The NFC version of the Texans, the 2013 Atlanta Falcons were a would-be contender that saw the bottom fall out en route to a miserable season. In the case of Atlanta, injuries and a lack of depth are to primarily to blame for the 4-12 nightmare last season.
2013 started off innocuously enough for Atlanta. The Falcons were a Steven Jackson catch away from beating the Saints in Week 1 and took care of business against the Rams in Week 2. Then a three-game skid started, with Atlanta limping into the bye fresh off a 30-28 primetime loss to the Jets and rookie Geno Smith. During that game Julio Jones made this ridiculous catch:
Which was all the more impressive since he did it on what would become a season-ending foot injury just a few days later, hinting at an impending spiral for Atlanta. The Falcons would beat the Buccaneers out of the bye but wouldn't win again but wouldn't win again until December when they improved to 3-9 with an overtime victory over the Bills.
That sums up the Falcons best: they were pesky down the stretch for just about everyone they played. Over their final six games Atlanta had a point differential of -12, meaning if things had broken better for them, the season could've ended differently.
Some people want to put Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff on the hot seat. Another bad season could get them there but it's premature to get worked up about leadership in Atlanta when 2013 given their track record:
That's like grounding your honor student kid because he got a speeding ticket. Stuff's going to happen.
What Went Right
Man. Not a whole lot, honestly. One significant bright spot was Harry Douglas, who topped 1,000 receiving yards for the season thanks to Jones going down and Roddy White dealing with injuries most of the year.
Most people would tell you Matt Ryan had a bad year. There are complaints he doesn't "elevate those around him." But without his top two receivers -- admittedly two very good receivers -- Ryan still managed to throw for 4,515 yards and completed 67.4 percent of his passes. He did that behind a banged-up offensive line that ranked 24th in Adjusted Sack Rate at Football Outsiders. Ryan didn't push the ball down the field but that's a lot harder without Jones and, you know, time to operate in the pocket. Ryan didn't take a step "to the next level" or whatever, but lesser quarterbacks would've fallen completely apart in similar circumstances.
The youth movement in Atlanta's an underrated factor for this team, particularly in the secondary. Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford both saw extensive action in the secondary. That made for rough sledding in 2013 but getting them extensive reps could pay serious dividends in 2014. Trufant, in particular, was better than most people realize. He ended up with two picks, 17 passes defensed and some unofficial hardware courtesy of Pro Football Focus. He could be special going forward.
What Went Wrong
The biggest thing that stands out was Steven Jackson. Acquired in the offseason to replace Michael Turner and rejuvenate the Falcons running game, Jackson played in 12 games and averaged just 3.5 yards per carry. The offensive line didn't help him either but he fell woefully short of expectations.
Osi Umenyiora totaled 7.5 sacks and flashed at times but he didn't have as good a season as John Abraham, who put up 11.5 sacks in Arizona after the Falcons let him walk. Osi's 32 now and he's still the best pass-rushing option Atlanta has. Kroy Biermann played in just two games last season. Fixing the pass rush is paramount going forward; the only thing Atlanta did worse than protect the quarterback was get after opposing quarterbacks.
Jones went down for the year early, which was a shame because he was starting off like hotcakes, averaging 116 yards per game. White struggled out of the gate and eventually put up some nice games down the stretch. 2013 was a tough year for him though.
It was a tougher year for Tony Gonzalez, who wrapped up a Hall of Fame career on a four-win team. There's some weird stuff about whether or not Gonzalez wanted to be traded or if Atlanta was willing to trade him ... the reality is he stayed put and finished as the Falcons second-leading receiver.
The offensive line was a full-blown nightmare. Left tackle Sam Baker signed a new contract in the offseason but only played in four games. Peter Konz, the team's top draft pick in 2012, moved over to center this year but couldn't live up to billing and was eventually benched. At least his bossman still has his back:
.@Atlanta_Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff said RG instability had negative trickle-down effect on C Peter Konz. Still thinks he has good upside— Alex Marvez (@alexmarvez) January 10, 2014
The right guard Dimitroff's referring to, Garrett Reynolds, lost his job on Tuesday when he was released by the Falcons. In case you couldn't see that coming.
Ryan? It has to be Ryan, I think. And it's not like anyone is "winning" this award when you're talking about poorly-ranked units across the board. You could argue Trufant as well but Ryan stuck in the pocket and took shot after shot without his skill-position guys healthy and still managed to put up good numbers.
Peter Konz. This feels mean but he was healthy, got moved around a bunch and couldn't help protect Ryan. Maybe it was more Reynolds fault and it didn't help that Baker was out for most of the year. Whatever. Someone has to take the fall on the offensive line.
What Has Happened Since the End of the Season
The Falcons fired their offensive and defensive line coaches. Pretty clear where the blame for 2013 gets put and it's not too unreasonable to put said blame where Dimitroff did. The lines stunk, the Falcons couldn't prevent pressure and they couldn't get pressure.
Atlanta hired Mike Tice, last season as the Bears offensive coordinator in 2012. He'll go to work on improving the offensive line and brought in one of his old pupils, Gabe Carimi, to try and boost the depth.
Carimi's on his third team now and Google has a pretty good idea about his career so far ...
But he does have upside as a former first-round pick. And he did play alongside Konz at Wisconsin, not to mention teaming with Falcons fullback Bradie Ewing. Recreating Wisconsin's offensive attack wouldn't be bad but good luck pulling it off.
Bryan Cox, who worked for the Buccaneers the past two years, takes over on the defensive end of things.
One of the more notable moves they've made is bringing in former Chiefs GM Scott Pioli -- a good friend of Dimitroff's -- to serve as a personnel guy. He's been lambasted for his work in Kansas City but he left the cupboard stocked with pass rushers for Andy Reid and John Dorsey. That should help while they fix their biggest need.
Impending Free Agents
Mike Johnson, who was supposed to start at right tackle in 2013 before going down for the year in August, is also heading to the market.
Free-Agency Game Plan
Per Spotrac.com, the Falcons have $19 million in cap space as of this writing. It could (will?) certainly move up depending on what happens with various players getting cut and that could give Atlanta some room to make moves. Still, it would be surprising if they threw a pile of money at a pass rusher (Michael Bennett?) after seeing the Ray Edwards deal backfire in their face.
The easier path is to wait out the market and lowball some quality veterans. Look no further than how Seattle added Bennett and Cliff Avril last season. Atlanta's got more urgency and might be willing to break the bank of a Greg Hardy-type player hit the market, but that's why guys like Hardy don't hit the market. Other big names that could be available include Jared Allen and Michael Johnson.
Nabbing some depth all along the offensive line has to be considered a priority as well. Atlanta simply can't risk running into a situation like last year where injuries forced them to completely adjust their offensive gameplan.
Draft Game Plan
In an ideal world the Falcons see one of three guys falls in their lap. The top option is South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. I don't care what you think about his mental makeup or how hard he'll try. If Clowney falls to Atlanta, Dimitroff will do cartwheels in his draft room. Otherwise they'd probably like to see either Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews or Auburn tackle Greg Robinson fall.
With quarterbacks likely to go up top, one of those guys (or Khalil Mack) should fall. If Matthews is there maybe plug Baker on the right side. If Robinson's there, let him road grave on the right while Baker stays on the left. There are lots of options and Atlanta can improve either their pass rush or their pass protection at the top of the draft.
That should be a consistent theme throughout the weekend too.
Ridiculously Premature Prediction for 2014
Personally I think a bounceback's in store for the Falcons. And I'm not alone. New CBS Sports analyst Tony Gonzalez -- hired on Tuesday to join The NFL Today -- is optimistic about the 2014 Falcons.
"I give them a huge chance [to bounce back]," Gonzalez told CBSSports.com. "If they go out there and solidify the offensive line, the offense will be fine. That's what hurt us this year. We had key injuries to key players. Julio Jones going down at the time, he was the best receiver in the game statistically. Roddy White wasn't really healthy at the beginning of the season. It was kind of the 'double-team me' show. The offensive line Matt was sitting back there some of the time and he barely had the time to drop back."
Gonzalez also pointed out that, with Atlanta just now really recovering from the impact of trading picks in the Julio trade, the team should have improved depth
"I get a feeling, man. I'm telling you. We were competitive. Imagine this team, they'll start getting some depth," Gonzalez said. "They traded away the house when they got Julio and it was a great gamble as far as I'm concerned. Now they're going to start getting some good backup players. They know what they need to fix. They're going to be a whole lot better this year than they were last year, record-wise."
Predicted Record: 9-7