Thursday, September 11, 2008

A story of love, deception, greed, lust and unbridled enthusiasm

Hey, uh. I'm not too good at the long-form opining about the passion I feel for my team, so I'm just gonna try and break down where they're at from a personnel and philosophy standpoint. I'm the dude who writes about the Falcons, by the way.

The Story

Here's my cursory attempt at pinning a coherent narrative to this post. I probably don't need to recap the Great Vick & Petrino Clusterfuck of '07 for you, so I'll start with the end of the '07 season. The long national nightmare that was the Atlanta Falcons' 2007 campaign has ended; it's time to pick up the pieces. General Manager Rich McKay (formerly GM of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a decade, 1993-2003) has taken an increasing amount of heat since his 2004 debut with the Falcons. We haven't been getting good returns on our drafts or our free agent signings, and the unprecedented failure of the Petrino regime made for a good excuse to boot the guy and look for a new GM. Thomas Dimitroff, scouting wunderkind and affable vegan, gets the gig. The search for a new coach begins posthaste.

A lotta dudes were interviewed (and I am endlessly grateful that some of them didn't get the gig), but I'm going to zero in on two names: Mike Smith and Jim Caldwell. Caldwell was one of two or three leading candidates before he withdrew his name from consideration, and he was by far my favorite choice. An assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach with the Indianapolis Colts since 2002, he was also a leading candidate in 2007 - the story I've heard is that Arthur Blank (Falcons owner) was really high on him, but Rich McKay talked him into Petrino. Which obviously contributed to McKay getting shitcanned a year later. Caldwell has worked very closely with Peyton Manning over the years and is acknowledged by Peyton and everyone in the organization as having had a huge hand in his development as a player. In 2007, when Blank and McKay were searching for a replacement for Jim L. Mora, Blank sought advice from Colts coach Tony Dungy, specifically asking "where can I find the next you?" Dungy singled out Caldwell as being philosophically similar to himself. But the door closed on him as a HC candidate when Dungy announced him as his successor-to-be after Dungy's upcoming, final season as a coach.

Thus enters Mike Smith. A boring hire, but I think a lot of fans welcomed boring after the previous year's journey into the abyss. Smith, former defensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars, was not a heavily discussed name in the media. He comes off as an amiable, even-keeled guy with a great feel for personnel (which I believe to be what attracted Dimitroff to him). Maybe not the best possible hire, but a good enough hire.

Okay I'm getting tired of storytelling so I'm just gonna skip to breaking down the organization now.

The Staff

Most of this year's coaching staff is new to the organization, with the exception of Quarterbacks Coach Bill Musgrave and Assistant Head Coach/Secondary Coach (and newly minted Hall of Famer) Emmitt Thomas, and maybe some other position coaches who nobody gives a fuck about. I don't know much about most of these guys, but I'll copy their bios from the Falcons website introduce them anyway to pad out the post.

Head Coach Mike Smith is a former defensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars. This is his first head coaching gig. He seems like a nice dude.

Offensive Coordinator Mike Mularkey is a former head coach (Buffalo Bills, 2004-2005) and offensive coordinator (Pittsburgh Steelers, 2001-2003; Miami Dolphins, 2006). He's a former tight end and kinda looks like Kevin Costner's schlubby younger brother.

Defensive Coordinator Brian VanGorder is a former NCAA head coach (Georgia Southern, 2006) and defensive coordinator (University of Georgia, 2001-2004), and a former Linebackers Coach in the NFL (Jacksonville Jaguars, 2005; Atlanta Falcons, 2007). This is his first time as an NFL coordinator.

Special Teams Coordinator Keith Armstrong has been an NFL coach for 14 years and has been a special teams coach for the past 11 years (Chicago Bears, 1997-2000; Miami Dolphins, 2001-2007). He had a stint with the Falcons in the mid-90s, as the Safeties Coach and then as the Secondary Coach. Here's my favorite line from his official bio: "Keith and his wife, Kathleen, have two daughters, Kaitlin and Kristen."

I won't list all the position coaches, but I will touch on the two most important position coach... positions: Secondary and Offensive Line.

Emmitt Thomas is the Secondary Coach and Assistant Head Coach (he served as interim HC towards the tail-end of last season, post-Petrinogate). Honestly, I have no idea if he's a good coach, but the players like him a lot. I don't really know what the hell an assistant head coach does, either.

Paul Boudreau's been an Offensive Line Coach in the NFL for 21 consecutive years. That's all I got.

The System

Coach Smith favors a cover 2-based 43 defense predicated around stopping the run. He didn't use many exotic pressure packages in Jacksonville, preferring to get pressure with the front-four; this will not be an option in Atlanta. Mularkey likes a power-running game with a shitton of trick-plays and some downfield passing. I also hear that he just talks up the power running game and then pulls a switcharoo, installing some insane micro-dink-and-dunk passing attack. Either way, I don't trust him.

The Front Office

Rich McKay, son of NFL Films legend John McKay, resigned as Falcons GM at the beginning of 2008. He then accepted a job as team president about a day later. A lot of people bristled at this, feeling that the Falcons weren't doing enough to distance themselves from his influence, but I liked the move. What people don't understand about McKay is that he's very good at certain things, it's just that one of those things isn't really personnel. He's extremely canny when it comes to the business side of football and understands the politics of the league like no other. Nothing about his ability as a GM changed when he came to Atlanta, fresh off a Super Bowl and a decade+ of success with the Bucs. What changed was Tim Ruskell. Ruskell was McKay's go-to personnel guy for years, first at Tampa and then with the Falcons in 2004, when he tagged along as Assistant GM. They obviously made for an effective pair. After the 2004 season Ruskell was snatched away by the Seattle Seahawks to become their new GM; this left McKay wandering in the wilderness. I thought it was clear after the 2005 season that, capable as McKay was, he wouldn't succeed here if they didn't get in a strong personnel guy to at least complement him. That never really happened.

But Dimitroff's arrival allowed McKay to recede into less of a football-oriented role while still keeping his expertise within the organization. I thought this was especially a good idea because Dimitroff is really a pure personnel guy with no executive experience. Actually, to be honest, I don't know what the fuck the Team President (current job title) does, but I don't give a good goddamn so long as they don't let him pick the players. Anyway, Dimitroff is a personnel guru from the New England Patriots organization. Bill Belichick has leaned on him for years as his best scouting mind, particularly when it comes to college players. By all accounts he is an extremely hard-working, bright young man with a great deal of football and personnel acumen. He also comes off as a genuinely good dude who you would let babysit your kids and shit. Also he's a vegan and he looks like Crispin Glover (or the Unfrozen Caveman GM, depending on how long it's been since he's shaved).

Arthur Blank is the owner of the Atlanta Falcons organization. He's a rich old Jew who became a billionaire by building up the Home Depot empire. Sports a super creepy pencil-thin moustache on his upper lip. Great guy by all accounts, but he has one major flaw - his inability to not trust people who are clearly inept scumbags. I am going to quote an anonymous Home Depot executive on the subject:

For those of you who have followed Art Blank throughout his Home Depot and now Falcons career this outcome is not staggering.

I worked for the guy for over 15 years and his list of good qualities is endless. Great man and even better business person.

His fatal flaw. Hiring.

Seriously, the list of train wreck disaster employees at Home Depot that Art “had to hire” is miles and miles long.

He just flat out can’t see talent at any level and one of the biggest reasons he left HD was the fact that the HD BOD told him that his opinion was no longer valuable when it came to executive hiring decisions.

Bob Nardelli, the ex-GE CEO who left HD much, much worse than how he found it and with $210MM bucks.

Blank had been courting him for YEARS…you can see how that ended.

Vick, Nardelli, Petrino…and the worst part of it…Art is a VERY hands-on leader. You won’t be able to pry hiring away from him with any size crowbar.

My guess is that he has to interview anybody who gets hired into the Falcons organization.
I swiped that from a discussion thread, incidentally, which I feel slightly ridiculous admitting to. But it seems pretty credible when you just consider it in tandem with all the publicly known facts about Blank. THINGS THAT MAKE YOU SAY, "HMMMM."

The Players

This probably deserves its own post. BRB!


p.b. said...

yeah i wouldn't trust mularkey either. for a guy that's pretty creative, it's surprising that he's rigidly predictable. unless you draft former qbs into wide recievers then he's not that effective.

Neil said...

I dunno, his offense SEEMED PRETTY EFFECTIVE TO ME last week.

L.N. said...

ade! nfln tells me Mike Smith is just having fun out there.