The 2012 Atlanta Falcons may have been the most unimpressive 13-3 team in NFL history. They were considered underachievers in the playoffs in the Mike Smith-Matt Ryan era, until they finally broke through and squeaked out a win against the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round in last year’s playoffs. This left Falcon’s fans with high hopes for the team in 2013. But just 4 weeks into the season, Atlanta is trying to figure out how a team one-year removed from having the NFC’s best record, now finds itself 1-3 with their playoff aspirations in serious jeopardy.
I think most people view the Falcons as a perennial playoff team and, for the past three years, they have been. But when you consider how lucky they were in many statistical categories last season, a disappointing 2013 campaign should have been expected.
I’ll try to explain why.
Adjusted Games Lost
Part of why Atlanta has gotten off to a slow start has been injuries. They’ve placed versatile linebackers Kroy Biermann and Sean Weatherspoon on injured reserve, have been without their biggest offseason acquisition Steven Jackson for two games, and have seen their offensive line decimated by injuries with guard Mike Johnson on IR and tackles Sam Baker and Lamar Holmes both struggling to stay healthy. Akeem Dent and Roddy White are still nursing ankle injuries, and starting cornerback Asante Samuel missed Sunday night’s contest against the New England Patriots. Since very few teams (if any) can expect to play at a high level down so many key starters, it’s not a surprise Atlanta has come up short through its first 4 games. However, this is part of the reason why I believed Atlanta would regress in 2013.
Adjusted Games Loss is a statistical measurement crafted by Football Outsiders that gauges how injured a team is. Last season, Atlanta’s AGL ranking was 11, which means they were the 11th healthiest team in 2012. It’s good to be ranked near or within the top-ten of any positive statistical category, but when you can run out the majority of the team you constructed in the offseason, your chances of winning go up exponentially. This is also the case for the defending NFC champion San Francisco 49ers, which ranked 1st in AGL a year ago, but have seen Patrick Willis and Nnamdi Asomugha both miss time, placed six players on injured reserve, and have been without two of their best wide receivers with Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham on the physically unable to perform list.
Teams just don’t stay healthy from year-to-year. It’s an arbitrary element of football that can’t be projected nor predicted. If a team is extremely healthy one year, chances are they’ll regress and be a little less healthy the following one, and vice versa. So is it fair use the “injury bug” theory as a cause for Atlanta being 1-3? Yes. But I think it should also be pointed out that Atlanta wasn’t going to be as healthy as they were in 2012 given the randomness of injuries. Oh, and by the way, the Denver Broncos lost top-tackle Ryan Clady to a LisFranc injury and defensive starters Von Miller and Champ Bailey have yet to see the field this year, which proves the best teams in this league find a way to win regardless of injuries.
Strength of Schedule and Games Decided by one Touchdown or Less
Falcon’s fans and the players themselves felt slighted by NFL experts and the media last season for not receiving the adulation they believe they deserved. Yes, the Falcons were winning games, but they were winning games against some of the worst teams in the NFL. In 2012, the Falcons played only two teams that eventually made it to the playoffs during the regular season. That’s an incredibly easy slate of games, and one the reasons why they didn’t receive credit for their production. But the Falcons weren’t just beating bad football teams. They were barely beating bad football teams. Which brings us to another statistical measurement that is completely arbitrary and inconsistent from year-to-year: Games decided by one touchdown or less. Seven of Atlanta’s 13 regular season wins in 2012 were decided by one touchdown or less, including a three-point victory over the Oakland Raiders (4-12) and a four-point win over the Arizona Cardinals (5-11), both of which came down to the final play of the game. The Falcons won a game last year with Matt Ryan throwing five interceptions and zero touchdowns. That’s almost impossible, but that’s how lucky Atlanta was in 2012. They did beat the Denver Broncos in week 2, but Peyton Manning was still acclimating himself to a new offense, and a victory over the Redskins in week 5 seems a little less impressive given that Robert Griffin III was knocked out of the game with an injury. I give credit to Atlanta for winning their games because you can only play the teams on your schedule. But when you put their wins and overall record into context with whom they were playing in the regular season, their win total in 2012 is a tad suspect.
Let’s move on to 2013, and take a look at Atlanta’s schedule and how they’ve faired in games decided by one touchdown or less. Football Outsiders projected the Falcons to have the hardest schedule this season. Now, it should be noted that strength of schedule is hard to predict, but who can blame them considering the Falcons were slated to play out-of-division-games against New England, Seattle, San Francisco, and Green Bay? The combined record of Atlanta’s first four opponents in 2013 is 12-4. Maybe strength of schedule isn’t hard to predict! That’s a serious step up in competition from 2012 where Atlanta’s first four games were against Kansas City, Denver, San Diego and Carolina. I think it’s fair to say the Falcons have played much stiffer competition thus far in 2013.
How has Atlanta played in games decided by one touchdown or less in 2013? Well, Very poorly. Atlanta’s three losses this season have been decided by one touchdown or less, including a six-point loss to New Orleans, a four-point loss to Miami, and a seven-point loss to New England. Interesting. Their sole win of the season has also been decided by one touchdown or less with a seven-point win over St. Louis. It’s hard to remain consistent winners in close games from year-to-year. And nobody should be shocked the Falcons are losing close games in 2013 because they won so many of them in 2012. It’s called a regression towards the mean. And that’s exactly what has happened to Atlanta in close game situations this season.
Turnovers and Fumble Recovery Rate
Atlanta’s defense recovered 11 of 16 fumbles last season. That’s a 68.7 percent fumble recovery rate. They had the second-highest total fumble recovery rate in 2012 at 64.2 percent, finishing only behind Washington. Atlanta currently ranks 22nd in the league in FRR at 42.8 percent through 4 weeks. Fumble recovery rates are about as random of a statistic that any sport has to offer, so it shouldn’t be a surprise Atlanta has taken a step back in fumble luck in 2013. But it wasn’t just their fumble recovery rate that was impressive. Atlanta only fumbled the ball nine times on offense in 2012. That’s unbelievable. And guess what? That doesn’t translate over from year-to-year. Want prove? Atlanta has already fumbled the ball on offense four times in 2013. That’s still pretty good, but they’re on pace to eclipse the nine fumble mark from 2012 by week 10. They Falcons also finished the 2012 season with a +13 turnover differential. Four weeks into the 2013 season — they’re at -1. Atlanta will turn the ball over more, won’t turnover other teams as much, and won’t be as luck as they were in 2012 picking up the ball when it hits the ground.
I’m not saying Atlanta is as bad as the Jaguars, or even (it pains me to say this) the Giants, but their 2013 struggles are not that surprising when you look back at their magical 2012 season and add in some context. Their 2013 schedule is going to be substantially harder, especially when you consider how the teams in their division have improved. The Saints have Sean Payton back at the helm and Drew Bress is likely to have rebound year. The Panthers have too much talent on their roster to be as bad as they were last season. And the Buccaneers? Well, let’s not talk about the Buccaneers. I wouldn’t be shocked if the Falcons some how find away to grab one of the Wild-Card spots in the NFC considering how bad the conference has played.
But I won’t be shocked if the go 7-9 and miss the playoffs, either.
Follow Matt on Twitter: @OGDelicious