If the Atlanta Falcons’ record — they’re 2-4, the four losses having come by 10-plus points — didn’t tell you that there’s trouble afoot in Flowery Branch, these numbers will. Pro Football Focus grades the Falcons’ offensive line as the league’s 28th-best, which is actually an upgrade over last season, when it ranked 30th. Advanced Football Analytics assesses the Falcons’ defensive efficiency as the 32nd-best — there are 32 NFL teams — and the team as the league’s fifth-worst despite the presence of the 10th-most efficient offense.
FiveThirtyEight’s rankings have the Falcons as the seventh-worst team, and Nate Silver’s site affords them a seven percent chance of making the playoffs. Our friends at Football Outsiders are much more charitable: Their numbers indicate that the Falcons have a 26.6 percent chance at qualifying for the postseason, which is better than New Orleans (21 percent).
If any rating underscores the oddity these Falcons have become, it’s Football Outsiders’ proprietary DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average). According to DVOA, the Falcons have two of the league’s top 10 units: Their offense ranks No. 7 and their special teams are No. 2 (thank Devin Hester). Their defense ranks next-to-last, dragging the team’s overall DVOA to No. 12.
I know, I know. These advanced numbers don’t tell us a whole lot we couldn’t have grasped just from watching, or from checking the basic total offense/defense numbers. (The Falcons are third-best in the former, second-worst in the latter.) But they offer further confirmation that what we’ve seen has basis in mathematical reality. The defense really is awful.
Oh, and one thing more: The advanced-analytics set loves to discuss the merits of going for it on fourth down, and Mike Smith’s decision to do just that on fourth-and-1 from the Falcons’ 29 with his team trailing by seven points and 4:40 and three timeouts remaining prompted the usual parsing.
As a rule, numbers-crunchers belive a coach should err on the side of daring, which is why so many of them have come to embrace Carolina’s Ron Rivera, the former ultra-conservative who started going for everything last season and saw his Panthers win the NFC South. “Riverboat Ron,” he was rechristened, although it’s worth noting that RR chose to kick a tying field goal on fourth-and-1 in overtime against Cincinnati on Sunday — a decision Brian Burke of Advanced Football Analytics conceded might have been sound.
Back to Smith: Andrew Healy of Football Perspective argues that the coach’s latest failed attempt in the Meadowlands was out of recent character, seeing as how the Falcons’ two fourth-and-1 whiffs in a January 2012 playoff game against the Giants had a chilling effect on what had been one of the league’s boldest coaches. Writes Healy: “From 2008-2011, Smith was the third-most aggressive coach of the last 20 years.”
Since then? Healy again:
By the 2012 regular season, Smith hadn’t just abandoned his prior tendency for aggressive strategy. He entirely reversed it. In 2012, he was the least aggressive coach in football, only going for it once in 91 qualifying fourth-down tries. He was similarly passive in 2013. His fourth down decision (against the Giants) was surprising given that trend.
The headline on Healy’s post: “Learning the wrong lessons from failure.”
Further reading from myajc: How bad is it? The Falcons have stopped coming close.
Further still: The 12-4 Falcons stand revealed as a house of cards.