Well, this has been a fun week to be a Falcons fan. After much excitement in the offseason and a prediction from Peter King that the team will make the Super Bowl for the second time in franchise history, the team laid an egg in Chicago on Sunday, getting buried by a Bears team that no one respects. After being promised a more explosive offense, we saw a damp squib of an attack produce exactly six points. The concerns from last year - Mike Mularkey's bland play-calling, Matt Ryan playing like crap on the road, etc. - appear unresolved. So why has it been a fun week? Because Mike Vick is coming to town with the NFC favorites, which has forced a critical analysis of where this team is four years after Vick's departure. This isn't just any week in an NFL city where the home team got off to a bad start in week one. With a significant portion of the Falcons' fan base still sore over the fact that Vick is no longer under center for the Falcons (how the Vickstapo think that the team could have waited patiently for him while he served a stint in a federal penitentiary, I'll never know), the question of "how much better off are we?" is a pertinent one.
The funny thing for me is that I've been listening to 790 the Zone, which can come off like Pravda Flowery Branch, and the defense of the Falcons is remarkably similar to the same defense that we heard in 2005 and 2006 when the team was obviously heading off the rails. (OK, my criticism here is mainly of Steak Shapiro, a living embodiment of the maxim that one does not have to be good at one's job in order to be successful.) Back then, when it was becoming apparent that the Falcons were not a contender in the NFC, the defense of Vick and the Falcons was "he's a winner." In Vick's first three years as a starter, the Falcons made the playoffs twice and the third season, Vick was out for 12 games with a broken leg. Moreover, the Falcons won playoff games in each of Vick's two trips to the postseason before losing in Philadelphia both times. So yeah, the Falcons didn't look good in 2005-06 and there were worrying signs that Vick was regressing (his accuracy was spotty, his footwork was bad, he wasn't dropping back in the pocket properly, etc.), but Vick is a winner! Look at his record as a starter!
How did that turn out? If any fan base should be wary of "look at the quarterback's record as a starter," it's the Falcons' one. As it turns out, building a team properly and coaching it well matters. The Eagles built excellent rosters, they are well-coached, and they have won consistently. The Falcons had a pair of flash-in-the-pan seasons, we thought that we were the Eagles, but our two trips to Philly in January should have told us that we were not. Now, Vick is playing in Philly, he's twice the quarterback that he was in his final two seasons in Atlanta, and we ought to be reminded that judging a quarterback based on wins and losses is a fool's errand.
The second defense of the current iteration of the Falcons' offense that Shapiro repeats ad nauseam is that they were fifth in the NFL in points scored last year. I can't tell if Steak is being willfully blind here, if he isn't smart enough to understand his poor use of statistics, or if the format of sports radio simply eschews intelligent use of numbers. Shapiro is a former gambler, so maybe he ought to consider the fact that most Vegas sharps - the guys who pay their hefty mortgages by making better predictions than the general gambling public - base their statistical models on yards per play. By that measure, the Falcons were 25th in the NFL offensively in 2010. The Ryan-led passing game was 25th in yards per pass attempt. Account for touchdowns and interceptions and the Falcons jump all the way to 13th in adjusted yards per attempt. (The numbers are all here.) Or, let's look at Football Outsiders' numbers. They pegged the Falcons has having the tenth-best offense in the league, which is good but is a far cry from fifth. Using their weighted DVOA, which gives extra weight to performances later in the year (and remember that Shapiro is a guy who bitches about the lack of a playoff in college football because the point of sports to him is to get a team playing well at the end of the season), and the Falcons drop to 13th.
There is all manner of noise in the points scored stat. If a team has good field position, then it will score more points. If a team has a defense that forces turnovers, then it will score more points. If it has a defense and special teams that score touchdowns, then it will score more points. If it is playing against a weak schedule, then it will score more points. All of these factors were in play for the Falcons last year. Their special teams ranked second in the NFL. They scored five non-offensive touchdowns. They were seventh in turnovers forced. Moreover, fully half of their schedule was composed of the worst team in football (the Panthers), the worst division in football (and possibly in NFL history - the NFC West), and the Bengals and Browns (combined record: 9-23). That's how you end up scoring the fifth-most points in the NFL despite an underwhelming offensive coordinator and a young quarterback who is giving off a worrying aroma, just like the last young quarterback who excited Falcons fans.