Every Wednesday until the Super Bowl, Brian Billick will write a weekly column looking in-depth at different aspects of the modern NFL and will discuss experiences and insights he gained while coaching and broadcasting.
It wasn’t pretty — it took a 55-yard field goal in the final minute to secure a 23-20 win over a mostly hapless Oakland team — but the Atlanta Falcons are the last undefeated team in the NFL, and the ’72 Miami Dolphins are going to have to wait at least another week to pop the corks on their champagne. Now people are already discussing, after the uninspiring escape against the Raiders, whether the Falcons are really that good. Right now, what matters is this: They are better than the six teams they have played and no one else can say that.
Before considering how far the Falcons will go this year, it’s worth reflecting on how far they’ve come in the past five years. Recall that by the end of the 2007 season, their franchise quarterback, Michael Vick, was doing time in federal prison, hotshot college coach Bobby Petrino had left the team a photocopied note in lieu of actually explaining to his players’ faces why he was jumping ship in the middle of the season. The Falcons were in their 42nd season of existence and didn’t put a single player into the Pro Bowl that season, had never had two consecutive winning seasons and were going to have to start rebuilding. Yet again.
On Jan. 13, 2008, the Falcons hired Thomas Dimitroff, who’d been the head of college scouting in New England. He was respected in the industry, but hardly a big name. He hit the ground running, and eight days later hired Mike Smith, who’d been the defensive coordinator at Jacksonville and someone else most football fans had never heard of. Smith had been on my original staff in Baltimore and his attention to detail, work ethic and knowledge of the game became apparent from the first day. But what you never really know about an assistant is how they will handle sitting in the “Big Seat.” Smith has proven more than up to the task.
During that hectic first off-season, the Falcons made a lot of moves, and nearly every one has paid off. After Miami and St. Louis took linemen Jake Long and Chris Long with the top two picks in the draft, Dimitroff pulled the trigger on Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan. At the time, the Dolphins and Rams both needed a quarterback, but they passed on Ryan. They didn’t want to take the chance. Any time you take a quarterback this high it is done with great risk, and you have to give the Falcons credit for having the courage of their convictions in taking Ryan.
Dimitroff also realized that if he and Smith were going to rise or fall with a rookie quarterback, they needed to get him a credible running game for ground support. So that same off-season, the Falcons signed career Chargers backup Michael Turner. By the end of 2008, the Falcons were in the playoffs, Smith was coach of the year, and the team was nearly unrecognizable from the stumbling mess that had limped through 2007.
Since then the Falcons are 49-16, have had four straight winning seasons and three playoff berths, and put seven players in to the last Pro Bowl. To put that in context here is what the following teams have done in the same time frame: Cleveland: three coaches, 18-52; Buffalo: three coaches, 25-45; Oakland: four coaches, 27-42; Kansas City: three coaches, 24-46; St. Louis: four coaches, 15-55; Miami: three coaches, 32-37.
Of course, it’s a lot easier to get good all of a sudden, as Atlanta did in 2008, than it is to stay good year after year, as they’ve done since. Dimitroff has made some smart, timely moves to give Ryan more weapons to work with, including trading for Tony Gonzalez after 2008, and trading up to select Julio Jones in the 2010 draft. (This last deal also proved that Dimitroff was his own man. Many had expected him to stay in the Patriots mold, moving back in the draft to stockpile more picks rather than taking the risk of moving up. But he and Smith saw what a dynamic receiver like Jones could mean to the Falcons’ attack, and they made their move.)
Matt Ryan seems to have made another step up this season — always composed, he’s now become more polished in the pocket. Everyone will continue to question Ryan’s credentials until they win a playoff game, but his ability to bring his team back the way he has is becoming Manning-esque. And remember that it wasn’t until Peyton’s sixth season that he won his first playoff game.
The two most important tasks for a general manager are to find a coach and a quarterback that the franchise can be built around. Dimitroff has done that, and he and Smith have transformed the Falcons into one of the more solid franchises in the NFL.
Last week they won ugly, but they won. If they keep it up, the road to the Super Bowl will be going through Atlanta.