Sometimes it’s nice to be wrong.
That’s not to suggest there’s a shortage of precedent, although I lay much of the blame there at the feet of the Greg Norman, the Atlanta Braves’ bullpen in the 1990’s, and Jim Freakin’ Leyritz.
This time, though, I’m quite content to have been wrong. Had the Atlanta Falcons listened to me, it’s doubtful they would be preparing for their second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.
While I feel vindicated for standing by quarterback Matt Ryan, I was wrong on two key decisions that almost certainly would have resulted in much different outcomes.
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The first came two years ago when the Falcons fired Mike Smith. No, Smith is not Bill Belichick or even Mike McCarthy. I never considered Smith to be a master strategist, especially regarding clock management.
Still, it didn’t seem justified firing the most successful head coach in franchise history, the only coach to produce back-to-back winning seasons. The string reached five seasons until the injury-filled season of 2013. Smith’s career winning percentage is a tick better than Pete Carroll’s (.589-.588).
But then that first losing season was followed by another, and Smith was gone. Bill Cowher had back-to-back losing seasons with Pittsburgh. Two years later the Steelers won 13 games.
To me, the head coach in the NFL is vastly overrated. A team is only as good as its players. Firing Smith was a way of avoiding the real problem.
The Falcons were terrible on defense and the offensive line had become horrendous. No coach would win if Ryan had no running game and no pass protection.
In retrospect, firing Smith was the right decision. It was a matter of accountability, both above and below the head coach. The message had to be sent that losing was unacceptable. Owner Arthur Blank made that point very clear at the time.
“Everything relative to football operations, outside of coaching, is up for scrutiny and for discussion,“ Blank said then. “Everything.”
Not only was firing Smith the right move, but hiring his replacement was handled the right way. Blank zeroed in on Dan Quinn, then Seattle’s defensive coordinator. Rather than settling for someone else just to fill the job, Blank waited for the Seahawks to play New England in the Super Bowl before hiring Quinn.
What Quinn has done is very simple. He brought a fresh look at everything the Falcons were doing. He has focused less on schemes and more on getting better players and developing unity within the clubhouse.
The second major decision the Falcons got right was drafting Clemson’s Vic Beasley instead of Georgia’s Todd Gurley, as someone (ahem) suggested they should have done.
At first, this had the markings of a monumental bust. Beasley was essentially a non-factor last season. He was too weak to play defensive end, and that was compounded by a shoulder injury. It didn’t help matters that the running back Atlanta selected to pair with Davonta Freeman – Indiana’s Tevin Coleman – spent most of the season injured. Coleman also had a costly fumble in a loss to New Orleans.
Meanwhile, Gurley won NFL Rookie of the Year despite missing the first three games. I suspect the Falcons might have made the playoffs last season with Gurley. They lost eight of their last 11 games. Five of those losses were by fewer than five points.
The results couldn’t be much more different this season. Gurley struggled with the Rams behind an inept offensive line and horrific quarterback play.
Beasley has been one of the most dominant defensive players in the NFL this season. He was moved to outside linebacker and led the NFL with 15.5 sacks. It’s hard to imagine the Falcons would have won 13 games without Beasley’s emergence.
Coleman has provided a nice complement to Freeman. I’d still take Gurley over both of them. But how much better could this Falcons’ offense be, anyway? It’s the best offense in football.
The defense is improving every game. It has been good enough to win the NFC Championship. It just might be good enough to win it all.