Regarding the folly of believing the Falcons are good

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To a very casual observer, a mid-December post on the 6-7 Atlanta Falcons would cry out for a Dickensian introduction, but it simply has not been a tale of two halves for these dirtier-than-anticipated birds.

Some, like MMQB’s Andy Benoit, really wanted to believe in that Victorian-era trope, though. Three weeks ago, Atlanta, which started the season 5-0, had lost four of five games, slipping to a 6-4 record. Falcons fans were beginning to lose hope, but Benoit told them not to panic, because “a closer look reveals a different story.” Benoit’s message was compelling in its simplicity:

On film, the 1-4, Stage 2 Falcons haven’t looked significantly different from the Stage 1 Falcons who started 5-0. And, OK, maybe the Stage 1 Falcons were not quite as good as their record indicated, but those five wins are a more accurate portrayal of the 2015 Falcons than the club’s four losses. The biggest difference between Stage 1 and 2 has been the dreaded turnover.

[T]he Falcons have beaten themselves with random fumbles and a few interceptions, of which only one was a truly bad offensive play. Ryan, cerebral as he is, has always had a slight tendency to take the bait and make a foolish throw or two into disguised or tight coverages. But interceptions have never been a major bugaboo. So unless you believe this will change in the final six games of Ryan’s eighth NFL season, there’s little reason to believe turnovers will continue to plague Atlanta.

Most likely, Atlanta’s fate hinges on how well its offense functions.

Combine the Stage 1 Falcons with the Stage 2 Falcons and what you’ll likely get is a Stage 3 Falcons club that finishes 10-6 and is a dangerous Wild-Card foe.

The seductive simplicity of Benoit’s thesis really is too good to be true. It seems easy to pick on him three weeks later, when Atlanta dropped all three games in that period and has an active six-game losing streak, but his reasoning would’ve been flawed regardless. Even if it’s true that turnovers– both fumbles and interceptions– fall within the realm of luck, and even if it also is true that the Falcons’ then-recent losses were due to turnovers, Benoit ignores the possibility that the team’s early successes also were due to luck. Instead, he simply assumes, without offering any evidence to that effect, that the team was playing closest to its true-talent level when it opened up 5-0, rather than when it went 1-4 (now 1-7, the same record with which the Detroit Lions opened the season). Couldn’t good luck have played just as much a part of Atlanta’s 5-0 opening as bad luck did in their subsequent losses? Of course, but in his overly rosy evaluation of the early season Falcons, Benoit apparently didn’t consider that.

At 6-7, Atlanta isn’t mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, but, with another game against the Panthers remaining and the Seahawks surging, they’re very likely done for the year.

In erasing their 5-0 start, the Falcons’ poor play in the last few weeks likely is a closer approximation of their true talent level than their results in the first five weeks. Indeed, as these charts illustrate, they’ve been historically bad from Week Six onward.

For postseason purposes, Atlanta no longer controls its own destiny (scenarios), but, at a minimum, it will need to beat its three remaining opponents– Jacksonville, Carolina, and New Orleans– to have a shot. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Falcons have a two-percent chance of making the playoffs, and their projected win probability this week against the Jaguars is fifty percent. Not great, Bob.

The Essential Michael Sam

Following NFL draft prospect Michael Sam’s announcement about his sexual orientation (he’s gay) last weekend, many people wrote and said many stupid things. Many more, I hope and believe, wrote and said positive things. The reality, though, is that few of us knew Sam’s name a week ago, which is a little bit baffling when we found out he was the top defensive player in the top college football conference, perhaps the truest testament to the bandied axiom that this is the football age of offense. As a result, the other reality this week is that few people’s responsive comments have been insightful or of much consequence.

Thankfully, there have been exceptions. The first was the video SB Nation/KSK’s Matt Ufford made the day after Sam’s announcement:

The second was Jeb Lund’s intelligently written article for Sports on Earth, posted later that same day, which took aim at Sam’s critics with precision.

The other two items are the dispassionate scouting reports of SoE’s Russ Lande and MMQB’s Greg Bedard. Lande holds some optimism for Sam’s draft position, while Bedard is more cynical, even going so far as to write that Sam may not be drafted at all.

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One has to think that Sam has a better chance of playing in the NFL– whether a team takes him in the draft or offers him a chance as an undrafted free agent– than Jason Collins had of extending his NBA career following his own sexual orientation announcement. As those scouting reports imply, though, it likely will be impossible to know whether or how Sam’s announcement affects his draft outcome this May.

Comprehensive Super Bowl XLVIII Preview

As you can see from the above graphic, this year’s Super Bowl, already dubbed the Snow & States’ Marketing Rights Bowl, pits New York against New Jersey in a battle for subpar beach superiority. You do not have subpar taste, however, because you’re reading ALDLAND’s Super Bowl preview, the only one you’ll need to prepare yourself for the game on Sunday. What follows is a compilation of the most interesting, entertaining, and essential Super Bowl XLVIII content, concluding with the least interesting, entertaining, and essential Super Bowl XLVIII content, my game prediction:

  • First and most important: the game begins at 6:30 Eastern on Fox.

Monday Morning PR Quarterback

wwwThe rise of the internet fad, such as it is, presents a challenge to the viability of traditional print media. Nowhere in the world of sports media is that clearer than with Sports Illustrated, the onetime king of the written sports word.

SI hasn’t necessarily shied away from the Worldwide Web, but it hasn’t exactly been fleet-footed about it either. Here‘s the earliest archived version of SI.com, Continue reading

Mike Shanahan channels Brady Hoke, Falcons hang on to win 27-26

redskins-falcons 2013As reported, I was on hand to watch the Falcons host the Redskins (Monuments?) yesterday afternoon, and it was everything you’d hope a late-season pairing of three-win teams would be. Atlanta’s offense was boring but effective in the first half, relying primarily on Steven Jackson, back in action after an early season injury, and Tony Gonzales, who in the second half became just the fifth NFL player ever to tally 15,000 receiving yards. On the other side of the ball, Kirk Cousins’ performance was a mixed bag. Against Atlanta’s soft defense, Cousins posted better passing numbers than Robert Griffin III– spotted wearing warmups on the sideline– has this season, but a couple of interceptions proved costly. Washington nevertheless was in a position to take the game to overtime, or win it outright, thanks to a late touchdown that ran the score to 27-26. Opting to go for the regulation kill on the road, Mike Shanahan made like Brady Hoke and called for the two-point conversion, which failed. Atlanta recovered the sloppy onside kick to seal the one-point win.

Having read about far more NFL games than I’ve attended, the game experience was a bit odd. Even taking into account Atlanta fans’ reputation for lacking a feverish commitment to their teams, the vibe was beyond mellow in the Georgia Dome on Sunday. The noise level was somewhere between a Braves game and the Masters. One fan in our section who caught a free t-shirt used it as a pillow to rest. Another took a nap without similar support. And these weren’t alcohol-induced rests– the only even semi-drunk person we saw was a mom indulging in too much smuggled adult fruit punch– it really was that quiet. Our entire row, and most of our section, including the man pictured above who stood with his back to the field and wouldn’t get out of my picture even though I didn’t ask him to, left before the end of the third quarter, when the Falcons led by only four.

We didn’t find any of this upsetting, and our people-watching experience was further enhanced by the skilled camera operators feeding the nice video boards with fun fan shots. (The ushers probably could stand to lighten up a bit, though. 3-9 vs. 3-9 in December deserves a lighter touch from the regulatory folks.)

falcons-redskins 2 Continue reading

Stating the obvious about Falcon failures

The more-often-than-not decent MMQB used one of its “deep dives” to investigate what’s wrong with this year’s Atlanta Falcons, solidly in last place in their division with a 2-9 record after being a play away from the Super Bowl last year. A more difficult schedule meant that they were unlikely to match 2012’s 13-3 record, but they didn’t count on numerous early, crippling injuries on offense and defense. That’s the reason these Falcons have won just two games, and you only need a midseason “deep dive” to figure that out if you’ve been willfully ignorant of the team since August.

The article did include two pieces of barely second-level analysis. The first was a visual illustration of how quarterback Matt Ryan struggles with decision-making when he lacks competent linemen and receivers, to say nothing of a running game. The second was a reminder that teams shouldn’t fire their coaches when losing is directly and unequivocally the result of numerous injuries. The article’s final sentences could have been its only sentences:

Some believe Mike Smith and his staff will be fired. But that would be ludicrous. Smith’s .644 winning percentage is seventh best among active coaches. His Falcons are tied for third in victories since he took over in 2008, and this will be the first time during his tenure that they fail to finish above .500. A perfect storm of injuries is to blame, and nothing else.

Hurry Clowney.

NFL Quick Hits 2013: Adrian Peterson

Adrian Peterson’s headline-making 2012 season– he ran for 2,097 yards and averaged 6.0 yards per carry– was even more remarkable in context: he had torn his ACL and MCL in December 2011, yet he was starting for the Vikings on week one of the 2012 season, a mere nine months after the injury. When he did return, he had the best season of his career. Ordinarily, players require a full twelve months of recovery following surgery to repair torn knee ligament. When they do return, their production usually decreases. Peterson was a startling exception on both fronts. Peterson’s recovery was so remarkable, many fans described him as superhuman, while others, along with one Detroit linebacker, were asking whether there might be some other reason for his surprising return. Peterson told that linebacker last season and the rest of us this week: “I’m juicing on the blood of Jesus. Faith is what got me to this point.” It isn’t easy to talk about religion in the sports world, and I’ve touched on it only briefly here, but from a purely conversational/presentational perspective, Peterson needs a response to the question, “Are you juicing?” that does not recall President George W. Bush’s groaner of a response to a question about whether he was turning to a “Plan B” in Iraq: “Actually, I would call that a plan recommended by Baker-Hamilton, so it would be a Plan B-H.” When it comes to answering to opposing linebackers this season, Peterson probably should just let his knees, however reformed, do the talking.

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Previously
Ziggy Ansah