It must be weird for Mike Smith to wake up Sunday morning knowing what’s at stake later in the day. If his Atlanta Falcons win, they make the playoffs. If they lose, Smith likely will get a call into owner Arthur Blank’s office Monday to hear he’s being relieved of his duties as the team’s head coach.
Yes, win and you’re in ... lose and you’re gone.
Maybe it’s not that clear cut, but it certainly seems like it is. The Falcons have not had a good season. They’re 6-9, but with the NFC South being downright awful, they will win the division if they beat the Carolina Panthers on Sunday afternoon at the Georgia Dome.
The Falcons are 10-21 since they lost to San Francisco for the NFC championship game 23 months ago. But this story cannot be told without the huge chapter about the injuries -- in both seasons since that loss. Last season the expected offensive line starters were together for just three games. They couldn’t even get out of training camp this year without having to revamp the offensive line lineup due to season-ending injuries.
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No team in the NFL could survive what happened to the Falcons this season. Tackle Sam Baker was hurt in August, and then center Joe Hawley played only four games before going down. Even three backup linemen were hurt, forcing a second straight season of a revolving door on the offensive line.
On defense, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon has been out all season, and the loss of safety William Moore for a good chunk of the season cannot be downplayed. So injuries played a huge part of this story.
Still, the Falcons can’t stop a team that throws the ball effectively. If a team has a passing offense, it will be licking its chops playing this bunch. Plus, there is little pass rush. Then there’s the fact there is no running game. Sure, it’s a passing league, but there has to be some sort of running attack, and the Falcons just don’t have one.
Should Smith take the blame for some of this? Certainly he should. His Falcons were up by 21 points on the Detroit Lions in London at midseason and squandered the lead. Then his admitted poor clock management against the Cleveland Browns a few weeks later contributed to a loss to an inferior Cleveland team.
Consider my fingers pointed more toward general manager Thomas Dimitroff for the blame. His lackluster drafts have left this team weak in many key areas, particularly on the lines of scrimmage. Dimitroff also was too loyal to some of his draft picks, instead of cutting his losses and moving on to find better players.
If Blank does fire Smith, he better have one heck of a candidate ready to replace him. It better not be a current NFL assistant coach, as has been rumored in national reports. It better be someone who can blow us away, so that we can collectively say, “Well Mike Smith was good but (fill in the blanks) is definitely going to be better.”
Smith is the best coach Atlanta has ever had. To think this franchise never had back-to-back winning seasons before Smith hit town seven years ago is sad. But if the Falcons win Sunday, he will have them in the postseason in five of his seven seasons as head coach. He has made the Falcons relevant, and that shouldn’t be ignored when examining Smith’s resume.
The Falcons just need a better roster, better players. Let’s see what Smith can do with more talented players before we see him jettisoned off for some hotshot assistant coach. Let’s give Smith the benefit of the doubt while instead seeing if someone else can select the players for a team in what will be a critical offseason.
But that won’t matter if the Falcons lose Sunday. The Panthers won’t be easy, but Carolina is yet another team the Falcons should beat. If they fail, perhaps it will be a sign they just need to start over. But it certainly will be a shame to lose the best coach they’ve ever had.
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