A year ago at this time, the three Atlanta (or almost Smyrna) major pro sports franchises were suffering from various degrees of dysfunction — which, I understand, may not be viewed as unique in these parts.
The Falcons were coming off a season in which coach Dan Quinn went from the Flavor of the Week (6-1 start) to the next Jim Mora (2-7 finish). The Hawks began to show their post-Danny Ferry-era flaws, stumbling from 60 wins to 48. The Braves were in the midst of a 9-28 start that led to the firing of manager Fredi Gonzalez and second consecutive 90-plus loss season.
So in an attempt to lighten the mood (not really), I decided to look at the primary concerns of the three teams and assign a grade to convey the level of confidence in the future. I ranked the Falcons first of the three teams, but no, I didn’t foresee a run to the Super Bowl after an 8-8 season. The other two teams: about what was expected.
So here’s my second annual Atlanta Confidence rankings:
Reasons to feel good: They have the best offense in the NFL, led by quarterback Matt Ryan, who is coming off an MVP season and emerged as one of the league’s better leaders. Ryan’s decision to stage an offseason minicamp again last month in south Florida also could prove to be a nice bonding/healing moment for a group looking to move on from the Super Bowl loss (which figures to be a constant topic in the media).
The Falcons are deep at receiver (led by Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu) and running back (Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman). Watch out for tight end Austin Hooper, who could emerge as a major target in his second season. Given all that, the need to find a new starting fullback and right guard seem like minor issues. Defensive tackle Dontari Poe was a nice one-year pick up in free agency and will line up next to Grady Jarrett.
Reasons to be concerned: Putting aside all of the hatin’ on Kyle Shanahan for the Super Bowl blunder, he was the NFL’s best offensive coordinator last season. His replacement, Steve Sarkisian, is good, but he’s a bit of a wild card, given past off-field issues. Quinn also did quite a bit of shuffling on his coaching staff and fired two assistants, defensive coordinator Richard Smith and line coach Brian Cox.
Cornerback Desmond Trufant is coming back from a torn pectoral, and nobody is certain if top draft pick Takkarist McKinley will be ready for the start of the season after March surgery for a torn labrum and fractured shoulder socket. The pass rush significantly improved last season, but it was lopsided in the sack department. Vic Beasley had 15.5 sacks, and the next closest was Adrian Clayborn, with five. As opposing offenses increasing key on Beasley, the defense will need more production from others. The addition of end Jack Crawford could help.
Finally, there’s this: The potential distraction of Freeman’s negotiations.
Confidence on scale of 1 to 5: 4.5 (last year: 3)
Reasons to feel good: The lineup has been solid, with a .267 team batting average (fourth in the majors) and 4.73 runs per game (10th overall). Freddie Freeman leads the team in everything. Matt Kemp is showing last year’s hot streak after the trade wasn’t an aberration. Nick Markakis, Tyler Flowers, Brandon Phillips, Ender Inciarte — all good. Dansby Swanson is struggling, but I don’t understand manager Brian Snitker dropping him in the order so quickly. The kid is young and, let’s be real, this team is not going to the postseason anyway. The lineup has kept the Braves’ somewhat competitive, despite bad pitching and a weak bench.
And, hey, they still own Atlanta’s only major pro title.
Reasons to be concerned: At some point, you have to get the other team out. The pitching staff entered the weekend ranked last in the majors in ERA (4.94). The relievers: 5.59. The staff also ranked last in strikeouts, 28th in batting average allowed, 29th in OPS against and 27th in strikeout/walk ratio. I’m not going to blame new pitching coach Chuck Hernandez for all this because that would be akin to general manager John Coppolella blaming Roger McDowell for his lousy pitchers last season when he fired him.
Here are the early returns on that $12.5 million Bartolo Colon signing: 6.27 ERA, .299 opponent’s batting average. But it’ll be a great bobblehead night. When I did this exercise a year ago, I referenced five young pitchers who had a string of strong performances: Matt Wisler, Julio Teheran, Williams Perez, Mike Foltynewicz, Aaron Blair. Now, Teheran leads the staff in walks and has an ERA of 4.33; Wisler and Blair are in the minors; Perez was released; Foltynewicz allowed seven runs on four innings against St. Louis Friday night, inflating his ERA to 4.55. Neither the rotation nor the bullpen are easy fixes. Worse, there’s nothing to indicate the organization feels the need to do so. It’s about waiting, and praying, for growth on the farm.
Confidence on scale of 1 to 5: 2.8 (last year: 2.7).
Reasons to feel good: Owner Tony Ressler seems driven to win (even with some early stumbles) and has done some nice things off the court, including construction of the franchise’s first real practice facility. He finally made the right decision to bring in a new general manager. Mike Budenholzer is one of the NBA’s 10 best coaches. Paul Millsap has evolved into one of the NBA’s better players. Dennis Schroder was more good than bad in his first season as starting point guard, and Taurean Prince has the talent to develop into a special player.
Reasons to be concerned: Will the new GM arrive in full body armor? He may need it to get through this first season. Off the court, he will need to build a relationship with Budenholzer, who was stripped of personnel power. On the court, he must make a decision on Millsap, an impending free agent, and/or convince him to stay.
What to do with Dwight Howard, who was a bad fit? Kent Bazemore is being paid like a starter, but looked better as a reserve. Schroder is talented, but has maturity issues. Hardaway is a scorer but streaky, and he might command more salary than his perceived value. So in reality, there’s not a lot of certainty.
Are the Hawks closer to being really good or really bad? Probably the latter. We’ll know more in about two months, after the draft and the start of free agency. But confidence isn’t high today.
Confidence on a scale of 1 to 5: 2.3 (last year: 2.8).