Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
24 Nov 2006
by Mike Tanier
When the Falcons hosted the Browns two weeks ago, the opening Vegas line listed the Falcons as 9.5-point favorites. The severe spread didn't dissuade gamblers; the website Gambling911.com revealed the day before the game that about 85 percent of bettors were laying the points and taking the Falcons.
Vegas responded to the one-sided action by lowering the line to eight. Yes, dear friends, that's exactly backwards: bookmakers want to even out the action on a game so they can make money on the juice, so normally they would raise the line to scare away Falcons supporters. By going the other way, handicappers indicated that they knew something the betting population didn't. "Bookmakers have a strong opinion here," according to the wagering site. In other words, they weren't worried about the Falcons action, because they knew they wouldn't cover.
Maybe the bookies read Football Outsiders, where the Falcons were ranked 18th and the Browns 24th in DVOA before the game, too narrow a difference to warrant a 10-point spread. More likely, they have their own statistical methods that arrive at many of the same conclusions we do. Either way, the final score was Browns 17, Falcons 14. It was the second straight Falcons loss to one of the league's cellar dwellers. The playoff bandwagon promptly rolled into a ditch.
Just remember: the house never loses.
Jim Mora the Elder called Michael Vick a "coach killer" on FOX Sports Radio last week. Arthur Blank's response, as quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
"If Jim's dad was sitting here, I would say this too, and I haven't talked to him, but he has to understand that when you're in the NFL, it's not like in a private business. It's a very public world, and when he says something like that, particularly since his son is the head coach of an NFL team, it's going to be taken in a very different way than if he was talking about somebody else. I think that, given his role in the media and given his expertise as a former head coach in the NFL, in my opinion, he needs to be very sensitive about things like that. It's something else when you say it over a turkey dinner to your son that I feel this, this and this about your team. And it's something else when you say it publicly."
I'm sure the elder Mora would appreciate the lecture on what life is like in the NFL from a guy who made his fortune selling hardware.
August, 2005: During a goal line drill in Central Florida's first preseason scrimmage, senior defensive end Paul Carrington collapsed. "There was probably a 20-minute gap where I blacked out," Carrington said in the school newspaper a few days later. "I remember coming off a goal line play and getting double teamed and the next thing I remember is the EMT got there."
The next day, Carrington was back on the practice field wearing a neck brace. By November, he was leading Conference-USA in sacks. Despite the high sack total, scouts were skeptical. At 6'7" and 250 pounds, Carrington fit the profile of a defender cut too high, one who would be blocked too easily in the pros. His combine workouts were average, and he wasn't rated as a top athlete. Still, many were impressed by his hustle. "He is the type of kid who will make it tough for a coaching staff to cut him," draftnik Jay Goldberg wrote. The Falcons signed him as a rookie free agent to groom for the future.
When Patrick Kerney was lost for the year against the Browns, Carrington was thrown into the starting lineup. He made an immediate impact: five tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble. "I try to take things one play at a time," Carrington said after the Browns game, "break it down, and not feel overwhelmed by playing a certain number of snaps."
Thanks to a spate of injuries, the Falcons defense is now loaded with players like Carrington: undrafted rookies, unknown veterans. Chauncey Davis, a fifth-round pick last season, is starting until John Abraham returns. Josh Mallard, who spent four years at the bottom of the Colts depth chart, has four sacks as a rotation lineman. When coordinator Ed Donatell looks to his bench, he finds guys like John Leake and Omare Lowe. It's a heck of a drop off from Kerney, Abraham, and Ed Hartwell.
On Sunday, the Falcons hope to have Abraham back, though they will be careful not to rush him. Hartwell, who has two bad knees, came back from an injury too quickly in Week 7 and wound up back on the shelf. Hartwell also hopes to be back soon. Other key players, like Kerney and Kevin Mathis, are done for the year, possibly longer for Mathis.
The Falcons need more guys like Carrington: unconscious on the field one day, back at practice the next.
The Falcons team leaders in tackles for a loss: 1) Grady Jackson, nine; 2) Demorrio Williams, Patrick Kerney, and Jonathan Babineaux, six; 3) Keith Boley, five. Keith Brooking, Rod Coleman, Josh Mallard, Paul Carrington, and John Abraham all have four.
Despite all of the injuries and an otherwise mediocre run defense, the Falcons defensive line has recorded a league-leading 42 tackles for losses, 21 of them sacks. The Falcons do a pretty good job rushing the passer and bottling up running backs at the line of scrimmage. It's when those runners reach the second level that trouble strikes.
Fans of oddball stats, take note: the Falcons defensive line is also tops in the league in passes defensed, with 16. Babineaux has broken up three passes, Kerney two.
For a guy with just 13 tackles on the season, that Jonathan Babineaux gets around.
If you're the fan of a team that's going nowhere and has problems at quarterback, learn this name: Matt Schaub.
Oh yeah, you already know his name.
Schaub has thrown just one pass this year, but his ears are burning. He's mentioned about once per week in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, where the J.P. Losman watch has been on all season. An article at RealGMFootball.com about the Raiders' woes (copycats) mentions him as the cure for the Andrew Walter-Aaron Brooks blues. Back in October, Fort Worth Star-Telegram scribe Newy Scruggs wished that the Cowboys would target Schaub, a restricted free agent, with a big contract in 2007. Scruggs called it his "second pipe dream"; his first was a trade for Brett Favre. We'll assume that with Tony Romo under center, Scruggs is now off the pipe.
Are there any other teams going nowhere that have problems at quarterback? We can think of one. But don't take it from Football Outsiders; hear it instead from The Sporting News: "Mike Vick's feet may be made for walking as well as running. Seems the Falcons might pass on keeping him around next season given that they have a guy whom the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle calls the best backup quarterback in the league, Matt Schaub." The Fly at TSN clearly reads the same newspapers we do. And BetUS.com posted odds last week on which NFL quarterback would be the next one benched this season. Michael Vick was given 10-1 odds, equal with Losman, and better than Jake Plummer at 20-1.
Granted, 10-to-1 is no lock. And somehow, I can't shake the feeling that everyone has stopped reading so they can go put 50 bucks on Plummer.
(Late note: This article was written early in the week, before the Broncos announced that they were benching Plummer. Don't you wish you got a piece of that 20-1 action? So do I.)
Time for the interactive portion of our mix tape. Here's a list of names. You must figure out what they have in common:
Robert Aderholt, Tammy Baldwin, J. Grehsam Barrett, Melissa Bean, Mary Bono, Dan Boren, Eric Cantor, Chris Chocola, Joseph Crowley, Artur Davis, Mario Diaz-Balart, Michael Ferguson, Mike Fitzpatrick, Harold Ford, Jeff Flake, Jeff Fortenberry, Luis Fortuno, Vito Fossella, Sam Graves, Melissa Hart, Stephanie Herseth, John Hostettler, Jesse Jackson Jr., Bobby Jindal, Ric Keller, Patrick Kennedy, Ron Kind, James Langevin, Rick Larsen, Blanche Lincoln, Dan Lipinski, Connie Mack, Michael McCaul, Patrick McHenry, Thaddeus McCotter, Cathy McMorris, Devin Nunes, Barack Obama, Charles Pickering, Todd Platts, Richard Pombo, Mark Pryor, Adam Putnam, Michael J. Rogers, Mike Ross, Paul Ryan, Linda Sanchez, Bill Shuster, Adam Smith, John Sullivan, John Sununu, Lee Terry, John Thune, Patrick Tiberi, David Vitter, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Anthony Weiner, Robert Wexler, Heather Wilson.
That's right, they are all current senators or congressmen. And all of them are younger than Morten Andersen.
Andersen will never run for president (he wasn't born in the U.S.), but he's older than about 13 percent of our elected representatives, not to mention 100 percent of our professional football players. What's his secret? The Atlanta Journal Constitution ran a feature on Andersen last week, revealing that he keeps a journal detailing every kick he attempts, in games and in practice. He doesn't just list the results, but all aspects of the kick: "get-off time from snap to kick, sideline routine, arousal control, focus, setup, breathing, approach, steps, contact, follow-through, head and hips."
Andersen's routine is a reminder that you don't just wind kickers up and throw them on the field. Of course, that's what the Falcons tried to do in the off-season when they auditioned a bunch of journeymen and then handed the job to punter Mike Koenen. Andersen's dedication allowed him to stay in shape during a year layoff, when he worked out by himself in the Atlanta suburbs wearing a Vikings helmet, Giants pants, Saints shoulder pads and a Pro Bowl jersey. We can only hope none of the people who design the University of Oregon uniforms were watching.
But we're missing the big picture here. Flake? Chocola? Fortenberry? Is this a governing body or breakfast?
Four weeks ago, left guard Matt Lehr was suspended for violating the NFL's steroids policy. The Falcons quickly signed P.J. Alexander to start in Lehr's place. Alexander, a former lineman for the Broncos, was familiar with the Falcons' zone-blocking offense and was able to step in right away.
Lehr was reinstated on November 15th, but Alexander remained the starter against the Ravens. "Our play at left guard has improved and been a positive for us," line coach Tom Cable told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution before the game. Lehr didn't talk to reporters because the Falcons linemen appoint one player to be their spokesman each week. Last week's spokesman, ironically, was Alexander. "If you see a guy and you're battling with him, you're battling for a job, and everybody's trying to keep their jobs, feed their families," Alexander said. "That can only make everyone better."
Lehr's suspension didn't get a lot of media attention; it occurred at about the same time that Chargers defender Shawne Merriman, a higher-profile player, was suspended under similar circumstances. Merriman has become the butt of "roid head" jokes, but Lehr has gotten support from his teammates. "You generally need some type of supplementation, all obviously legal stuff, to replace energy and keep your muscle mass up and endurance up," Kerney said. "For a lot of guys it takes something outside of just the normal three meals a day."
Alexander played well against the Ravens, but with tackle Kynan Forney on injured reserve, the Falcons need some experience on the left side of their line. "We're just not getting it done, that's where it is," said center Todd McClure, this week's spokesman.
Lehr should be back in the starting lineup on Sunday.
You've heard of Allen Rossum. But do you really know him?
You know he's been in the league a long time: nine years as a kick returner for the Eagles, Packers, and Falcons. But do you know that he started the season fourth on the all-time kickoff return yardage list? He's also in the all-time top 20 for punt returns. Rossum has more career kick return yardage than Dante Hall or Desmond Howard. He may retire as the second most prolific kickoff returner of all time, behind only Brian Mitchell.
You may know that he has been pressed into service as a defensive back because of the rash of injuries that plagues the Falcons defense. You may have noticed that he was burned by Kellen Winslow two weeks ago. But Rossum would rather not be starting under these circumstances. Fellow defensive back Kevin Mathis, Rossum's best friend on the team, suffered a severe neck injury against the Lions. Mathis may never play again. Rossum went to high school with Mathis' wife. When the Falcons left Detroit after their loss to the Lions, Rossum stayed at Mathis' bedside. "He's in good spirits," Rossum said of his fallen teammate a few days later. "He's able to move, still crack jokes ... I guess he's back to himself, other than the fact that he's got a neck brace on."
You may know that Rossum has had to battle for his job in recent years. Rossum missed several games last season, and he was terrible as a punt returner, calling for 12 fair catches against just 17 returns. But you may not know about Rossum's contributions off the field last year. Rossum has family in Louisiana, and he was as active in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts as were higher-profile stars like Brett Favre and the Mannings. Rossum organized food and supply drives in Georgia. Then, he worked with R&B star Usher to organize a charity 3-on-3 basketball tournament. "I am doing everything I can whether it is my time or the money or it is just my prayers," Rossum said at the time.
In fact, Rossum and Usher are involved in several charitable causes, including Camp New Look, where disadvantaged kids can learn about the entertainment and sports industries. Rossum also sponsors Healthy Kids Klub, a foundation which teaches families about the importance of good dietary habits and a healthy lifestyle. Dozens of current and former teammates give their money and time to Healthy Kids Klub, and Rossum himself travels to poor communities as part of his Mobile Fitness plan, speaking to kids and parents about proper nutrition and preparing meals as Chef Allen.
That's the Allen Rossum you might not know: mover-and-shaker on all-time leader boards, valued teammate, philanthropist, buddy to the stars, chef. Not bad for a 5-foot-8 special teamer who was almost out of a job in August.
The Friday after Thanksgiving is a great day to go shopping for the Falcons fan in your life. If you are willing to drop some real money, nothing says "I love you" than a throwback jersey.
Mitchell and Ness is offering an authentic 1994 road Jessie Tuggle jersey for $299.95. It's a beaut: red with white lettering and big black stripes on the forearms. Bids are being taken on a handsome Steve Bartowski jersey on eBay.
The most widely-available retro jerseys I could find, other than various anachronistic 70s style Vick jerseys, belonged to the greatest quarterback ever to wear a Falcons uniform. Yep, Brett Favre. All-Pro Authentics is just one of the companies offering red-and-black Favre-wear. Suh-weet.
My tastes run toward the obscure. Sadly, I could not find any Dave Hampton or Jeff Van Note throwbacks -- a Google search turned up Andy Van Slyke and Keith Van Horn, but nothing about the great Falcons of the 1960s and 70s. The search did send me to AutographCards.com, where I could get old football cards of Van Note, Mike Kenn, R.C. Thielmann, and others. Put them around Bartkowski, and he'll stay in mint condition forever. Plus, Chris Chandler, Gerald Riggs, June Jones ... tremendous.
Wait. Why am I plugging this stuff when we are trying to move Football Outsiders t-shirts and coffee mugs?
Falcons receivers have generated just 888 yards from scrimmage, the lowest total in the league. The Redskins are second with 959 yards. The Falcons wideouts have more receiving yardage, but the Redskins run more reverses and such.
The Falcons have allowed just 39 rushing yards by opposing quarterbacks, the fourth-lowest total in the NFL. That's because they practice against Vick, right? Of course not. The Falcons just haven't faced many running quarterbacks. Jake Delhomme, Carson Palmer, Eli Manning, and Drew Brees don't run much. Charlie Frye was the best scrambler they have faced, and he ran for 28 yards two weeks ago. Atlanta's "success" against opposing quarterbacks makes their run defensive stats look a little better: quarterback scrambles can represent a swing of up to 200 yards at this point in the season. The Buccaneers allowed a league-worst 236 rushing yards to quarterbacks, with Vick and Donovan McNabb responsible for most of the production.
The Falcons rank 29th in the NFL in punt return average allowed, and a long return by the Ravens last week contributed to their loss. Ike Reese, one of the league's best kick gunners for many years, has just three special teams tackles. Another important special teamer in recent years is now too important to the offense to shag punts: receiver Michael Jenkins. Artie Ulmer, an anchor of the kick units for several years, is now out of the game. Punter Michael Koenen already has three tackles this season, the same number as Reese. That's never a good sign.
"Mike is the leader of our team. We've got to keep Mike comfortable, keep him back there so he can choose his receivers when we need to throw the football," -- Alge Crumpler on Vick this week.
"He needs to rely on the other guys. He needs to play within himself and within the system," -- Warrick Dunn on Vick after Sunday's loss.
"He's a great athlete ... he's a good kid. But he's not a passer," -- Jim Mora the Elder on Vick.
It's always a one-man show in Atlanta. We try to make it about Carrington or Lehr or Rossum. We learn more about the kick coverage units and the defensive line. But we're scribbling in the margins. All roads in Atlanta lead to one player's doorstep. You can't even shop for 1970s retro jerseys without running into the 21st century's most hyped, analyzed, lauded and criticized quarterback.
When we write the story of the Falcons' lost season in next year's book, we'll write about the Abraham injury. We'll talk about the problems and suspensions on the offensive line. We'll break down the wide receivers and count their dropped passes. Mora will be criticized, as will GM Rich McKay for over-investing in injury-prone free agents. We'll be thorough, even-handed, and in depth. We'll try to tell the story that everyone else missed.
But you know whose name will appear in the very paragraph, probably the first sentence. He's impossible to avoid.
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