If you asked most football observers, after the 2012 season, that Houston and Atlanta would combine for a 3-21 record at the start of week 14, they would surely call your bluff.
Super Bowl aspirations were abound for both teams.
Atlanta was 10 yards away, (or a potential pass interference call away) from going to the Super Bowl. The Texans, although they struggled for a second straight season in their divisional playoff matchup, also had visions of a trip to the Meadowlands. Both teams have Pro Bowl quarterbacks in Matt Schaub and Matt Ryan. Falcons fans finally had a banner year from Matt Ryan. Both teams had an elite wide-receiver in Andre Johnson and Julio Jones. Two in the case of the Falcons, let’s not forget Roddy White. Oh, and they both have great tight ends in Owen Daniels and Tony Gonzalez. Houston has relied heavily on Arian Foster, who many consider one of the best running backs in the league. Conversely, the Falcons had high hopes for Steven Jackson, although the probability of a running back keeping his previous pace as he turns 30 greatly declines. Still, Jackson has a laundry list of accomplishments as one of the more durable and consistent runners of the last eight years. J.J. Watt could have easily been a league MVP, let alone a defensive player of the year. What was not to like about both of these teams?
The stars were aligned for both to potentially make long playoff runs. Unfortunately, as with most teams, the Texans and Falcons succumbed to injuries to the likes of Brian Cushing, Julio Jones and Arian Foster who are all on injured reserve at this point.
Injuries are a fact of life for most NFL locker rooms, which is not a valid excuse for Super Bowl contenders to lose nine in a row (Houston) or eight of their last ten (Atlanta).
So what happened? Maybe the pre-season hype was not warranted?
The Falcons at the time seemed to have improved their running game adding a 10,000 yard running back, yet they failed to address an offensive line which many consider one of the least physical in the league. Many of the same issues that have plagued the Falcons for years such as, the inability to win in the trenches on 3rd or 4th and short and poor pass-blocking were not quelled this year. The signing of Jeremy Trueblood to shore up a pedestrian offensive line, turned out to be a downgrade as his performance suffered for much of the season. In the rare instances where their offensive line has created running room, Steven Jackson was either on the shelf with a soft tissue injury to his hamstring, or simply be considerably ineffective, running into linemen and showing minimal burst at the line of scrimmage.
No surprise that the Texans had terrible offensive line play as well. Duane Brown, although considered one of the premier left tackles in the game, cannot be cloned to play right tackle. There was never any consistency from the position and it also affected a running game that greatly relies on stretch runs to the right tackle. Going into the season, this was a weak spot and has been since the team let go of Eric Winston, a serviceable pro, who could still fill the position at a moment’s notice.
Not only did both team neglect the improvement of their offensive lines, but the secondary play was questionable as well. The Texans took a gamble and let go of the dependable Glover Quin in place of Ed Reed. The experience was a colossal disaster. Reed’s been one of the best free safeties in the game with cat-like instincts and having been one of the best quarterback baiters of all time, but he clearly lost more than a step. He could not adjust in Wade Phillips system and when he did play, which was only by week six of the regular season, he was consistently beat deep. The game against the Colts where T.Y. Hilton ran rough shod against Reed, getting past him consistently was the deciding factor in his release. The Texans essentially paid $5 million for three games of Reed where he totalled four tackles and zero picks. His replacement, Shilo Keo, has not performed well and has been beat for long-range passing plays as well.
Conversely, the Falcons let go of Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes relying on rookie Desmond Trufant and veterans Thomas Decoud and William Moore repeating their breakout season’s in 2012, which have not translated into 2013.
Both teams, especially the Texans without Cushing, have sub par linebacker corps. The Falcons have continuously been gashed against the run. Sean Witherspoon has been their best linebacker over the last two season’s and is one of the more underrated players at his position, leading the team in tackles in that same time span. His injury left the Falcons without a viable replacement. Houston let go of Connar Barwin, who had a disappointing season in 2012, but his replacement Brooks Reed and Whitnet Mercilus, have not fared much better. Barwin’s familiarity with the defense and veteran presence with a young linebacker unit were missed.
They both ranked as the fourth and sixth worst defenses against the run this season. The Texans lost Cushing and have tried hard to fill his void with the likes of Joe Mays and Darren Sharpton. Sharpton, who was a former fourth round pick out of Miami, has some talent, but cannot stay healthy and is still looking to find consistency in his play.
Atlanta also rolled the dice by letting go of locker-room favourite John Abraham who led the team in sacks for the six of the past seven seasons. Thought to be too old to be an every-down pass rusher, they opted for the younger Osi Umenyiora. Both players are having solid season’s, but Abraham, with eight sacks this season, would have been the right tonic for what ails a Falcons team that is dead last in the league with 22 sacks. When you watch the Falcons defensive line, the same concerns mirror what we see in the offensive line. The unit lacks the toughness that you see from other premier and more physical defensive lines and it was apparent in recent games against the Arizona’s Andre Ellington (154 yards) Bucs Bobby Rainer (164 yards), Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch (145 yards) and just last week, C.J. Spiller of the Bills (149 yards).
Both Rick Smith and Thomas Dimitroff, the general managers of the Texans and Falcons respectivelly, have seen recent success with their moves, since they took over the player personnel decision-making for their teams. This offseason, they greatly over-estimated not only depth of their teams, but the talent at key positions like secondary, offensive line and linebacker.
Gary Kubiak, has already paid for it with his job. There is no question that Matt Schaub’s early season play led to the demise of the team. The bottom line is that Kubiak’s time had run out and with a 61-64 record in eight seasons as head man of his hometown Houston Texans, it was time for a change. It seemed as if the veterans were not buying into what he was saying and the offense had become very predictable and they were continuously shooting themselves in the foot as one of the most penalized teams in the league.
This team had many flaws and a severe lack of depth despite the preseason predictions claiming another AFC South title and possible Super Bowl appearance. We can blame it on injuries all we want, but the Patriots have dealt with as many injuries as the Texans, but it has been next man up for them with regards to their player personnel stepping in and continuing to produce. Same with the Seahawks with injuries to their secondary and getting only one game from Percy Harvin and their Pro Bowl tackle Russell Okung playing half a season.
Kubiak will find another job, either as a coordinator or quarterbacks coach. He has too good of an offensive mind and various connections throughout the league having backed up John Elway or much of their careers.
Mike Smith will definitely get a pass, as he should, with an NFC Championship game appearance last season and playoff appearances in four of his first five season’s as head coach of the Falcons. However, for a guy noted for his defense, the Falcons have been unimpressive in the physical aspect of the game. He has also made some questionable fourth down calls during his tenure in Atlanta, but he still remains one of the more respected coaches in the game.
Dimitroff must surround this team with tougher players on both sides of the trenches and acquire players with veteran pedigree at the cornerback position. Steven Jackson will be back, but will desperately need his carries reduced as he turns 31 prior to the start of the 2014 season. Whether that is splitting carries with spark plug runner Jacquizz Rodgers or the surprisingly talented Antone Smith, who has ran well in spurts, Dimitroff cannot gamble on Jackson again as being an every down back at his age and with the mileage used on his body.
Rick Smith will need to find a long-term solution at quarterback. Case Keenum has played fine in splashes, but his feast or famine style of play will not endear him as a starting quarterback for very long. Matt Schaub will be release, most likely and there will be roughly $10 million in dead money as the Texans take a big cap-hit. Smith cannot go into the next season with the same uncertainty at right tackle that failed the running game, and the safety and linebacker positions must add depth and more talent.
Coaches, like quarterbacks, are held to the highest of standards. They get all the praise when all cylinders are rolling, yet all the blame when the team falters and falls short of expectations. In the case of the Texans and Falcons, those same standards should apply with the men that have led them over the last two seasons to two AFC South titles and an NFC Championship last season. But the men that have constructed these teams, and made moves in the offseason to propel them towards a championship run, greatly miss-calculated the extent to which the talent on the roster could take them.