Falcons’ discipline big key to success

On our show this Sunday, I am going to examine the 9-2 Atlanta Falcons, who just might be the best team in the NFC. Although this is a team with some quality stars like Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner, it is basically a well-rounded team that is good to very good in so many areas from offense to special teams.

Like I always say, it’s not how many great plays you make; it’s how few bad ones you make.

I know fans, and even some losing coaches, are enamored with long pass completions or the great run plays, but that doesn’t offset the interception or the fumble. Why has New England been a consistent winner for so many years and why do the Patriots have players who wouldn’t make the rosters of most other teams? It’s because the Patriots are interested only in players who keep their mistakes to a minimum. For example, do you see Danny Woodhead fumbling? Nope.

Falcons GM Tom Dimitroff came from New England and he knows the formula for winning, and right now Falcons coach Mike Smith and his outstanding coaching staff are using this formula.

With the Falcons, the most crucial statistic is turnovers. They have committed only 10 turnovers, the best in the NFC and only one behind the Patriots. And their turnover ratio is plus 11, tied for second in the league.

And speaking of mistakes and dumb mistakes, the Falcons have been called for only 42 penalties. That’s the lowest total in the league by a wide margin, considering the NFL team average is already 69 penalties. For example, the Lions have been charged with 106 penalties. Yes, they are playing better as a team, but those continued mistakes are why the Lions have won only two games.

One of the biggest reasons Dallas changed coaches is that the Cowboys played sloppy and committed a bunch of penalties and turnovers. I bet Dallas made a lot more great plays than a lot of teams, but all those penalties and turnovers cost Wade Phillips his job.

The Falcons are doing a lot of good things on offense. They are second in first downs, and that means they can control the clock and sustain scoring drives. Ryan and the offense are also converting third downs at the rate of 47.6 percent. Well, that’s second best in the league and the Falcons aren’t bad on fourth downs, either, converting nine of 11. Now, Kansas City’s Matt Cassel has thrown one fewer interception than Ryan, but Ryan leads the league with the lowest interception percentage, only five picks in 405 attempts.

What’s interesting about the Falcons is they have multiple ways of playing on offense. Against Baltimore, they used the no-huddle a lot because they wanted to wear down those Baltimore defensive linemen. Ryan passed 50 times in that game, and the strategy worked. Then, last Sunday they flipped it around and went with a balanced attack and more of patient, slow-down mode in order to keep the ball away from the Green Bay offense. That approach also worked.

Michael Turner, the Falcons’  fine running back, dominated the Green Bay game, and what’s special about him this season is he hasn’t fumbled in 223 carries. See, again, no mistakes, no turnovers.

They also have very solid special teams. Kicker Matt Bryant has been clutch all season, missing only three of 27 field-goal attempts. With the game on the line, Bryant generally connects. On special teams, they are fourth in the league in both punt- and kickoff-return averages.

Based on the NFL’s statistics, the Falcons are ranked 10th on offense and 20th on defense. But those rankings are solely based on total yards made on offense and total yards allowed on defense. My old quarterback Troy Aikman has his own statistical rankings and in his, which also include turnovers, points and first downs, the Falcons rank second overall in the league, right behind the Pittsburgh Steelers.

That No. 2 overall ranking basically says it all about the Falcons. They are a very efficient team that maximizes its ability while also cutting down on mistakes.

Gruden observation

I never really believed Jon Gruden was going to take the coaching job at the University of Miami, a school where I had a lot of success. Gruden is making too much money in television to take a college job. I think if he’s serious about coaching, he will look for something in the NFL after the season. But it was an interesting story for a couple of days and kept The U in the news. I think a lot of fans don’t realize The U is a small, private university that, yes, has produced some of the best players in the NFL. But it doesn’t have a big alumni following with deep pockets like a lot of the larger, state universities it competes against. I do think it’s a great job, though, because of the talent in Florida, and Miami does have a good, young team.