FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — In a season-ending press conference with general manager Thomas Dimitroff, Falcons head coach Mike Smith said it is imperative that the Falcons get better at winning the line of scrimmage both on offense and defense and made the inference that the Falcons need to get nastier.
To that end, the Falcons fired offensive line coach Pat Hill, defensive line coach Ray Hamilton and offensive assistant Paul Dunn.
Smith did not want to impugn the toughness of his players but did say this about the mindset:
"I believe that we have to do a better job winning the line of scrimmage and there’s a lot of nasty things that happen on the lines of scrimmage and it’s very important philosophically that we do that if we’re going to be successful," he said. "We’ve got to control the line of scrimmage and I don’t believe we did that effectively during the season and it’s something we definitely have to improve on."
Hamilton had been with Smith since he arrived in 2008 and had been with him previously in Jacksonville where Smith served as the defensive coordinator. The failure to generate sacks in recent seasons proved an issue for the defense, which ranked 27th in the league this season.
Hill, the former long-time head coach at Fresno State, had been on the staff the past two years. The Falcons will now have their third offensive line coach in four seasons. Like Hamilton, Dunn had been on the staff since Smith’s arrival.
"I believe where things went awry offensive line-wise is the missed assessment on the readiness of this offensive line to play together as a unit," Dimitroff said.
As Smith prepares for his seventh season as head coach of the Falcons in 2014 — when, he said on Monday, all three of his coordinators will return — he appears as if he wants to return to the roots that helped spur a dramatic turnaround in his first season back in 2008.
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That season, the Falcons were coming off a 4-12 record — the same record that they finished with in 2013 — and they went with a ball-control, run-oriented philosophy that propelled them to an 11-5 mark.
The Falcons played some of their best football of the season over the final six games, during which they went 2-4 but won the time of possession battle in five of those and lost those four games by the combined total of 16 points — and all four of them to teams that made the playoffs in the NFC.
Following the season finale in which quarterback Matt Ryan took a pounding in a 21-20 loss to NFC South champion Carolina — nine sacks and 14 official hits — it was impossible for Smith and Dimitroff to defend the play of the offensive line on Monday. Both appeared humbled the experience of the season after producing winning records in each of their first five seasons along with four playoff berths. In 2013, the Falcons finished last in the NFL in rushing at 77.9 yards per game and Ryan was sacked 44 times, tied for the third most in the NFL among quarterbacks.
The Falcons have used a first-round pick on Sam Baker, a second-round pick on Peter Konz, third-round picks on Lamar Holmes and Mike Johnson, a fourth-round pick on Joe Hawley and a fifth-round pick on Garrett Reynolds. That group, to date, with the possible exception of Baker and Konz for part of his rookie season, has not produced the best results, to put it mildly. Reynolds, who has started 23 games the last three seasons, was inactive in the season finale on Sunday.
The Falcons had some of their best success on the offensive line in Dimitroff’s first three seasons when all four starters other than Baker were inherited. The fivesome of Baker, Justin Blalock, Todd McClure, Harvey Dahl and Tyson Clabo made 92.5 percent of the starts from 2008 to 2010 as they won 33 regular season games. From 2008 to 2010, only seven players started at least five games or more, leading to continuity and productivity. Only Blalock and Baker, who started only four games in ’12 because of various injuries, remain from that group.
Over the last three seasons, 11 linemen have started at least four games, some because of injury but a number because of ineffectiveness — notably Reynolds, Hawley and Konz. The Falcons have won 27 games from 2010 to 2013 — six less than the first three seasons.
Dimitroff said it’s possible that the Falcons could go after a major free agent on the offensive line. They also hold the No. 6 overall pick.
"We haven’t done that philosophically," Dimitroff said of a big-dollar free agent on the offensive line. "It’s been something I’ve been hesitant about doing. Smitty and I have talked a lot about it over the years we’ve been here. Normally, it’s not the best value but at times we have to go against the value rating and look at what’s best for the organization. If there is someone within free agency along the fronts that we deem as ideal for us, there’s no question we would consider that."
Blalock was asked about the continuity of Smith’s first three seasons versus the last three and the possibility that the Falcons could see more competition and new faces on the line next season.
"You’re just mixing and matching the pieces, trying to find a group that’s going to go out there," Blalock said. "… We’re just looking for the group that works together the best and I don’t think that’s ever going to change. Even back in those days, just because we had the same five guys showing up on Sunday doesn’t mean we weren’t competing or looking over our shoulders at every turn."
In terms of the defense, the Falcons finished tied for 27th in the NFL but they played an enormous amount of rookies. In recent weeks, as the team changed the role of defensive end Osi Umenyiora into that of a designated pass rusher and benched cornerback Asante Samuel, rookies played a near majority of the snaps on defense.
Clearly, the Falcons did not think that defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was the issue, as injuries plagued them. FOX Sports NFL Insider Jay Glazer reported on Sunday that Nolan received a two-year contract extension.
Veterans on the defense praised Nolan and said 2013 would serve as a learning experience.
"I’m a huge Nolan fan, man," said safety William Moore, a Pro-Bowler last season. "I’ll be glad to see my guy back for a while. I’ll be able to grow as a player under him and huge things can happen under coach Nolan."
Moore said improvement on the defense needed to come from "everywhere."
"It’s not a specific spot you can put your finger on," he said. "Like I said, everybody needs to improve all the way around from guys staying healthy and guys growing into greater roles. We had a bunch of young guys out there this year. Another year under our belt so chemistry, stuff like that. Everybody can improve."
Kroy Biermann, whose season ended in Week 2 with a torn Achilles’, agreed with that assessment.
"I think just overall attention to detail," Biermann said. "We had some youth there that needed to grow. They did. When you’re thrown into the fire like that, you can do nothing but grow and I think it’s just attention to detail, intensity and when you have great defenses and defenses that win championships there’s a level of intensity that is unmatched and unparalleled and you’ve got to have that.
"I think with youth sometimes that is hard to develop and so I think this offseason is going to be good when you have some leadership in there that they can follow with that intensity."
One of the Falcons’ top defensive players, tackle Jonathan Babineaux, will be an unrestricted free agent. Dimitroff said he would like to re-sign him. He also said he would like to work out an extension with wide receiver Roddy White.
As Smith and Dimitroff continue to evaluate, more changes are likely to come. A number of veterans will be cut. But the Falcons don’t think that a major rebuild will be required to get them back to where they have been.
"We believe we have the nucleus and the coach and the leadership to turn this around quickly," Dimitroff said.