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Falcons’ Mike Smith long overdue to unleash Matt Ryan, passing game

First came the decision to trade five selections in order to move up in the 2011 NFL Draft for receiver Julio Jones.

Then players and media members used words like “explosiveness” to describe their offense.

Then came the fizzle.

Mike Smith is 43-21 as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. With the exception of Dan Reeves, who led the Falcons to their first and only Super Bowl appearance, Smith is the best coach the team has had in its 46-year history. His players love to play for him and he’s brought stability to a franchise that has long lacked consistency at the head coach position.

But if he doesn’t tweak his overall philosophy when it comes to the Falcons offense, he will become the modern day version of Marty Schottenheimer – if he hasn’t already.

Like Smith, Schottenheimer used to stockpile victories during the regular season. But because he was unwilling to change his style when it came to coaching in the postseason, he never won anything of substance. He was 5-13 in the postseason with no Super Bowl appearances and nary a conference title to call his own.

Smith is 0-3 in the playoffs with two utterly embarrassing performances by his team the last two years. The Packers drubbed the Falcons 48-21 at the Georgia Dome two seasons ago and the Giants shut Atlanta down 24-2 on their way to a Super Bowl victory last year.

At the root of the Falcons’ postseason failures is a lack of creativity on Smith’s part. Some have suggested Matt Ryan doesn’t have what it takes to win in big games but the fault doesn’t lie in the quarterback, it lies in the overall mentality of the head coach.

The Falcons wanted to beat the Giants on the ground last year because New York was brutal against the run during the regular season. It wasn’t a bad idea but when the Giants bottled up Michael Turner, the Falcons didn’t have a Plan B in place. That falls on Smith, who remains hamstrung by his philosophy that in order to win the NFL, you must grind down the clock, keep the game close, and win in the end. That ideology may work in the regular season against inferior opponents but when a team like the Packers doesn’t mind throwing the ball 40 times in order to beat you, being able to run the ball becomes irrelevant.

Part of the Falcons problem was former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, who is now the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Ryan has developed into a slow starter over the years but Mularkey was hesitant to put his quarterback in the no-huddle, which often got Ryan into a good rhythm. Mularkey would waste a full quarter of ineffective play from his offense before he got into his no-huddle attack. Whether that was because of Smith’s conservatism or Mularkey’s unwillingness to allow Ryan to call the shots is not known outside of Atlanta. But either way, it was shocking that the Falcons didn’t use the no-huddle more last season.

In steps new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who was limited in Jacksonville because of the lack of weapons at his disposal (save for Maurice Jones-Drew, that is). Koetter is a gifted playcaller and has already said that he will install the no-huddle for Ryan, who could benefit from having someone other than Mularkey put game plans together. The hope is that a creative play-caller like Koetter is the missing piece.

But everything comes back to Smith, who ultimately decides what kind of philosophy his team will have on Sundays. The Falcons ranked eighth in the league in passing yards per game last season so this isn’t about stats – it’s about a mentality. Will Smith allow Koetter to design his game plans around Ryan instead of Turner? Will he allow the Falcons to actually use the assortment of weapons (Jones, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez, Harry Douglas, etc.) that they have in their arsenal? Will Smith finally allow the Falcons to shake hands with the present day NFL and become a team that beats opponents through the air?

If he doesn’t, Smith’s list of critics will grow by leaps and bounds. His job is safe for now but he must change his ways in order for this talented Falcons team to reach its full potential. Ryan was maxed out in Mularkey’s run-first offense but he still has untapped potential as the architect of a fast-paced attack. It’s just a matter of whether or not Smith will take the chains off.

If he doesn’t, the new “Martyball” will become entrenched in Atlanta.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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Jaguars already committed to Blaine Gabbert in 2012

Creating competition is apparently overrated in Mike Mularkey’s book.

When speaking to NFL.com’s Albert Breer on Monday, the new Jaguars head coach said that his quarterback position is not open for competition.

“No, it’s not (a competition),” Mulakery said. “Blaine’s our starting quarterback…I’m a big body-language reader, and on the practice field, the cafeteria, in meetings, he has a confidence about him. We feel good about him.”

It’s understandable that Mularkey wants to instill confidence in Gabbert right from the start. If it walks, talks, and acts like a duck, it’s probably a duck. Thus, if Gabbert is entrusted to be the starter from Day 1, then the hope is that he’ll embrace the leadership role and enter training camp brimming with confidence.

That said, considering how poorly Gabbert played last season as a rookie, it’s interesting that Mularkey has committed to him so quickly. Chad Henne isn’t a great starting option, but one would have thought Mularkey would have at least left the position open to competition. Most coaches want to create competition at every position so that players don’t become complacent – not award starting jobs in May.

Then again, Mularkey was one of the coaches in Atlanta who did a great job easing Matt Ryan into the NFL. His offense is quarterback-friendly because it relies on power running and a passing game that works the short-to-intermediate zones. Thus, Gabbert, who doesn’t have to worry about the lockout ruining his preparation time this offseason, shouldn’t have an issue grasping his role in Mularkey’s offense.

It’ll be interesting to see how the former Missouri star fares in Mularkey’s offense and to watch him try to bounce back from a brutal rookie campaign.

Several coaching changes taking place in the NFL this week

Miami Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano adjusts his headset as he coaches against the San Diego Chargers during their NFL football game in San Diego, California October 2, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Blake (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

There have been several coaching changes that have taken place in the NFL this week. Here’s the latest news from around the league.

Sparano now the offensive coordinator for the Jets
Following the resignation of Brian Schottenheimer on Tuesday night, the Jets moved quickly by hiring former Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano offensive coordinator on Wednesday. Sparano called plays with the Cowboys in 2006 and his style matches that of Rex Ryan’s “ground ‘n’ pound” philosophy. There was also a report from the New York Daily News on Wednesday that several players and members of the organization have doubts about whether Mark Sanchez has enough ability to succeed at quarterback. Apparently some want the team to pursue Peyton Manning if he were to become available this offseason.

Raiders dump Jackson after one season.
The Raiders have fired head coach Hue Jackson, believes owner Mark Davis and not new GM Reggie McKenzie was at the root of his termination. “I would be hard-pressed to find a guy who didn’t like Hue,” receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh said. “I’ll bet you San Diego, Kansas City and Denver like this move, because we would have been good next year with Hue.” The Raiders will be searching for their 34th head coach in the past five seasons.

“Marty Ball” coming to Tampa?
The Bucs interviewed 68-year-old Marty Schottenheimer for their vacant head-coaching position on Tuesday. He’s 200-126-1 during the regular season but just 5-13 in the postseason, which has bread the moniker “Marty Ball.” While he often does a fantastic job rebuilding teams, he’s been heavily criticized for his conservatism and brutal coaching during the postseason. According to SI.com’s Jim Trotter, Marty’s son Brian will not be joining the Bucs’ staff if Marty lands the head-coaching job.

Haley heading back to the desert?
The Cardinals have apparently spoken to ex-Chiefs head coach Todd Haley about possibly returning to Arizona, although it’s not known at this point if a) Haley is interested and b) what position he would hold. It’s worth noting that the Cardinals fired quarterbacks coach Chris Miller on Tuesday, so maybe the team is already in the process of making room for their former offensive coordinator.

Jaguars hire Mularkey, Falcons need to replace both coordinators.
Following the Falcons’ embarrassing 24-2 loss to the Giants on Sunday, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder left the organization Monday to accept the same role at the University of Auburn. On Tuesday night, offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey was hired as head coach of the Jaguars, leaving the Falcons with two positions to fill. Jack Del Rio’s name has been mentioned as a potential replacement for VanGorder but as of this time, nobody has been mentioned as a potential suitor for Mularkey. (The options are limitless, although if I were the Falcons I’d scoop up Hue Jackson in heartbeat.)

Gruden staying in Cincinnati.
Bengals’ offensive coordinator Jay Gruden confirmed on Wednesday that he won’t be interview for any open head-coaching jobs this offseason. “I’m new to this. If I’d been in the league 25 years, I would have interviewed,” Gruden told the media. “I just wanted to put it to bed and move on with what we’ve got going here.” Noble might not be the best word to describe Gruden’s decision to stay put but it’s nice to see that a coach wants to grow as a coordinator before rushing off to be a head coach.

Colts find their new GM.
The Colts hired Eagles director of player personnel Ryan Grigson as their next general manager according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Grigson is highly regarded in the scouting community and was the runner-up to Howie Roseman for the Eagles’ GM job in 2010. He’ll replace Bill Polian in Indianapolis.

Bears promote Mike Tice to offensive coordinator.
This transaction actually happened last week but it was worth noting in this piece. Tice did a nice job maximizing the talent that former GM Jerry Angelo got him along the offensive line (that’s a nice way of saying that Tice didn’t have much to work with), but he’s not much of a game-planner. Chances are he’ll manage the running game and the Bears will seek another coach to coordinate their passing attack. If you’re confused, so are most Chicago fans.

2011 NFL Week 7 Primer

Denver Broncos reserve quarterback Tim Tebow celebrates his fourth quarter 12-yard touchdown run against the San Diego Chargers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on October 9, 2011 in Denver. Despite a comeback effort from Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, the Chargers held on for a 29-24 win. UPI/Gary C. Caskey

Broncos @ Dolphins, 1:00PM ET
Tim Tebow said that the Denver coaching staff didn’t change the team’s offensive scheme to fit the quarterback’s skill set during the bye week. That makes sense. I mean why would any coaching staff want to try and play to their quarterback’s strengths? Bill Belichick doesn’t do that with Tom Brady. Mike McCarthy doesn’t do that with Aaron Rodgers. Both of those teams largely keep the ball on the ground and let Brady and Rodgers be the game managers they are. (I hate that I even have to write this but I know some people will misconstrue things: I’m being sarcastic.) While I like Tebow’s chances of succeeding this weekend in Miami no matter what the scheme is, I think the Broncos should have styled their offense around what he does best (i.e. being creative in both the run and the pass). But what do I know? I’m a doctor, not an offensive coordinator.

Falcons @ Lions, 1:00PM ET
It’s all well and good that the Falcons want to get back to Michael Turner and their ball-control ways, but at some point OC Mike Mularkey better figure out how to beat teams through the air. Matt Ryan is the only quarterback in the NFC South who has yet to throw for over 300 yards in a game this season and he ranks 17th in the league in overall passing yards. With Julio Jones (hamstring) expected to miss another week, it would be wise for the Falcons to keep the ball on the ground against the Lions’ suspect run defense. But again, at some point Mularkey has to do his job and figure out a way to let Ryan soar. The most obvious solution is to put him in the no-huddle full-time, but Mularkey and Mike Smith’s conservative ways just won’t allow it.

Texans @ Titans, 1:00PM ET
Hey Matt Schaub, it’s go time buddy. The AFC South is yours for the taking and while I understand that you lost your best playmaker and your defense is now without its best weapon, it’s high time you raise your game. Arian Foster is seeing eight man fronts so there’s no reason for you not to exploit defenses with your arm – Andre Johnson or no Andre Johnson. Tennessee’s pass rush is one of the weakest in the league, so figure it out and get your team a win, Matt.

Chargers @ Jets, 1:00PM ET
“The more we get comfortable, we start playing pitch and catch and I’m doing my thing out there, the offense is going to go through the roof,” said Plaxico Burress in regards to Mark Sanchez and the Jet offense. Right, because naturally Plax is the key to whether or not New York’s offense is going to eventually get out of its funk. I think the Jets have it right in giving Shonn Greene an increased workload. The only way they’re going to really get their offense going is relying on the ground game to open things up for Sanchez. Burress is probably right when he suggests that he and Sanchez need to develop more chemistry, but the key to this offense is Greene and the ground attack.

Redskins @ Panthers, 1:00PM ET
Mike Shanahan is in a mess of his own making. Everyone knew going into the season that Rex Grossman is fine in small doses, but over the course of a season he’s going to hurt you. Thus, now that Shanahan has switched things up and is starting John Beck on Sunday, he better win. The Panthers are better than their 1-5 record would indicate but this is a game the Redskins have to win if they want to keep pace with the Giants in the NFC East.

Seahawks @ Browns, 1:00PM ET
Peyton Hillis has an injured hamstring and won’t practice on Thursday. His agent has advised him not to play in this game, or the next 12. If a case of the sniffles is equal to missing one game, then an injured hamstring must be equal to 13 missed games. Hillis and his agent just can’t be too careful when it comes to the King of Fumbles’ health.

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The offensive lines are killing these three NFC playoff contenders

New Orleans Saints defensive end Will Smith sacks Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) during the second half of their NFL football game at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana November 2, 2009. New Orleans won the game 35-27. REUTERS/Sean Gardner (UNITED STATES SPORT FOOTBALL)

One of two things is going to happen if the Bears, Eagles and Falcons don’t get their issues along the offensive line figured out. They’re either going to get their quarterbacks killed and miss the playoffs, or they’re going to get their quarterbacks severely beaten and miss the playoffs. Either way, the season won’t end pretty for any of these teams.

It would be a gross understatement to say that the season hasn’t exactly started the way the Bears, Eagles and Falcons had envisioned. All three teams are 1-2 and are reeling at the moment. Most, not all, of their struggles can be pinned on the play of their lines. While the Bears’ front five gets scrutinized the most, the Falcons’ protection has easily been the worst in the league after three games. For those who tuned into that Sunday night game against the Eagles, you witnessed Trent Cole treat Atlanta LT Sam Baker like a revolving door to Matt Ryan.

Philadelphia has been opening up lanes for LeSean McCoy, but every lineman outside of tackle Jason Peters has struggled thus far in pass protection. Everyone knew the line was a question mark coming into the season and it certainly has been. The biggest culprit in pass protection has been rookie Jason Kelce, but it’s not like Todd Herremans and Kyle DeVan have done Michael Vick any favors either.

So what can be done? For Chicago, Mike Martz can start giving the ball more to Matt Forte. I realize that starting RT Gabe Carimi is injured and the front five hasn’t gotten much push in the running game but it’s criminal that Forte only received nine carries last Sunday. Lovie Smith had a sit-down with Martz during the team’s bye week last year and told him he needed to have a more balanced attack. The result was positive, as the Bears’ line played much better in the second half and the team wound up in the NFC Championship Game. This time, Smith may need to have that little chitchat earlier in the season.

For the Falcons, one option they have is to run the no-huddle exclusively, or at least more often. Ryan has had a ton of success running the hurry up since his rookie year and coordinator Mike Mularkey is a disciple of Sam Wyche, who ran the no-huddle with the Bengals in the mid 80s. The only time Atlanta’s offense has moved the ball in the last two weeks is when Ryan has been in the hurry up, which keeps defenses vanilla and slows down the edge rushers that have given the O-line fits. The Falcons ran the no-huddle in the first quarter last year in a win over Baltimore and had plenty of success with it. If Mularkey ran the offense more frequently, maybe the line could start to build some confidence. (It also wouldn’t hurt to bench Baker, who is clearly a bust at this point in his career.)

One of the reasons the Eagles’ line has had issues is because Vick has a tendency to hold the ball too long. But even if Vick made faster decisions it doesn’t change the fact that guys like Kelce have to grow up fast. When it comes to Philadelphia, the O-line might just need more time to gel.

In reality, allowing the line to develop cohesion might be the best thing for all of these teams. A big part of Tom Brady’s success in New England is because his line has played together for years. Unfortunately for the Bears, Eagles and Falcons, they don’t have years to wait. The health of their quarterbacks and their seasons hang in the balance.

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