In some ways, the situation is hard to evaluate: Did Sam Baker lose his job as the Falcons’ starting left tackle last season because of injury or lack of effectiveness?
The bigger question might be at what point does the distinction cease to matter?
Baker started the first six games of the 2011 season, but then after undergoing back surgery during the team’s bye week — a situation the Falcons did not reveal until roughly six weeks later — Will Svitek started the remainder of the games at left tackle, even though Baker was active for the final six games. Not helping the perception that Baker lost his job for performance-related reasons was the fact that the Falcons inserted him at right guard for a few brief plays during their Dec. 11 game at Carolina.
However, during offseason team activities this spring, Baker is back at the spot that has essentially been his — barring injury; and there have been a number of those — since the Falcons selected him in the first round out of Southern California in 2008. The idea seems to be that with a clean bill of health and a new offensive line coach in Pat Hill — one can only wonder the extent to which Baker’s struggles might have cost former offensive line Paul Boudreau his job — will provide the tonic to turn around the fortunes of the most important spot on the team’s offensive line. During the offseason, general manager Thomas Dimitroff has used the word “challenging” to describe the offensive line’s 2011 season.
With the changes, the Falcons expect to be able to employ the vertical passing game that they had to scrap last season after quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked 13 times in the team’s first three games. Head coach Mike Smith said he has no concerns about Baker’s confidence entering the coming season.
“No, I don’t,” he said. “Playing left tackle in this league is not an easy job. You’re protecting the back side of the quarterback and for the majority of the time, they’re facing the top pass rushers. Most right defensive ends are the guys who have the skillset to rush the passer and I think Sam’s got a very good attitude and his workouts through the offseason — as you know, we had some stuff done to him at the end of the season. When he had that stuff done, he’s a lot healthier.”
Reportedly, that procedure was a discectomy, the second back procedure of the 27-year-old’s career. It’s not just back issues that have sidelined Baker, who has battled a variety of issues during his short career. In 2009, he had an elbow and an ankle injury and at times appeared so heavily taped and braced as to look part cyborg. During that period, he often was a game-time decision because of those injuries. Out of a possible 64 regular season games, Baker has started 41, or only 64 percent.
Ryan, whose own health and ability to produce rides, too a good extent, on the ability of Baker to protect him, also voiced the company line that Baker’s confidence need not be an issue.
“He battled through some injuries last year,” Ryan said. “I think he’s back, feeling good. He’s been in here working really hard. I think he’s prepared and I think he’ll have a great year.”
To his credit, the Falcons have won a lot of games with Baker as the starting left tackle, allowing them to make playoff appearances in ’08 and ’10. Baker did not really use his injuries as an excuse, although he did acknowledge that he feels much better and that he can move more “fluently.”
“I mean, it’s tough but everybody’s got stuff,” he said. “Everybody’s got stuff. It was just once it got taken care of, it felt a lot better right now.”
But along with the rest of the team, the bar is now set higher than simply winning seasons and postseason appearances, a point alluded to by the dean of the offensive line, center Todd McClure, who enters his 14th season.
“We know there’s areas that we have to improve in for this team to be successful,” McClure said. “Everybody wants to talk about playoffs, but we got to win Game 1 and then once we get to that point, hopefully take care of business.”
In addition to the man himself, the task of helping Baker improve falls to Hill, who comes off a 15-year tenure as the head coach at Fresno State. He said he remembers Baker from high school and from college. Fresno State played USC in 2005, a 50-42 loss. Asked if he recruited Baker, Hill joked that he was dealing with the equivalent of seventh-round NFL draft picks, not blue chip recruits like Baker who went to the powerhouse USC. The 39-year coaching veteran said he thinks Baker is very athletic.
Hill said he has found the members of his unit “highly intelligent.” Demonstrating a low-key approach, he said he thinks of himself as a teacher.
“I didn’t come here to split the atom,” Hill said. “I came here really to work on fundamentals. At this level, you have a chance to really tweak a person’s game. It’s like being a swing coach in golf — like on pass protection. Here, you’re dealing with seven guys. In college, you might be dealing with 15, 18 — sort of a cookie-cutter deal. Here, you’re trying to develop technique to help each one of your players get better.”
Baker said the situation with his new coach is one of so-far-so-good.
“Every day, you gain a little bit more,” Baker said. “…We’ve got a lot of new techniques we’ve been successful with so far, so it feels pretty good.”