Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Post-Mortem on the Falcons

Kudos to Matt Winkeljohn for a strong analysis of what went wrong for the Falcons in 2005. Personally, as someone who picked the team to go 7-9 in 2004 and 9-7 in 2005, I'm somewhat gratified by being right that the team is essentially mediocre. As Der Wife told her mother when explaining to her why I wasn't bothered by the Falcons' poor end to the season, "Michael often likes being right more than he likes his teams winning." (The Braves and Michigan football are probably the only two exceptions. When I'm right about Michigan playing their worst football once they take a two-score lead, I'm not exactly thrilled.) To me, the message from this season is simply that the team's 11-5 record and trip to the NFC Title Game in 2004 was a fluke, the result of the team winning a number of close games (6-1 in games decided by four points or less) and benefiting from the NFC being extremely weak. Really, was it that big of an accomplishment to beat the 8-8 Rams to make it to the Title Game? Did the Falcons really look like they belonged on the same field as Philadelphia in that Title Game? Did they look like an elite team or simply an average team that had won a number of close games against other average teams and thereby earned the right to play for the NFC Championship?

A look at the stats from 2004 confirmed what we should have known at the outset of this season. The team outscored their opponents by a whopping three points and was outgained by an average of 7.6 yards per game, despite the fact that they played a relatively easy schedule. If you want to be a little more sophisticated in your statistical analysis, then note that Football Outsiders rated the Falcons 19th in weighted yardage (26th on offense and 16th on defense) in 2004, so their prediction that the team would be average this year was far more valuable than the "well, they were one game away from the Super Bowl last year and added some new personnel, so we can expect them to take the next step" reasoning that pervaded the Atlanta Mainstream Sports Media ("AMSM") in the lead-up to the season and during the team's 6-2 start.

Why is the team mediocre? Let's start with the guy under center, since every discussion about the Falcons apparently has to start and end with Michael Vick. Football Outsiders ranked him as the 26th most efficient quarterback in the League this year. He was 25th among qualifying quarterbacks in the NFL's passer rating, he averaged a poor 6.23 yards per attempt, and despite an excessively safe passing game, he was only 22nd in lowest interception percentage. Moreover, as Winkeljohn points out, his rushing yardage fell from 902 to 597. The bottom line is that he's a slightly-below average quarterback who regressed in his third full year as a starter and the Falcons have committed a significant portion of their cap to him. (To a lesser extent, the same criticism can be made of the defense, where Keith Brooking is the second highest paid player on the defense, but doesn't seem to produce on that level, although it's always hard to evaluate linebackers individually.) Vick's running threat does open lanes for the team's running game, which is pretty much the Falcons' only significant strength, so his value goes beyond his raw passing and rushing numbers. That said, the fact that we're describing the running game as the only strength on the team says a lot.

The prevailing question now is whether Vick would be better in another system. Personally, I don't see how the Falcons can keep their current offensive system, since it's patently obvious that the franchise player is not playing well in it, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he would be better in another system. It is often said that Dan Reeves got much better production out of Vick in the one year that he coached him and there's some merit to that comparison, but keep in mind that Vick was a novelty in 2002. Over the past two seasons, teams have figured him out. They've figured out that he likes to roll left, they know that he likes to scramble if his first read is unavailable, and they've tailored defenses that keep him in the pocket and force him to rely on his oft-inaccurate arm. We're hoping against hope that he'll suddenly become a more accurate passer. Some skills change over time, such as the ability to read a defense. The skill of putting the ball where you want to doesn't seem like it would change. Thus, a new offensive scheme that takes advantage of Vick's arm strength would probably be a good idea, but we shouldn't overrate the effects that it would have. At this stage, Vick is who he is.

On defense, the team allowed 325 yards per game and 21 points per game in both 2004 and 2005. Despite the widespread belief that the defense declined this year, it played at the same level that it did in 2004, which means that our estimation of the defense in the off-season was excessively positive and the criticism of the defense this off-season will be excessively negative. Yes, the secondary does look weak and the youngsters in the front seven were often out of position, but we shouldn't act as if the defense was a disaster. It was average in 2004 and average in 2005. The best hope for the team is that they can compensate for a misfiring offense by developing a very good defense. If the young players on defense, namely Chad Lavalais, Jonathan Babineaux, Demorrio Williams, and DeAngelo Hall, progress in the next 1-2 years and the team can find a better corner to line up opposite Hall, then there is potential for the Falcons to have a top ten defense. Without that progression, then there are going to be a whole lot more season around .500.

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