Seems like it was forever ago that the Atlanta Falcons were relevant. Five consecutive winning seasons, four of them leading to the playoffs. Just one win -- and possibly just 10 yards -- away from returning to the Super Bowl for only the second time in franchise history.
Now, as the conference championship games draw near, the Falcons are back in their familiar position of being on the outside looking in. Or, perhaps it's more accurate to say, toward the bottom looking up.
Sure. the 8-8 record was respectable and isn't exactly the bottom. They tied Buffalo and Indianapolis for the 14th best record out of 32 teams -- almost the very definition of mediocrity. They at least avoided a third consecutive losing season.
But before we get too enamored with this so-called improvement, consider that five of those losses were to teams with losing records -- Tampa Bay and New Orleans twice each, plus San Francisco. Five of those wins also came against teams with losing records -- Philadelphia, Dallas, New York Giants, Tennessee and Jacksonville.
Bottom line: They're still not a very good team. After the 5-0 start padded by wins over the anemic SEC I mean, NFC East, they limped to a 3-8 finish.
Even worse, there's no reason to trust that the near future is much brighter. That's because the same people who got the Falcons into this mess are the ones who have been entrusted with leading them out of it.
Namely, Thomas Dimitroff remains in charge of building the roster. Well, I guess that's so. He is still the general manager and Scott Pioli is the assistant GM. A year ago, though, Pioli was given more power within the front office. Pioli was placed in charge of free agency and the draft, the two primary means to procuring players. But Dimitroff still has the "final" say.
Both are under Rich McKay, the president and CEO, who reports to Arthur Blank, the owner.
McKay's track record has been rather nondescript. He's well-liked and respected around the NFL. But that's mostly for non-football accomplishments, such as leading negotiations to build new stadiums in Tampa Bay and Atlanta and working on various committees. McKay was the Buccaneers' GM when they won the Super Bowl. But that was not a great team, just a great defense with five All-Pro players who sort of fell into their laps.
Here's how Blank described the "reorganization" of the front office last year, after Dan Quinn was hired as head coach to replace Mike Smith:
"This is about maximizing the capabilities of Thomas and Scott, while adding Dan's unique strengths to the group. We feel combined with a head coach with a proven track record in talent evaluation, this trio is a strong combination and one that we will capitalize on, on behalf of the franchise. All three of these men look forward to working together, and I am confident that their collective efforts will result in a strong roster this season and in future seasons."
Nobody expected success overnight. But, again, in many ways the franchise regressed. Some of that can be attributed to the offensive struggles and quarterback Matt Ryan's inconsistent play -- whether it was Ryan failing to grasp Kyle Shanahan's offense or Shanahan failing to communicate with and use the talent at hand.
But the biggest issues were the ones that plagued the Falcons the two previous seasons -- poor offensive line play and a chronic lack of pass rush.
Truth be told, they probably have other holes on both sides. But neither the offense nor the defense can be effectively judged as long as they are so weak on both lines.
That's a failure of management. If it's also a failure of scouting, that's still a failure of management. Yet, when Blank and McKay held postseason meetings, they decided to scapegoat the head of the scouting department.
This was Blank's public stance:
"Over the last week, we have conducted an exhaustive review of every area of our team. Through this process it has become very clear to me that Coach Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff have built a productive working relationship over the last 11 months. There is very good alignment between Dan and Thomas on the direction we need to go to improve our team and I believe maintaining the continuity of that relationship, with Scott Pioli continuing to assist Thomas, is the right way forward.
"We are going to make a number of changes to our pro personnel and college scouting departments and that process began this week. It will take some time, but we will be adding talent on the pro personnel side and re-organizing both of these groups to best align with the shared vision of Coach Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff. I expect these changes will produce positive results for our team."
It all begins with scouting. A general manager is only as good as the intelligence provided him by the men who spend countless hours watching tape and practices. I've always wondered by teams don't invest more in scouting.
That is to say, pay the big bucks to hire the best. Alabama just gave its strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran a hefty raise to keep from losing him to Georgia. An NFL team's budget is much less constrained than any college's, including Alabama.
The Falcons need to get innovative. Hire more scouts and more cross-checkers. Hire specialists who are experts on certain positions.
It's all about being committed to being the best. Right now, a few franchises are doing just that. New England, Pittsburgh, Denver, Green Bay.
The Falcons seem committed to trying to fix things on the cheap.