This is why general managers speak in tongues when pressed for specifics on a team’s potential. This is why coaches go to great lengths to address only the next game, or maybe the next 10 minutes, rather than the big picture.
Forget projections. The Falcons have played two games. We don’t know anything more about them now than we knew in July or August.
They started fast last week in their opener. Then they faded and lost to New Orleans. They started fast Sunday and led 24-3. Then they they faded and tempted a humiliating home defeat to St. Louis, allowing touchdowns on the Rams’ final three possessions. They held on, 31-24.
For this, they earn a win, not a parade.
Two weeks into the season, the Falcons are like that mixed up guy who makes his first one-hour visit to a therapist, and before he leaves he hears: “This is going to take a while. I’ll see you next Tuesday.”
A juggernaut, they’re not. A team with great potential, they remain. Maybe.
The victory over St. Louis wasn’t completely devoid of meaning. After what has become a frighteningly familiar roll down hill, the Falcons drove to a late game-securing touchdown. In the six previous drives — following an 81-yard score by the possibly mortal human Julio Jones (11 catches, 182 yards) — the Falcons’ offense accounted for five punts (four three-and-outs) and a field goal. So there’s something to be said for that late-game response.
The Falcons also survived an improbable blur of injuries, during which they lost five starters, including starting running back Steven Jackson, and three from an already scrambling and worn down defense. (Coach Mike Smith was at his non-disclosure best on the significance of the injuries, particularly Jackson’s thigh bruise. When asked if Jackson was injured on his first-quarter touchdown catch, Smith responded, “He did not play any plays after that play.”)
But anybody seeking early season signs of a team’s Super Bowl potential might just want to look elsewhere.
“I don’t ever expect to blow people out. The difference between the upper-echelon teams and the cellar-dwellers isn’t that great,” guard Justin Blalock said. “But at the same time, we have to get better at pressing (the issue) and sustaining our play, especially coming out in the second half. That’s two weeks in a row where we’ve come out and just went into a lull.”
This isn’t to suggest losing Jackson, Bradie Ewing, Sean Weatherspoon, Asante Samuel and Kroy Biermann was not going to have a significant impact. But the Falcons can’t be viewed as elite if they’re punting on their first four drives of the second half, with a grand total of one first down. They’re not a Super Bowl threat with a defense that allows long touchdown drives on an opponent’s final three possessions (74 yards in 1 minute, 50 seconds; 75 yards in 3:03; 67 yards in 4:03).
Without the backdrop of three straight playoff appearances, two recent 13-3 seasons and the offseason signings of Jackson and Osi Umenyiora, most would look at Atlanta’s first two games and think: 9-7.
Slow fades are becoming the norm. The Falcons did it twice in the playoffs last year against Seattle and San Francisco. They did it last week against the Saints, leading 10-0 before getting outscored 23-7 and losing. The defense’s collapse Sunday might not have happened if the offense had managed to sustain a drive or two and give a depleted unit some rest.
“We have to keep our foot on the gas,” tight end Gonzalez said.
That said, after the Rams drove the field twice to close to 24-17, they responded. Ryan completed eight straight passes to move the team to the Rams’ 11. Then came the most improbable play of the day: a successful run. Third string back Jason Snelling ran through a hole over right guard for a touchdown.
Those 11 yards accounted for nearly one-third of the Falcons’ rushing total (36).
St. Louis scored again but ran out of time.
From Blalock, when asked if he was concerned (smiling): “It helps to have some confidence. I’m the eternal optimist here.”
The offensive line played better for a half, but protection broke down in the second. Run blocking: seldom there. Doubts continue. NFL.com carried a story in which one unnamed Falcon was quoted as saying, “Our linemen are punks.” The reference: Nobody rushed to Ryan’s aid when he was hit late last week by New Orleans’ Kenny Vaccaro.
Smith belabored the team’s running game, which averaged 2.3 yards per carry even with Snelling’s run.
His overall assessment: “We obviously have a lot of things to correct.”
Something we can all agree on.