Tag Archive: Mike Smith


It seems like ages ago that I and many other Falcons fans were beginning to have that sickening feeling deep down inside: Will Mike Vick be able to lead the Falcons to a Super Bowl? For so many years I had debated and rationalized why Vick could and would be the quarterback to get the Falcons to their first Super Bowl since 1998, but with every year that passed with little to no progression from Vick and the same disappointing losses in the playoffs after the magical win over Brett Favre and the Packers at Lambeau Field I began to wonder if Vick had what it took to win a Super Bowl. It sounds like revisionist history now, but the year before Bobby Petrino was hired I had given up almost all hope. I wasn’t convinced that Vick was going to put the time in to improve and without that I was convinced the Falcons would keep losing in the playoffs to teams with the athleticism to keep Vick in the pocket and force him to make accurate, on time throws (like the Eagles, for example). Petrino was hired and I was very, very skeptical. He had just signed a 10 year, $25.6 million extension with the Cardinals that suggested he was getting significant interest from other schools and Louisville wanted to make an obvious commitment to him to fend them off. He signed  that contract on July 13th, 2006. On January 7th, 2007, not even a full 6 months after he signed a 10 year extension, he became the new Head Coach of the Atlanta Falcons. I thought he was a snake, but he had an impressive track record on the offensive side of the ball and Vick’s strong arm would seemingly be a great fit in his system. Then the entire team came crashing down after Vick was indicted on dog fighting charges and suddenly every Falcon fan was longing for the better days when Vick would drop his eyes before going through his progressions, scramble and somehow avoid a sack to extend a drive. As bad as that season was, I honestly thought it was a necessary cleanse. The Falcons never would have cut Vick with that contract unless something like that happened, and I was more than convinced the Falcons weren’t going to win a Super Bowl with Vick at the helm. If we wanted to win a Super Bowl, as hard as it was, we needed to get a new quarterback. I never really anticipated seeing Vick go that abruptly, but it opened the door to a bevy of possibilities. As we all know, Petrino confirmed my suspicions and ditched the Falcons and all of his players before the season was over (again, less than a year after he became the head coach) to accept the same position at Arkansas.

You might all be wondering what this has to do with this season’s Falcons. Vick hasn’t been on the roster for years, and most Falcon fans are glad they got rid of Petrino (myself included). But after so many years of wondering if we had a quarterback and a roster that could make a run at a Super Bowl, this year I truly believe that we can. The reason I’m writing this article, however, is because I believe that if we don’t win one this year we might not have another good chance for a few years.

Now you are probably really confused. “This team is 13-2 and they’re in the playoffs year in and year out with Mike Smith at the helm and Matt Ryan at quarterback. Who is this guy?” The answer to that question is I am a guy who has been advocating for the Falcons to draft a dynamic tight end to learn from Tony Gonzalez for three years to no avail. The answer to that question is I am a guy who has been begging the Falcons to draft a pass rusher who has the potential to replace John Abraham once he inevitably starts to slow down and become less effective. The answer to that question is I am a guy who has taken a look at the upcoming free agents the Falcons will have to try and re-sign this offseason, and it’s a significant list.

The Falcons team this year is a team that feels like a team that can win a Super Bowl to me though. They have gotten breaks when they’ve needed them, they have won close games without playing their best, and they have beaten teams that have given them issues in the past (most notably the New York Giants, but also the New Orleans Saints). Not only that, but they have evolved from a team that protects Matt Ryan with the running game to a team that throws the ball to compensate for Turner’s ineffectiveness that I hope will lead to his release this offseason. They have also evolved from a team that could barely stop anyone on defense to a team who forces a lot of turnovers and can win games with their defense. That is the biggest difference this year, and that is one reason why I think this is the year they need to win.

If the Falcons don’t win this year they are going to have some pieces to replace, some depth to replenish, and probably some front office personnel and coaches to replace. Mike Nolan has transformed this defense from a middle of the road defense into an aggressive, turnover forcing machine. I personally believe he has been one of the best defensive coordinators in the NFL this year, if not the best. But now that he has done such a great job with the Falcons defense there are going to be teams that will consider giving him another shot at being a Head Coach, and he deserves those opportunities. But if the Falcons lose him their defense will not be the same. Their front office has done a great job drafting as of late as well, and that has led to David Caldwell reportedly garnering interest from teams that will need a new General Manager. Losing him would certainly be a significant blow to the Falcons front office.

On the field the Falcons have a lot of potential issues to manage as well. Brent Grimes is coming off of a serious Achilles injury that plenty of great athletes haven’t come all the way back from, and he is a free agent after the Falcons were unable to reach a long-term agreement with him on an extension that led to them using the franchise tag on him (and ultimately losing Curtis Lofton in free agency to the Saints). The Falcons likely won’t feel comfortable giving him a huge long term deal, and Grimes will want more than a one or two year trial contract. If they weren’t able to come to an agreement last year before his injury I don’t see any reason they will all of a sudden see eye to eye on his value this year. If you follow me on Twitter you are well aware that I am not a fan of Dunta Robinson and I would much rather have Grimes than Robinson, but Robinson already got a big contract and according to www.spotrac.com (@spotrac) he is due $8 million in 2013, $10 million in 2014 and $11.5 million in 2015. I would be very surprised if they paid him the final $21.5 million they owe him on that contract, but regardless of that they already have a lot of money tied up in him and probably aren’t ready to sign Grimes to a big contract after his injury even if he deserves to get paid much more than Robinson does.

Not only is Grimes a free agent, but Tony Gonzalez is a free agent and he is very likely going to retire. The Falcons are lucky to have had him for this long, and for some reason they wouldn’t draft a quality tight end prospect (I was pounding the table for Aaron Hernandez since I had a 1st round grade on him) to be his heir apparent. Well now they are faced with Gonzalez’ retirement and his back-up tight end is Michael Palmer. Palmer is not the long-term answer, and he’s certainly not going to replace Gonzalez’ impact on the passing game that Matt Ryan has gotten used to the last three years. On top of that, Sam Baker is an unrestricted free agent (UFA), his back-up Will Svitek is a UFA, old man river Todd McClure is a UFA, and William Moore is a UFA. Key reserves like Chris Hope and Mike Peterson are UFA’s as well. The Falcons don’t have a replacement on the roster for Grimes (though I have been very happy with how Robert McClain has played this year), Gonzalez, or William Moore, and McClure’s heir apparent Peter Konz has spent the majority of the year getting beat at right guard, including an embarrassing showing against Ndamukong Suh on Saturday night against the Lions.

There’s certainly nothing stopping the Falcons from retaining Baker, Svitek, Grimes, Moore, McClure, Hope and Peterson, but McClure and Peterson are getting very long in the tooth, Baker has been an average starter his entire career, Svitek isn’t the answer at left tackle, and I’ve already detailed some of the potential issues with locking Grimes up. These aren’t cornerstone players, but losing Grimes and Moore would be devastating long term for this secondary, and the Falcons’ offensive line isn’t good enough to deal with losing one or more starters without a significant upgrade. Not only that, but even though John Abraham is under contract through 2014 with a modest salary of $3.25 million for both 2013 and 2014 he is unlikely to continue to play at this high level for much longer and the Falcons have not secured a suitable replacement for him either. Lawrence Sidbury was drafted to hopefully develop into a quality pass rusher but he has been an absolute non-factor his entire career in Atlanta, and even though Jonathan Massaquoi has some upside he fell to the 6th round because his production dropped off considerably the year before he declared for the draft. Hopefully slimming back down to his sophomore weight will help him develop into a quality option, but I’m also not holding my breath for him to become the caliber of player that Abraham has been for the Falcons all these years. That means the Falcons will be facing some tough decisions this offseason, but luckily for them this draft class figures to have some high end tight end talent and has a bevy of pass rushing depth. The Falcons would be very wise to look at TE and DE in the first two rounds this year in my opinion.

I don’t mean to write a doom and gloom article, because it’s very conceivable that the Falcons retain the key free agents they need to sign and I would assume they will retain restricted free agents like Robert McClain, Vance Walker and Michael Palmer. But it’s also entirely possible that they balk at Grimes’ contract demands, lose Tony Gonzalez to retirement, and lose one or more of their quality free agents this upcoming offseason. The impact Gonzalez has can’t be understated, and if Abraham’s play starts to drop off the Falcons’ pass rush will be a serious problem that will only be rectified by daring blitz packages that will risk exposing the secondary in coverage.

So, long story short, the stars have aligned for the Falcons this year. The bounces are going their way, they have home field in the playoffs, Matt Ryan has plenty of weapons to throw to and the defense is the best it has been in years. Here’s hoping the Falcons go all the way this year, but if they don’t it could be a little while before they have a shot to go back.

Before I start to discuss anything it’s important to know that I’m a huge Falcons fan, but I think it’s time to talk about the hype surrounding Matt Ryan. I have been pleased with Ryan since he became a Falcon but I don’t view the Falcons with rose colored glasses and I do what I can to not “drink the Kool-Aid” before each season. I have been a pretty consistent supporter of Ryan since he became a Falcon, especially because he played a significant role in turning the franchise around, bringing consecutive winning seasons to Atlanta for the first time in franchise history and getting us back to the playoffs for the first time since Michael Vick was our starting quarterback.

Matt Ryan is a good NFL starter, but I don't think there is a lot of evidence that he is "great" or that he will ever be "elite."

But at the same time it is not unfair to acknowledge some of Ryan’s faults of which there are a few. The most obvious of these faults is his relative lack of arm strength. It’s not awful like Chad Pennington’s in my opinion, but it is not good or great by any means. I would constitute it as above average personally, because I think he struggles to stretch the field well downfield, and doesn’t have great zip on passes in the 10-15 yard range like deep curls, deep outs and other difficult NFL throws. To his credit he makes up for his lack of arm strength with good accuracy and anticipation which he routinely uses when he throws the ball before his receivers make their breaks on these more difficult throws so that the defensive back still struggles to make plays on the ball even though the ball hangs in the air a bit longer than you would ideally prefer.

One thing that I have noticed Ryan has been doing over the last couple seasons is forcing passes to particular players and at times doing so instead of finding an open player. Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White are usually the players he forces the ball to when he does do it. I have seen Ryan throw the ball to Gonzalez in double coverage, once or twice with three players around him, and this does not traditionally end well for Ryan because he doesn’t quite have the zip on his throws to put the ball into tight windows without the defense having time to make a play on the ball. The most frustrating part of this is that he almost seemed to be regressing as far as making his progressions in these specific instances because he would ignore Turner open in the flat at times in favor of throwing to Gonzalez or White in double coverage.

The final thing that I personally consider a flaw is that I don’t think Ryan can will us to a victory. Not many quarterbacks can, but this is something the great ones are able to do and I don’t think Ryan can do it. I’m not saying he should be able to play by himself out there and win the game, but the correlation between Ryan having a below-average/poor game and our running game struggling to consistently churn out yardage is pretty staggering. Obviously a good running game makes life easier for any quarterback, but great quarterbacks are able to shoulder the load on offense and throw their teams into contention when they don’t have a running game. Brady, Manning and Aaron Rodgers are all players who have done this consistently for the last couple of years and their teams routinely appear in the playoffs. But when the Falcons (specifically Michael Turner) struggle to gain yardage on the ground on a consistent basis and Ryan is forced to throw to convert 2ndand 3rd and longs to sustain drives it usually results in a loss for Atlanta. That, in my opinion, is not the mark of a great quarterback. And believe me, this isn’t something that I just conjured up out some doom and gloom thought process because of the Falcons unexpected 2-3 start, I have had this opinion of Ryan since I re-watched the Falcons-Steelers game from week one of last year. My post on the subject was actually published on October 5th, 2010, just over a year ago.

Julio Jones has been an incredibly pleasant surprise this year. I thought highly of him as a prospect, but I didn't expect him to contribute so much explosiveness so quickly.

Now, one thing that the Falcons made a huge deal about was our lack of big plays last season. I would argue that the Falcons’ lack of big plays as well as their poor pass defense contributed to their problems last year, but their running game and run defense was solid. The Falcons decided that getting Matt Ryan another playmaker at receiver was the best course of action and sold the farm to move up and select Julio Jones. I was skeptical of the move, but I never doubted Jones’ upside. I just worried that the Falcons were putting too much pressure on him by anointing him the starter after watching him practice by releasing Michael Jenkins, a relatively reliable #2 receiver, before Jones had ever played a game. I have been very pleased with Jones and he has been everything I could have hoped for and more this year as a rookie, but we just haven’t been able to get him the ball consistently down-field. We wanted more explosive plays and I tend to believe that our issues with pass protection really inhibit our ability to challenge defenses down-field. Additionally, our wide receivers during Ryan’s first three seasons in the NFL weren’t exactly burners that created a lot of down-field separation so it wasn’t completely unrealistic to see limited down-field plays that can change games and grab momentum for the offense.

However, I think it is very clear that Ryan plays a role in our limited deep plays as well. You can’t blame it all on Mike Mularkey’s lack of down-field play-calling, you can’t blame it on a lack of receivers who can separate down-field, and you can’t blame it exclusively on the offensive line. At some point Ryan is responsible for his production on down-field throws, so I would like to highlight how he has done on throws that produce 20+ yard plays that the Falcons were so driven to create this year. These are statistics on any throw that is thrown 21+ yards from the line of scrimmage from the past four years:

2008: 21/55, 718 yards, 5 TD’s and 2 INT’s
2009: 9/35, 297 yards, 3 TD’s, 5 INT’s
2010: 10/38, 320 yards, 4 TD’s, 1 INT
2011: 2/14, 94 yards, 0 TD’s, 0 INT’s (through five games)

Even Aaron Rodgers, who I personally think is the best quarterback in the NFL right now, isn't automatic on 21+ yard passes.

Now, it’s easy to look at these statistics and say “Wow, that’s awful. Even in his best season he was only 21/55, that’s under 50% and good completion percentages for quarterbacks are typically 60%.” While that is true, deep passes that travel 21+ yards are difficult to complete even for great quarterbacks. Here are some stats for some other quarterbacks to help demonstrate this:

Aaron Rodgers:
2010: 24/65, 976 yards, 8 TD’s, 5 INT’s
2011: 7/13, 255 yards, 3 TD’s, 0 INT’s (thru five games)

Tom Brady:
2010: 14/36, 537 yards, 6 TD’s, 2 INT’s
2011: 6/18, 186 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT’s (thru five games)

Even Sam Bradford, a player I have never really liked, has been more efficient on 21+ yard passes than Ryan has this season.

Phillip Rivers:
2010: 22/57, 852 yards, 9 TD’s, 4 INT’s
2011: 4/14, 159 yards, 2 TD’s, 2 INT’s (thru five games)

Sam Bradford:
2010: 10/39, 345 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT’s
2011: 6/15, 213 yards, 2 TD’s, 0 INT’s (thru four games)

So as you can see, even some of the best quarterbacks in the NFL don’t complete a lot of down-field throws. They are low percentage plays a lot of the time and they are some of the most difficult throws to complete because they require better pass protection, they require a good route from the receiver as well as a more difficult down-field catch, plus they require a more difficult throw from the quarterback. But still, the best quarterbacks in the business complete more down-field passes for more yardage than Ryan does, and while some of that has to do with who they are throwing the ball to or who is blocking for them at the end of the day Ryan has to shoulder a portion of the blame for his limited down-field production. He’s not a great deep ball passer and these statistics help prove that to be true. You would like to see him take that positive rookie season in which he was able to threaten defenses down-field and progress, but instead he has regressed on his deep passes and become less and less efficient with each year of experience. That is a disturbing trend and it’s one that absolutely warrants mentioning because he is in his fourth season in the NFL and is surrounded with some legitimate weapons with Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Harry Douglas (who has been a pleasant surprise now that he is healthy), Michael Turner, Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers. Is this a team full of pro-bowlers and Hall of Famers? Perhaps not, but they are still legitimate weapons that are better than perhaps a majority of other teams in the NFL.

And yet, in spite of this improved supporting cast Ryan hasn’t been able to be as efficient on deep passes as Sam Bradford, a player I have never been a fan of and continue to be skeptical of in the NFL. But he has almost matched his previous totals in completions, yardage and has already thrown one more touchdown pass on 21+ yard throws than he did as a rookie. He is trending upwards in spite of his pathetic supporting cast of wide receivers who are regularly lambasted for dropping passes. Ryan’s supporting cast drops passes too, sure, but it would be outlandish to suggest that his supporting cast is not significantly superior to Bradford’s. Yet, in spite of this assertion, Bradford has been more efficient on deep passes and has a comparable QB rating to Ryan (Ryan has a 79.9 QB rating this year, Bradford a 70.8).

Tom Brady has been and continues to be one of the top three quarterbacks in the NFL, but he makes his money on passes within 20 yards, not on 21+ yard bombs.

Now, this is not an attempt to say that Bradford is going to be the next great QB, far from it. I am also not trying to suggest that Ryan is a poor quarterback. I am simply trying to demonstrate that he isn’t a very good deep ball passer. The games I have watched of him (over three years of games at this point) as well as the statistics he has accumulated are pretty clear evidence of this, and it’s arguable that even with better pass protection and upgraded skill position weapons that he won’t ever be a good or great deep ball passer. That’s just not what his skill set is. This season on passes within 20 yards (excluding passes behind the line of scrimmage) Ryan has a QB rating of 91.54, a good number. Rodgers has an insane rating of over 120, as does Tom Brady. Both are having incredible seasons statistically thus far, and it shows on their bread and butter passes of under 20 yards. Ryan is good in this area too, and to force him to throw deep passes that he struggles to consistently complete seems counter-intuitive. On one hand, you obviously can’t keep throwing passes that are under 10 yards while attempting to run the ball or the defense will crowd the line of scrimmage and put a stranglehold on the offense’s ability to sustain successful drives. But that hasn’t been Ryan’s problem. He is actually most efficient statistically on throws that are 11-20 yards downfield, completing 24/43 attempts for 402 yards, 4 TD’s and 2 INT’s (a rating of 99.2). That is statistically superior to Phillip Rivers, but significantly below the outrageous QB ratings that Rodgers and Brady have (142.1 and 130.8, respectively).

So, my argument is that the Falcons need to acknowledge that Matt Ryan isn’t the next Peyton Manning, Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. He doesn’t have the same skill set. He has been effective on passes that are under 20 yards and while we still need to take the occasional deep shot, passes in that 11-20 yard range will help keep defenses honest and can turn into longer gains if the pass is completed to a player like Julio Jones who can gain quality yards after the catch once he has the ball in his hands. So while everyone loves to see the 30 or 40+ yard deep ball that the receiver hauls in and scores on that just isn’t what Ryan is good at doing. Mularkey and the rest of the staff should acknowledge this and continue to work to his strengths: Passes with-in twenty yards, play-action passing, and passes on three and five step drops. He is good at making pre-snap reads and gets the ball out quickly when he identifies a blitz, and if we can sustain drives and get some yards after the catch to make bigger plays without just lobbing the ball up and praying for it to be completed I think our offense will be better off.

This isn’t me arguing against 20+ yard plays, it’s simply me questioning how we are going about getting them. Ryan’s track record is pretty solid evidence that throwing the ball 21+ yards downfield isn’t the most efficient way for him to accumulate yards, so why would we continue to force him to do it? He’s not an elite quarterback and this is something he struggles with, so let’s continue to play to his strengths as much as possible. He can’t just throw us into games when we are behind or when the running game is ineffective. Accepting that and moving forward seems like a more logical step to take rather than pretending he is going to be the next elite NFL quarterback, because after over three years of watching him I’m just not convinced that he is going to be.