Friday, February 5, 2010
with the impending Superbowl upon us, it behooves one to reflect on the Falcons season.
One of my fav MB's has a very bright poster, who posted this summary:
Grab a beer or some coffee or the beverage of your choice. Let's talk about the 2009 Atlanta Falcons.
I'll state the obvious: I didn't watch nearly as much tape as I did last year. I got to know the 2008 Falcons very well. They were sort of my friends. (Except Keith Brooking, who was the kind of "friend" who comes to your place, drinks a gallon of milk, farts all night while crashing on your floor, and once he's out the door in the morning, turns to tell you that it smells much better where he's standing.) I don't feel nearly as comfortable talking about the 2009 season. Things are murky.
But, like I did in a similar item last year, I wanted to look back at the high and low moments and the key people of the 2009 season. What I consider the highlight of this item is my selection of the best player on the 2009 Atlanta Falcons, going from worst to first. These honors and dishonors are my own opinions. Your mileage may vary.
Before starting, some housekeeping. If you want to check out some highlights of the 2009 season, this link is a good place to start:
The item below will refer to some football sites. I frequently post items from Football Outsiders, which has become my favorite football stats site. The link below goes to their highly summarized team ratings, but if you go to the "statistics" tab at the top of the page, you can look at their ratings by unit and by position.
I also have found Pro Football Focus interesting, as it is the only one I've seen that makes an effort to grade players.
Housekeeping done, let's get started....
BEST GAME OF 2009
The win against the Jets in New York in game #14. For long stretches, it was like watching paint dry, and since it always seemed we were one play from being out of the game, it was like watching ugly paint dry. But we hung around, got and made some breaks, played awesome run defense against the league's #1 rushing offense, and when we had an opportunity, we stole the game and got the hell out of town with a 10-7 win. That was New York's last loss before falling to the Colts in the AFC Championship Game.
Second place: the 21-14 win over Chicago on Sunday Night Football. A dramatic game, filled with some key defensive plays, including two goal line stands, and we won on national television. Hard to believe, isn't it, that we were 4-1 after that game?
Third place: our comfortable win over Miami, a decent, physical team, in the opener.
MOST HUMILIATING GAME OF 2009
The loss to Philly was so awful, in so many respects, that it deserves its own category. There is no second place. The silver lining is that it is the only time in 33 games under Mike Smith that we didn't put forth a competitive effort.
WORST GAME OF 2009
With the Philly game consigned to its own explosive container, I think the worst game, both for the team and the fans, was the loss in Carolina in game #9. Elam botched a field goal that would have put us ahead, Ryan threw two bad interceptions, we didn't touch Jake Delhomme and allowed him to play what was likely the last good game of his career. And of course, Chris Gamble injured Turner with a cheap shot to the leg. (Turner carried the ball only 13 times the rest of the season, 12 of those in the first Tampa game.) The way things turned out, I don't think winning this game would have gotten us to the playoffs, since we lost tiebreakers to Dallas, NY Giants, and Philly, but it would have gotten us a winning season a week earlier and double digit wins.
Runners-up: losses in Dallas and New England. Competitive early, wussy late.
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAY OF 2009
It was also the most significant play of the season: Ryan's 4th down touchdown pass to Gonzalez in New York to beat the Jets 10-7. A simple play that was perfectly executed against the top defense in the league. The best part was how quickly Ryan got the ball out: he knew exactly where to go and he got on with it. Why wait?
Runners-up: Redman to Roddy on 4th down in the first Tampa game. The deep bomb to Roddy in San Francisco following Singletary's "motivational" timeout. Snelling's 20-yard run to get us close against the Jets. The numerous runs when the Washington Redskins wanted no part of Michael Turner.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAY OF 2009
It came in a losing effort, but DeCoud's hit on Brees in New Orleans forced a fumble that Biermann scooped up and ran into the end zone. A really impressive display of DeCoud's athleticism and instincts and a play that indicated we'd fight for 60 minutes.
Runners-up: Babineaux's fumble-forcing hit on Forte at the goal line against Chicago. While Grimes' leaping interception in New Orleans was spectacular, I thought his pick in the end zone in Tampa, which protected our 17-10 lead and our potential consecutive winning seasons, was a better example of how the CB position should be played. It was also good for my health.
WORST OFFENSIVE PLAY OF 2009
Trailing 21-19 in Carolina, with 4 minutes left, we forced a punt and Weems returned it to the Panther 49. Plenty of time and our offense had been clicking from the no huddle on the previous drive. But Mularkey had other ideas, as we sent out two receivers and Ryan tried to force a pass downfield to Michael Jenkins. A really risky play that was poorly executed and resulted in a crushing interception. Three plays later the Panthers added the icing touchdown.
Runners-up: Any play on the failed goal line sequence against Philly. The 4th quarter reverse to Weems in the home game against the Saints. Coming up short on the 4th and 2 in the same game. The 4th quarter tipped interception against the Saints in New Orleans. (Get the sense that the Saints aren't out of reach?)
WORST DEFENSIVE PLAY OF 2009
Any time our former QB was on the field.
Runners-up: Babineaux not being able to sack Romo as the clock wound down on the first half in Dallas. Chris Houston getting repeatedly torched against the Giants. Brent Grimes getting repeatedly torched against the Giants. Tye Hill getting torched for 80 yards on consecutive plays in the home game against the Bucs.
BEST COACHING DECISION
Taking Tye Hill off the field (for the rest of the season, I think) after he got torched by the Bucs for 80 yards on consecutive plays in game #11. Of course, why was he on the field to start with?
WORST COACHING DECISION
Punting in the 4th quarter in New England and Dallas while down two scores. Mike, what was your plan to win the game?
BEST OFFENSIVE DRIVE
Two, actually. With 12 minutes left against the Giants in New York, we were down 31-17. Working frequently from shotgun and the no huddle, we sandwiched two touchdown drives around one of our few defensive stops and tied the game with 35 seconds left in regulation. Too bad about the coin toss. But when people talk shit about Matt Ryan in the offseason, keep this game in mind.
Runners-up: A few weeks later, Ryan led us to a game-winning drive in the same stadium. Our opening drive in Dallas to go up 7-0. The opening drive in New Orleans.
BEST DEFENSIVE STAND
The goal line sequence against the Bears. Chicago had 1st and goal at the 1. An incompletion on first down, Lofton forced a fumble on 2nd down that Forte recovered. On 3rd down, Babineaux hustled down the line and nailed Forte on the doorstep, forcing a fumble that Wire (without a helmet) recovered.
Runners-up: Stopping the Bears inside the 10 in the last minute of the same game. I can't think of others off the top of my head. Maybe that's a problem?
MOST SURPRISING PLAYER
A pleasantly competitive category. My pick is Thomas DeCoud, and cases could be made for Jason Snelling, Kroy Biermann or Christopher Owens. I'll give it to DeCoud because after spending last year on special teams, he emerged as the starting free safety in the spring. I thought he tackled very well, and he made his share of plays, with three interceptions and a forced fumble. Mike Smith chose him as the defensive MVP, which is very encouraging. And perhaps I should note here that we took DeCoud in the 3rd round of the 2008 draft with a compensatory pick gleaned from the departure of Patrick Kerney.
MOST DISAPPOINTING PLAYER
Jason Elam. After playing games with the kicking game since 2005, I thought we finally solved it in 2008 by signing Elam. In 2008, he missed only two kicks, the one against Chicago and another over 50 yards. Solid, a veteran, a Super Bowl winner who kicked in lots of pressure situations. Everyone thought we had that position taken care of in 2009, maybe beyond.
For whatever mysterious reasons, likely including injury and a definite loss of confidence, Elam fell apart. He was 12/19 on his field goal attempts, and only 7/13 from 30-49 yards, which is bread and butter territory for kickers. His worst miss, in Carolina, would have given us a 4th quarter lead, and there were awful kicks in New Orleans and New York as well. Football Outsiders ranked us as the #32 kicking unit, with an estimated -14.8 points. I believe this means that if we'd converted those field goal attempts at the league average rate for those distances, we could expect to have scored an additional 14.8 points. I was one of those who thought Elam would get it together, but he never did, and the organization had to move on.
Michael Jenkins. In his sixth year as a professional, fresh off a contract extension, Jenkins hit 50 receptions for the third consecutive season. So what. Facts are, his yards per catch droped from 15.5 to 12.7. He had only one touchdown catch, from Redman against the Saints. The last touchdown from Ryan to Jenkins was game 7 in Oakland in 2008, which was 26 games ago. I recently posted my favorite Jenkins stat: he had only three catches in the red zone all year, and he totaled two yards (yes, T-W-O) on those three catches.
On a team with a stud WR, a stud TE, and a generally effective running game, a legitimately good player acting in a #2 WR role would consistently produce significant plays. With good teammates to help him, a good player in that role would get open, catch the ball, and produce first downs and points. That player should be a "big play" guy. Michael Jenkins is anything but a "big play" guy.
If you watched the playoffs, where do you think Jenkins would place in the WR corps for the Saints, Colts, Chargers, Vikings, etc.? If you believe the passing game is all about matchups, what matchups is Jenkins winning? And I'm tired of hearing about his run blocking. When was the last time he crunched a LB or safety? All I see him do is dance chest-to-chest with cornerbacks. My high school coach had a term for that kind of blocking: titty-bumping.
Runners-up: I will be surprised if Jamaal Anderson is on our opening day roster in September 2010. After signing a contract extension, Chauncey Davis was an invisible man on defense.
BEST PERFORMANCE OFF THE BENCH
Jason Snelling. Ran hard, played hard, and helped the team win with Turner and Norwood injured. Chevis Jackson played well too.
Christopher Owens. Plugged into the starting lineup late in the season, Owens looked like an improvement on Chris Houston and gives some reason to be hopeful about our CBs in 2010. Vance Walker and Lawrence Sidbury also showed some flashes. Peria Jerry displayed talent in very limited time, but I couldn't pick William Moore out of a lineup. (And I hope I don't have to.)
THE 2009 ATLANTA FALCONS – WORST TO FIRST
My avatar usually shows the player who I thought was the best player on the team in the previous season. A few weeks ago, I changed my avatar from John Abraham to Mike Smith circa 1985, because, well, that fu manchu mustache was more interesting than what Abe was doing on the field.
Although I might keep the mustache for a while longer, it's still a worthwhile exercise to determine who is the best player on the team. In fact, I'm going to do more than that. I'm going to rank every player who was on our 53-man roster (more or less) during the 2009 season, from worst to first. To do this, I divided the top 50 guys into groups of 10 players, then had a general category for the bottom feeders. The top 30 players I ranked in order.
What's my criteria for this little game? Let me repeat a paragraph from my item on the 2008 season:
"The criteria can be diverse and subjective. It's certainly not just about stats ... The best player is also not necessarily the clear MVP of the team, though that could certainly be the case. My personal criteria is this: who is the Falcon who is the best at his position relative to the rest of the league? Which of our players could play the same starring role on the 31 clubs that we compete against?"
As I broaden the scope for 2009, basically it's like this: I'm ordering these players by how I perceive them as ranking at their position relative to the rest of the league.
With that, let's get started. As I said, we're going worst to first.
THE WORST PLAYER TO WEAR A FALCONS UNIFORM IN 2009
Beanpole Kelly. I've thoroughly enjoyed making fun of Beanpole Kelly since May. The only downside is his mother keeps chasing me with a cleaver.
In preseason action, Beanpole Kelly had one catch for five yards, but his productivity on message boards surpassed all measurement. Here are two examples of his glowing reviews:
ROSTER FLOTSAM (players 51+)
In alphabetical Order: Spencer Adkins, Troy Bergeron, Marty Booker, Eric Brock, Jason Elam, Jamaal Fudge, Tye Hill, Robert James, William Moore,
Charlie Peprah, Lonnie Pittman, Jason Rader, Aaron Stecker, John Parker Wilson, Jeff Zelenka.
Selected comments... Marty Booker did ok as a last-minute fill-in at WR, but I don't need him on the team in 2010. Jason Elam may have cost us two games. Despite a nice TD return, Tye Hill was a target every time he stepped on the field and a waste of a 7th round pick. Pittman was longsnapper #2, sort of like the drummer for Spinal Tap. Zelenka was longsnapper #3 and did fine. Incompletes for Spencer Adkins and William Moore.
FIFTH TIER (players 41-50)
In alphabetical order: Jamaal Anderson, Chauncey Davis, Brian Finneran, Tony Gilbert, Antoine Harris, Verron Haynes, Trey Lewis, Garrett Reynolds, Brett Romberg, Keith Zinger.
Selected comments... Got to love it when two of your theoretical top 3 DEs are in your fifth tier. I think even Jamaal's dad has run out of excuses (but Gazoo might still be going strong). Chauncey Davis signed a contract extension and came through with maybe one defensive play of note all season (but big points for blocking the field goal at the Jets, of course). Finneran, sigh, wish he was 25. I'm not returning Trey Lewis' calls. Trey, it's not you, it's me.
FOURTH TIER (players 31-40)
In alphabetical order: Chris Houston, Michael Jenkins, Peria Jerry, Thomas Johnson, Quinn Ojinnaka, Justin Peelle, Mike Schneck, Lawrence Sidbury, Will Svitek, Vance Walker.
Selected comments... If you're thinking that I'd rank Jenkins and Houston at the bottom of this group, you might be right. Yes, I do think that Mike Schneck plays longsnapper better than Michael Jenkins plays wide receiver. Not really comforting to see three DTs in this group, but that's where they ended up. Johnson got us through one year, and Walker might turn into something, but Jerry's one big question mark. As badass as Quinn Ojinnaka is, he's still not tough enough to break the top 30.
THIRD TIER (players 21-30)
Time to get serious.
30. Erik Coleman. After playing free safety without too much distinction in 2008, Coleman repeated the trick at strong safety in 2009. Fair tackler, stayed healthy and played all but a handful of snaps, but didn't contribute much in pass defense and could get owned by TEs too frequently for my liking. Provided there's enough duct tape at the Branch, William Moore will get a chance to take Coleman's job.
29. Matt Bryant. Probably a league average kicker, which is fine. He struck the ball much more confidently and forcefully than Elam. Three misses in limited time, one a block, and two 40+ attempts, including a 48-yarder in the windy Meadowlands. Kicked the clinching field goal in Tampa to put us up 10 points with a minute left, thereby instantly lowering the blood pressure of Roosters across the universe. He'll get the first shot at the kicking job in 2010.
28. Chevis Jackson. He was on the bench at the start of the year despite holding up well at the nickel as a rookie. When the spot opened, he again answered the call and seemed to do fine. Maybe the coaches saw it differently. Good tackler, with the notable exception of that whiff on Pierre Thomas in New Orleans. I doubt Jackson will ever be more than a nickel CB, but he provides some depth and he's got a lot of experience after only two seasons in the league. The next Kevin Mathis? If so, that's fine.
27. Justin Blalock. It is, of course, extremely tricky to judge offensive linemen unless you apply a rigorous grading system and watch lots of tape. I'm not getting paid to do that, and so my OL opinions are extremely subjective. I will note that Pro Football Focus rated him as our worst offensive lineman. That said, I think everyone had higher expectations for Blalock. He hasn't sucked, but he doesn't display his strength (tops at his combine) frequently enough. He should be a mauler in the run game, but he's not. He played every snap of the season, which is a plus.
26. Coy Wire. A veteran OLB who was named captain of the special teams, plays LB in goal line and nickel situations, recovered three fumbles or onside kicks, and won the team award for courage? Sounds like #26 to me.
25. Brian Williams. He played a fine CB until getting injured in week 5 at home to the Bears, and maybe he had something to do with the fact that we were 4-1 after that contest. After getting released by Jacksonville, and showing himself to be clearly a cut above our other CBs as soon as he stepped on the field... well, that was kind of enlightening. And terrifying. I think he's a free agent, but with the price likely much smaller than the potential payoff, it seems like a smart bet to keep him.
24. Stephen Nicholas. Not as much impact as we would like, but he still got three sacks and forced a fumble. He also has the colossal advantage of not being named Keith Brooking. Stevie Nicks should get a chance to keep growing.
23. Christopher Owens. Very promising close to the season, with two picks in the last two games. Obviously not a big CB, but he's a willing hitter and he showed he could really scoot on a couple occasions. Glad to see him emerge in the final four games.
22. Chris Redman. Despite the unceasing efforts of his #1 Fan-Boy, Redman was still 0-2 as a starter. The Philly game was an organizational meltdown that can't be pinned on Redman, and he gave us a chance against the Saints. Most importantly, he made the #2 clutch play of the season by hitting Roddy with the last-minute touchdown against the Bucs. (Give Chris Redman seven chances inside the 10 to throw a touchdown, and he'll make you pay.) I believe he's a free agent, and I'm ok with keeping him around, despite the drool.
21. Eric Weems. I thought he could have been used on offense more than he was, particularly on pass plays instead of, you know, silly reverses. Two receiving touchdowns on the year beat Michael Jenkins by one. Weems was fine as a punt and kickoff returner (with a huge kickoff return in the 4th quarter against Chicago to set up our winning touchdown) and on the coverage units, though he gets docked points for the fumbles against Philly and Tampa. He too should get a chance to grow.
SECOND TIER (players 11-20)
20. Mike Peterson. Two forced fumbles and an interception in the first two games, none thereafter. A liability in coverage too often, and Pro Football Focus thought he was a disaster in run defense. Perhaps I have him a bit too high, but I'm a sucker for relatively cheap veteran LBs who made a big play sometime during the 2009 season. Not a long-term keeper, obviously, but maybe he's ok for one more year.
19. Brent Grimes. After he got benched following the Chicago game in 2008, I thought Grimes was done as a Falcon. But he hung around, made the 2009 team, and for a few weeks did all he could to make us think that keeping him was a mistake. But he showed progress in the second half of the year. He flashed his incredible quickness and athleticism numerous times, and opposing teams took some risks throwing his way. Seems like he has benefited from coaching and has grown as a player.
18. Harry Douglas. It's my list and I can do what I want, such as putting a guy who didn't play a snap in 2009 at #18. I thought Douglas was the key injury of the 2009 season. I think Ryan was developing some great chemistry with Douglas, and the dropoff to Finneran / Booker was significant. The thing to bear in mind about offense is that the players build on each other: when one guy produces, that means more first downs and more opportunities for everyone to produce. Or, in other words, it's not the size of the piece of the pie, it's the size of the pie. Think of Harry as a bunch of apples; with a quality quick WR in the slot, we can make a bigger offensive pie.
17. Sam Baker. He's clearly not a powerful OT, and he's got those tiny arms. His game is more about agility and using his good feet. From what I've seen, he's very good at getting to the second level in run blocking. Injuries bothered him this season, and it's a big question whether he'll avoid injuries going forward. Pro Football Focus had Baker as our second worst OL, ahead of Blalock.
16. Jerious Norwood. Remember, it's my list, and if I want to put an injury-prone 3rd down back this high, that's what I'm doing. He spent much of the year injured, of course, but when he was healthy, he made a number of big plays, particularly against the Jets and the Bucs late in the year, and he had 5 catches for 49 yards against Miami. Let's all give him another chance, ok? We need all the offensive playmakers we can get.
15. Jason Snelling. Love players like him. Can play FB, RB, and special teams, and does them all well and with enthusiasm. Solid fundamentals, as seen by his extensive use of the stiff-arm against the Bucs. And we got him for a 7th round pick. I wish all our investments paid off so well.
14. Todd McClure. Perhaps McClure's limitations aren't as obvious in Mularkey's offense as they were in earlier regimes. Maybe I'm putting him this high due to my faith in the coaching staff. If they like him, maybe I should. Todd, can we get along for one more year? Our top OL according to Pro Football Focus.
13. Kroy Biermann. Five sacks this season, seven for his career, which puts Jamaal Anderson in the shade. Biermann bulked up to 260 pounds this year, and maybe that added size helped him in run defense. He was credited with eight tackles (seven solo) against the Jets, which suggests he was a key piece of our stellar run defense on that day. He's just 24 and he should be considered a core player going forward. And he kicks off too!
12. Thomas DeCoud. Mike Smith's defensive MVP. Bump up the interceptions and passes defensed in 2010 and we'll have a beautiful friendship. Very good in run support too. He'll turn 24 in March.
11. Harvey Dahl. Maybe this is too high for Harvey, but I'm not going to tell him that or I might get hit after the article is over. The labor issues mean that we can put a cheap tender on him for the second consecutive year.
THE TOP TEN
10. John Abraham. A dropoff from 2008 in terms of sacks, but according to Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus stats, Abe still ranked high in the league in hurries. Maybe the finishing speed isn't there, or maybe he just got held too much. Let's hope he has a few more miles in the tank.
9. Matt Ryan. According to your eyes and to Football Outsiders, Ryan slumped in 2009, and why our passing game slumped was the perplexing mystery of the season. We added a stud TE but the passing game regressed. Does not compute, and yes, I think Mularkey had something to do with it. Ryan tried to force the ball too many times, and his interceptions climbed from 11 in 2008 to 14 in 2009. Still, he increased his touchdowns from 16 to 22 and he again showed poise in pressure situations in both games in New York and against the Bucs.
8. Tyson Clabo. My sense is that Clabo is our best offensive lineman. I might be wrong, of course, which we'll know if Clabo isn't given a tender. But, like Dahl, it should be a no-brainer to keep him for cheap for one more season. Along with Blalock, he played every offensive snap. Pro Football Focus judged him as our best pass blocker, but he also got dinged for some penalties.
7. Curtis Lofton. A young tackling machine who was a key reason why our run defense, according to Football Outsiders, jumped from #25 in 2008 to #2 in 2009. (And if you're looking for promising stats for 2010, that's the biggest one in my opinion.) I doubt he can be as effective as we'd like on 3rd downs, but I'm not sure we need him to play that role.
6. Michael Turner. A mixed bag this season. Before the injury, Turner averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry, above his 2008 rate. But his numbers were based largely on only three games: at New Orleans, Washington, and at Carolina, in which he totaled 428 yards, or nearly half of his 871 yards on the season. In the first six games, I was making fun of him for eating Twinkies and being slow. This was probably unfair. Although this was his 6th season in the pros, Turner should have plenty left. He still only has 782 carries in his career, compared to 915 for Adrian Peterson. Just be ready to roll on opening day 2010.
5. Jonathan Babineaux. This guy has grown into a quality NFL player, both in run defense and pass rush. In late January, I posted a topic called "Babineaux's Monstrosity" that detailed his studly run defense according to Football Outsiders' stats. He should have sacked Romo at the end of the first half in Dallas, but he was still our leading sacker with six. Babs also made some huge plays, such as forcing Forte's fumble at the goal line against the Bears. But he needs some help next year, and not just of the legal kind.
4. Tony Gonzalez. Here's the thing about Gonzalez. I can tell that he is extremely good at what he's supposed to do. He pulled down some awesome catches in 2009. He is a playmaker. But he was the most notable personnel change in our offense, and I think most would agree that our passing game declined from 2008 to 2009. Of course, integrating Gonzalez into the offense is Mularkey's job, and I can't shake the feeling that we didn't utilize his talent as well as we could. Yes, he had 83 catches, but the 10.4 yards per catch was the lowest in his career. Gonzalez was, in effect, a possession receiver. His blocking was mediocre, and I also see him as being a notch below other TEs, such as Clark, Gates, Witten, Finley, Shiancoe, and Reggie Kelly. Football Outsiders had him at #17 in their TE rankings, down from #13 in 2008.
3. Roddy White. This guy is our most important offensive skill player, and I don't think it's close. His hands are imperfect, but his toughness, body control, and physicality compensate. If I were picking the MVP of the 2009 Falcons, instead of the best player, Roddy would be my pick. He produced a long list of memorable touchdowns: the bomb and long run in San Francisco, the WR screen and scamper against the Bears, the bomb to get us back into the game in New Orleans, the 4th down clutchness from Redman against the Bucs, the opening and closing statements against Buffalo, and the sideline highwire act in Tampa. However, like everyone else in our passing game, he slumped in 2009. Football Outsiders had him as their #6 WR in 2008, but he fell to #48 in their 2009 rankings, largely because his catch rate (the rate at which he caught passes thrown to him) dropped from 59% to 52%, and his yards per catch from 15.7 to 13.6. Obviously, Roddy was still a very productive player, but these declines point to a problem in offensive design, and that's a concern for 2010.
2. Ovie Mughelli. Need evidence?
Mughelli has been criticized for being the highest-paid FB in the league when we signed him. But Mughelli, arguably the best blocking FB in the NFL and a beast near the goal line, has been a very good deal. For $2 million a year or so, you have a guy who helps Michael Turner or whatever RB is carrying the ball perform to his full potential. (Jason Snelling should buy Ovie dinner, but he probably couldn't afford it.) Pro Football Focus had him as their top fullback, almost entirely due to his blocking. Though he's not a guy you want carrying the ball, Mughelli did make some catches in 2009, and in fact he caught a touchdown pass from Ryan, one more than Michael Jenkins contributed. Long story short, Mughelli helps the team win.
So, we started with the worst, and now we've reached the first. In my opinion, the best player on the 2009 Atlanta Falcons was…
1. Michael Koenen. Last year our punt team surrendered only 49 punt return yards, an NFL record. Koenen punts relatively shorter than other punters, but in tandem with the coverage units, we had a risk-free punting game in 2008. I think there were some tactical changes in 2009, as Koenen punted a bit farther and the coverage units weren't as good (e.g. Crayton's punt return in Dallas). I don't know how much of the downturn in the punt team was due to Koenen, but rather coaching tactics and the coverage unit. I would like to see some improvement in this area in 2010.
So why do I think Koenen was the best player on the 2009 Atlanta Falcons? Kickoffs. Koenen forced touchbacks on 38.4% of his kickoffs, which was the highest rate in the NFL.
Koenen forced a higher percentage of touchbacks than Buehler in Dallas, Lloyd in Carolina, and McAfee in Indianapolis, who are all kickoff specialists for those teams (i.e. they don't kick field goals or punt). If we cut Koenen tomorrow, some team would sign him simply for kickoff purposes.
In fact, Koenen was the key reason why Football Outsiders ranked the Falcons as having the #1 kickoff unit in the league. See here:
Their stats estimate our kickoff unit as providing a 15.1 point advantage over the average team. If that doesn't make sense, think of it this way: an average NFL offense is more likely to score when starting a drive from its 25 than its 20. Maybe not a massive difference, but the small differences in expected points accumulate into a significant number when applied over dozens of kickoffs.
I went through the official gamebooks for all 16 games and compiled kickoff stats for the Falcons and for our opponents, noting the starting yard line following each kickoff, as well as touchbacks. (For purposes of this exercise, I removed a handful of onside kicks and fumbles on kickoff returns.) Check this out:
* Overall in 2009, Koenen kicked off 73 times and forced 28 touchbacks (38.4% of his kickoffs), and on these kicks the opponent had an average start line of 22.0. The Falcons received 69 kickoffs and 18 of these were touchbacks (26.1%) and our average start line was the 26.4. In other words, our kickoff units provided a differential of 4.4 yards, and Koenen was a primary reason why. (If you're curious, our kickoff return team was ranked #13, slightly better than average.)
* The differential was even bigger at home. Koenen forced touchbacks on 15 of his 34 kickoffs (44.1%) at the Georgia Dome, and on average the opponent started its drives at the 20.1 yard line. Opponents forced touchbacks on 8 of 31 kickoffs (25.8%) against us, and we started on average at the 26.4 yard line. That's a 6.3 yard differential.
* As might be expected, the advantage was smaller on the road. Koenen had 13 touchbacks on 38 kickoffs (34.2%) and the opponents' average start was the 23.7. Opponents had 10 touchbacks on 38 kickoffs (26.3%) and our average start was the 26.4. That's an advantage of 2.7 yards per kickoff, playing in opposing stadiums.
Now here's the best part. Football Outsiders has noticed that one of the most consistent stats in the NFL is kickoff distance. There is a lot more fluctuation in field goal accuracy year-to-year (don't we know it?) than there is in kickoff distance. That's why Koenen is a huge asset to this team going forward. He SHOULD keep banging kicks into the end zone at a relatively league-high clip, especially in the Georgia Dome. If our kickoff return team continues to be decent, we SHOULD have a relative field position advantage to our opponents in many games. If our offense can get back on track, and our defense can improve, we SHOULD be able to convert that relative field position advantage into more points for us and fewer points for our opponents. The conclusion? Field position helps win games, and we have a player who can consistently provide that field position advantage. The front office and coaching staff know this, and Michael Koenen was franchise tagged for a reason.
well said, Peregrine!