Now here we are on the verge of October, and the Falcons and Eagles are competing not for NFL supremacy but for the dubious distinction of being the biggest disappointment of the young season. They are birds of a feather flailing together, and crash landings loom if things don't dramatically improve.
What's alarming about the reigning NFC East and NFC South champions is not that Philadelphia and Atlanta are each 1-2, but that the Eagles and Falcons have looked so utterly out of sorts, especially on offense.
There is no semblance of rhythm, and players on both teams appear to be pressing – not only because of heightened expectations, but also because of an internal understanding of how much talent resides in the huddle.
As one Eagles player told me Monday, "Guys keep saying, 'If we clean this up and clean that up, we could be so [expletive] good!' But I think if you keep saying that over and over, you're gonna be saying that on your couch in January. One of the messages we got on Monday was, 'Let's quit worrying about how good we can be, and just be.' "
I've talked to numerous sources within both organizations in recent days, and it's surprising how many similarities exist, from marquee quarterbacks getting pounded into submission, to questions about the play-calling, to a preponderance of mental errors.
I'll try to summarize these teams' respective issues, beginning with the birds to the south:
With veteran center Todd McClure(notes) back after having missed the first two games following knee surgery, the only new starter is right guard Garrett Reynolds(notes). He replaced Harvey Dahl(notes), who signed with the Rams via free agency as the front office instead focused on retaining right tackle Tyson Clabo(notes) (five years, $25 million) and left guard Justin Blaylock (six years, $38 million).
So what's up? Either Dahl is the league's second-most irreplaceable player, behind Peyton Manning(notes), or the holdovers are stinking it up this year. I'm going to go with the latter – left tackle Sam Baker(notes) and Clabo, in particular, are really struggling. And the line's poor performance extended to the complete absence of a rushing attack in last Sunday's 16-13 defeat to the Bucs, negating the potential impact of hard-running halfback Michael Turner(notes).
With Ryan lacking time in the pocket, offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey's calls have become magnified in importance – and coach Mike Smith can't be overly thrilled. The Falcons were impotent in a season-opening drubbing by the Bears and rallied to defeat the Eagles in Week 2 only after going to a no-huddle attack, effectively entrusting Ryan to call the plays. The same thing happened in Tampa: After three frustrating quarters, the Falcons went to the hurry-up offense and mounted a charge.
One major factor that has hurt Atlanta on both sides of the ball is penalties: Last year's least-penalized team (58 total) has already been flagged 23 times in 2011, putting the Falcons on pace for 122 on the year.
It may take awhile for Ryan and his talented teammates to find their groove, but in the meantime, there are some obvious adjustments they should be able to make. First, if they can't establish the run to set up the pass, the opposite strategy might be preferable. Second, instead of stationing Ryan in the pocket and inviting defenders to pummel him, Mularkey can gravitate toward quick-hitting passes which get the ball into the hands of his most explosive offensive weapons: All-Pro wideout Roddy White(notes) and rookie receiver Julio Jones(notes), the young stud general manager Thomas Dimitroff gave up so much to snag on draft day.
Incidentally, Dimitroff's assessment of Jones' talent isn't an aberration. After Ryan hooked up with Jones on an 18-yard completion on the second play of the second quarter, the Bucs moved their top cornerback, Aqib Talib(notes), off of White and onto the rookie. Apparently, the kid can play.
The big story coming out of Sunday's 29-16 defeat to the Giants was quarterback Michael Vick's(notes) complaining that officials aren't penalizing defenders who put him on the ground. But the larger issue is: Why is Vick on the ground in the first place?
In my opinion, the offensive line play hasn't been as bad as some have speculated. And even if it has, the Eagles should still be more potent than they've been. As with the Falcons, this team has too many dangerous skill players not to dictate to defenses, even when pass protection isn't ideal. Putting the ball in the hands of wideouts DeSean Jackson(notes) and Jeremy Maclin(notes) and halfback LeSean McCoy(notes), without hesitation, should make Vick's life better.
That's on offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. When I visited the Eagles' training camp this summer, coach Andy Reid referred to Mornhinweg's "beautiful mind"; sometimes, however, simple is better. Perhaps Mornhinweg, at times, needs to resist the compulsion to outsmart opposing defensive coordinators and go with more obvious but effective game plans, at least until Vick (concussion, hand contusion) heals up and gets his mojo back.
One example: In a third-quarter goal-line situation against the Giants, the Eagles lined up in their "elephant" or "heavy" formation, with six offensive linemen and two tight ends. Given an extra play because of an offsides penalty, Philly, which had first-and-goal from the 2-yard line, nonetheless failed to score a touchdown on four tries. Rather than running behind, say, starting tackles Jason Peters(notes) and Todd Herremans(notes) (who was lined up outside Peters as an extra tight end), Mornhinweg called for inside runs – consecutive sneaks by Vick and trap handoffs to fullback Owen Schmitt(notes).
The under-utilization of tight end Brent Celek(notes) is also baffling, and given Vick's history of throwing to big targets over the middle – he was practically obsessed with Alge Crumpler(notes) when he played for the Falcons – I have to believe that this, too, is a function of play-calling preferences.
This is not to say that the players don't deserve a good share of the blame. During Monday's film session, coaches showed a play on which the 245-pound Schmitt tried to cut back on one of those goal-line carries, rather than putting his head down and fighting for the end zone. The overall message – "you guys are playing soft, and it needs to stop" – was delivered quite forcefully.
I also wonder whether Jackson, the fourth-year receiver who may be the league's most underpaid star, is sweating his quest for a new contract. The Eagles, after shelling out so much cash for free agents, have yet to take care of their own, and when you're 175 pounds soaking wet and seeking long-term financial security in a brutal game, your mind tends to wander.
Based on Jackson's aggressive play thus far, it's tough to make the case that he isn't playing hard. But as another Eagles player told me Sunday, "I can't lie – it is something I've thought about. There was a play toward the very end of the game where it looked like he might have short-armed it. And I don't blame him."
As with the Falcons, there are plenty of issues on defense as well, with players questioning whether first-year defensive coordinator Juan Castillo has lost his composure during games, and Reid and Castillo contemplating lineup changes. And like their counterparts in Atlanta, the Eagles have been guilty of some very shoddy tackling at times. This, too, needs to be cleaned up, and soon.
With all of that said, none of these problems should be insurmountable. I still regard the Falcons and Eagles as legitimate Super Bowl contenders, and I expect them both to be back in the top half of this list of inquiries by next week. In the meantime, here's our pimp-to-wimp assessment of the league we love, complete with a new No. 2 we never saw coming:
2. Buffalo Bills: How good could these guys be if they didn't spot opponents three-score leads?
5. New Orleans Saints: How poignant were the recent tributes to former special teams standout Steve Gleason – and how haunting is the possibility that his ALS might be linked to the head trauma he experienced in eight NFL seasons?
6. Oakland Raiders: With Hue Jackson openly talking about "building a bully," how long before some of my former helicopter-mom neighbors in Upper Rockridge demand that he and his players attend a sensitivity workshop?
7. Detroit Lions: What do Matthew Stafford(notes) and Y! Sports scribe Charles Robinson have in common – and how hard are both of them rooting for Calvin Johnson(notes) to catch a pair of TDs on Sunday?
[ Yahoo! Sports Radio: Doug Williams on Tony Romo]
12. Washington Redskins: In addition to knowing best about how to do his defensive coordinator's job and the officials' jobs, wouldn't it be awesome if DeAngelo Hall(notes) had a better understanding of how to do his?
[ Related: DeAngelo Hall is Redskins' newest problem child ]
16. Cleveland Browns: After driving his team to a game-winning touchdown against the Dolphins, how tempted was Colt McCoy(notes) to run to the visiting team's sideline, stare at Miami offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and toss a football from hand to hand?
[ Related: Mike Pereira calls complaints "bunch of bull" ]
26. Arizona Cardinals: With six consecutive defeats to NFC West opponents, should the Cards consider applying for Big 12 membership?
29. Miami Dolphins: Yo, Tony Sparano, if Chad Henne(notes) had a "winning performance" against the Browns and Reggie Bush(notes) is your "No. 1 running back", can we apply the same suspension of disbelief when owner Steven Ross gives you a "vote of confidence"?
[ Related: Jason Taylor sticks up for Chad Henne ]
31. St. Louis Rams: When Steve Spagnuolo told his wife, Maria, "We're not ever talking to [John Harbaugh] again" last Sunday night, did the Rams' coach add, "Unless I'm groveling for a job in January"?
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