announcing the return of Frazier: Is he the best coach for our rebuilding process and subsequently can he lead us to the Super Bowl? If the answer is no on either account, they should not bring him back.
- I found the comments by Mike Holmgren, the Browns' king of kings, about his team's won-loss record rather interesting. Holmgren thinks his team should be at least 7-6 right now, had they not had some tough breaks and dropped some easy balls. I am not sure I agree, especially considering some of their wins could have been losses if their opponents caught some breaks and didn't drop some easy balls. Holmgren of all people should know that you are what your record says you are -- nothing less, nothing more. Being realistic is the first step towards improvement.
- I received numerous comments about putting Jason Pierre-Paul on my midseason all-pro team. Many felt he did not deserve to be on the list, but in reality, after DeMarcus Ware, he was the next easiest guy to put on the list. I wonder if the Eagles and Jags, who both took defensive linemen ahead of Pierre-Paul, would like to have a do-over? The Jags reached for Tyson Alualu and the Birds took Brandon Graham. Those mistakes make watching Pierre-Paul dominate hard to do. And this is another example that no matter how good your defensive line might be, if a great lineman is on the board, just take him. The Giants' strength was their defensive line before they picked Pierre-Paul and now with him, it is dominating. Al Davis was right when he would tell me to always build on a strength.
- I really think, when things are all said and done, the Chiefs will hire Romeo Crennel as their next head coach. Typically teams hire the opposite of their last coach. Todd Haley was volatile and out of control; Crennel is calm and patient. Plus, Crennel won't fight the Patriot way in Kansas City like Haley always did.
- From everything I have been told, former Chiefs President Carl Peterson will be making his return to the NFL in Miami. Peterson is ironing out the final details on his new deal, which will make him the final decision-maker in Miami.
- Besides the Patriots-Broncos game, the Lions-Raiders game should be a good one. Both teams are desperate to win to keep their playoff hopes alive. For the Raiders to win, they must run the ball and keep from making Carson Palmer have to carry the team. For the Lions, they must have their best day of the year offensively, as there is no one on the Raiders who can cover Calvin Johnson. Should be a fun game.