Less than a year ago -- 11 months and two days, to be exact -- the Atlanta Falcons stood in the NFL spotlight. They met the San Francisco 49ers for the NFC championship and came within one play of going to the Super Bowl.
It's understandable that the ESPN programmers and NFL schedule makers felt sure they were setting the stage for a showdown -- possibly for home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs -- when they scheduled the Falcons and 49ers to meet on the final Monday Night Football game of the season.
Things didn't quite work out that way, to say the least.
"Collapse" doesn't begin to describe the Falcons' astonishing fall from tying Denver for the best regular season record in the NFL at 13-3 to having a mathematical shot at tying for the worst record this season.
Granted, Houston will probably clinch that with a loss to Denver today.
Still, the fact remains that the only reward for this lost season high draft position and the chance to grab an impact defensive player like South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney or Alabama's C.J. Mosley or a much-needed offensive tackle like Texas A&M's Jake Matthews.
Kind of hard to believe, isn't it? Not the record, that is. They've played poorly and have had several critical injuries, and the schedule has been tougher thanks to last year's success.
What's hard to believe is just how a team that produced five consecutive winning seasons, including four playoff appearances, has just completely fallen apart over the course of the season.
It's baffling to look back on that season opener at New Orleans, where they were one play away from beating one of the best home-teams in the NFL.
Pick a play. The dropped touchdown pass by Stephen Jackson. Or perhaps the play where Tony Gonzalez was mugged and got no call.
Contrast that to last week's game against the Washington Redskins, a game so obscenely played by both teams that the FCC ought to at least have issued a warning.
How did they get from there to here? Injuries certainly hit this team hard. Roddy White, Julio Jones, Mike Johnson, Sam Baker, Kroy Biermann, Sean Weatherspoon, Akeem Dent, Asanti Samuel. And that's just the significant injuries to key players.
That doesn't count the normal bumps and bruises that virtually every NFL player has to deal with.
No team could sustain
those injuries and not feel it.
Still, it does deeper than injuries. They gambled on a patch work offensive line, and they lost. Matt Ryan has been hit more times than just about any quarterback in the league. There's no denying that Ryan himself has taken a step backward as an elite quarterback. The more he has tried to do to carry the team, the worse he has played as a result. But to lay much blame on Ryan would be misguided.
The Falcons are last in the NFL in running the football. Some of that can be attributed to Jackson's injuries and declining skills. But not even Adrian Peterson could gain positive yardage behind the Falcons' line.
The defense problems are too numerous to itemize. Poor against the run. No pass rush. Breakdowns in coverage. Missed tackles. Part of the problem is inevitable growing pains of playing so many rookies.
But the overriding problem with both the offensive line and the defense seems to be a lack of commitment by the front office to make those areas a priority.
As bleak as 2013 has been, 2014 is not without hope. There will be quality players on the free agent market. They can rebuild the offensive line and improve the defense through free agency and the draft. And they need to keep overhauling the defense until it's no longer a liability. It starts with making the defense and offensive line a priority.
-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org