Snap Judgments for Week 6
After all the '07 turmoil, the Falcons are this season's feel-good story
The Colts offense looked its dominant self, especially in the passing game
His arm may be average, but Jeff Garcia gives the Bucs the best chance to win
Musings, observations and the occasional insight while a Week 6 that was flush with fantastic finishes unfolds before our eyes ...
Nobody, not even the bumbling 1-15 Miami Dolphins, endured what the Atlanta Falcons endured in 2007. The disgrace of Michael Vick started it all, and the desertion of Bobby Petrino finished it. It was a year of unceasing infamy for a franchise that has been no stranger to failure in its first 42 mostly star-crossed seasons.
The Falcons of last year lost their starting quarterback to prison, their head coach to the Liars Hall of Fame and a good deal of their long-suffering fan base to disillusionment and disappointment. Oh, and did we mention that 12 defeats in 16 games only added to the sense of gloom and doom that pervaded everything the Falcons touched?
So, for my money, there's no better story unfolding in the NFL this season than the one in Atlanta, where the new-look Falcons have surged into a first-place tie in the tough NFC South thanks to a roster, coaching staff and front office that isn't burdened or concerned with last year's debacles.
During my early August trip to the Falcons training camp, I had a hard time remembering the last time I saw a team trying out so many new faces in key places. But if I had to rate them in terms of their importance to the Falcons' early-season success thus far, I'm not sure what order I would place new head coach Mike Smith, new general manager Tom Dimitroff, new franchise quarterback Matt Ryan, new lead running back Michael Turner and new kicker Jason Elam. But I know this much: All of them have done their jobs remarkably well and added a key component to Atlanta's turnaround.
Six weeks into the NFL's 2008 regular season and there are Arthur Blank's resurgent Birds, tied for first place with Carolina and Tampa Bay at 4-2 in the NFC South. And Sunday's dramatic 22-20 comeback win over Chicago -- snatched from the jaws of defeat on Elam's last-play-of-the-game 48-yard field goal -- was the capper to this season, to date.
Not only did the victory enable Atlanta to match its 2007 win total of four and give the Falcons their first victory over a team with a winning record -- Atlanta previously had beaten the Lions, Chiefs and the then-.500 Packers -- but also it showed the mettle of Smith's club. The Falcons rallied from a 20-19 deficit despite getting the ball back at its own 44 with just 11 seconds remaining.
This was the kind of game, once it had been given away to the Bears, that a young team with a rookie quarterback seldom finds a way to win. Up 19-10 for most of the fourth quarter, the Falcons subsequently blew the chance to put Chicago away with a chip-shot 33-yarder from Elam, then paid dearly for it when the Bears stormed 77 yards in 11 plays in the final minutes, taking a one-point lead on Kyle Orton's 17-yard touchdown pass to Rashied Davis with just 11 ticks remaining.
The Falcons should have been dejected, deflated and just about defeated. But they weren't. Maybe they don't know any better. And when Ryan hit Michael Jenkins with a clutch 26-yard deep-out to get the ball to the Chicago 30 with one second remaining, Elam and the Falcons both got their shot at redemption. They didn't miss it either, and now we all should start hearing and learning quite a bit more about the amazing transformation that's underway in Atlanta.
"[This game] confirms what we are doing as a football team,'' said Smith, whose Falcons have won consecutive games for the first time. "It is confirmation that the way we've been going about our business is the right way to go about it. We are still in the process. We're a young football team that's learning every time we go on the field.''
These Falcons have somehow put the misery of 2007 behind them. And for a happy moment at least, no other team in the NFC South is ahead of them.
If you're Bears head coach Lovie Smith, you know your team probably didn't deserve to win that one, after being out-played for most of the game. But you've still got to be sick about the decision to have kicker Robbie Gould squib his final kickoff, which Falcons rookie Harry Douglas picked up at the Atlanta 34 and returned 10 critical yards.
Starting at the Falcons' 44 with 11 seconds left gave Matt Ryan and company just enough time to complete that long out-pattern to Jenkins and position Elam for the game-winning kick.
When only a long field goal can beat you, Lovie, why not have Gould boom it deep?
I'll have more to say about this in my next monthly Coaches on the Hot Seat update, but I think we can add Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey to the list of those who will be in-demand head coaching candidates come the NFL's firing/hiring season.
Mularkey, the ex-Bills head coach, has done a superb job thus far with an Atlanta offense that loves to run the ball but also lets the rookie Ryan throw it when he has to. Who says you can't win with a rookie passer? Ryan was a sharp 22 of 30 for a career-high 301 yards and a touchdown against the Bears. Through six starts, Ryan has five touchdowns, three interceptions, 1,164 yards passing and a solid 82.9 QB rating.
How much would Atlanta have been hurting if the Falcons had lost to Chicago on Elam's botched 33-yard field attempt with 2:50 remaining? The ex-Broncos kicker made 5-of-6 field goal attempts against the Bears, and he entered the game 11 for 11 on the season -- none of which would have salved the wound.