Yogi Berra famously said, "It ain't over 'til it's over."
In reality, though, it's over. Has to be.
I don't write this to sensationalize. I don't write this with a smile on my face, considering how much I like and respect Mike Smith.
Smith, in conjunction with general manager Thomas Dimitroff and quarterback Matt Ryan, rescued the organization from the depths of embarrassment. Amid the foul odor of franchise face Michael Vick being imprisoned for running a dog-fighting ring followed by head coach Bobby Petrino quitting in cowardly fashion, the Falcons were in football hell. Smith helped bring Atlanta back to respectability. That can't be diminished. Mike Smith is 62-41 as the Falcons' coach in the regular season. They made the playoffs four times in Smith's first five years at the helm -- after hitting the postseason just five times in the 25 years prior to Smith's arrival. That's good stuff.
But is he the right man to take this franchise to the next level, to make the Falcons a consistent bunch that can win in the playoffs?
Evidence says absolutely not. Intuition says the same thing.
The Falcons were supposed to fly last year. Even before devastating injuries absolutely leveled the team, early losses to the New Orleans Saints and New York Jets were preventable. And since the start of the 2013 season, Atlanta is 6-17. You must give Smith credit for the early winning percentage. But you also must criticize him for 10 double-digit losses in his past 17 games. Clearly, this is going in the wrong direction.
As displayed in HBO's "Hard Knocks" this past summer, the Falcons' grand plan in the build-up to this season was to shed a reputation as a "soft" team. And frankly, this characterization wasn't simply a media creation. Atlanta was punished and pushed around in the trenches in 2013, finishing with the NFL's worst rushing offense and second-worst rushing defense. In response, Dimitroff hit this past offseason with a purpose, pouncing on three valuable line assets on Day 1 of free agency (NT Paul Soliai, DT Tyson Jackson and OG Jon Asamoah) and proceeding to spend the Falcons' first- and second-round picks on spots in the trenches (OT Jake Matthews at No. 6 overall, DT Ra'Shede Hageman at No. 37).
The result? Atlanta is still getting crushed. The blowouts are starting to pile up. During their current four-game losing streak, the Falcons have lost by an average of two touchdowns. The home debacle against Chicago in Week 6 was followed up by a no-show in Baltimore on Sunday. Yes, Sean Weatherspoon's offseason injury hurt, as have ailments along the offensive line. But it's just a bad brew right now, snowballing downhill.
Harbaugh's regular-season mark (67-36) isn't much different from Smith's record. The separation, of course, comes in the playoffs. Harbaugh has eight more postseason wins -- and, most especially, he was what Smith craves: a Super Bowl championship.
Meanwhile, Atlanta is a two-win team dwindling in the bottom half of a weak division.
That's a noteworthy juxtaposition.
Now, the NFC South has become a hot mess from top to bottom. You can't trust any of the four teams, as the division's winless weekend proved yet again. (Last-place Tampa Bay didn't lose ... because the Buccaneers didn't play.) Thus, the Falcons are not dead in the division race. But even if the Falcons win nine games (which I don't think will happen) and grab the NFC South crown (again, long shot), is that good enough? Is that considered a success when the bar has supposedly been raised in Atlanta?
The 2014 season was about toughness; it was about proving the 2013 disaster was a fluke.
Unfortunately, the lackluster campaign of last year is looking more like the beginning of a trend. And it will be a bitter disappointment for Atlanta to not take advantage of its hapless competition.
Smith, Dimitroff and Ryan all arrived in 2008. If we are ranking how they've each performed, I think Smith is clearly No. 3. And the downward spiral of the past 14 months proves it's time to cut the weakest link.
Maybe this is the job that attracts the next big-name college coach. Maybe this is the gig Nick Saban jumps at, with his ties to front-office folks in Atlanta. Maybe it's the next hot NFL assistant, or the currently-out-of-work coach with a Super Bowl ring.
But there's no maybe about Atlanta needing a different voice for 2015.
Mike Smith helped save the franchise. Now it's time for the next coach to get Atlanta to the next level.