As someone who rooted for the Atlanta Falcons through many, many years of mediocrity — entire decades when the hapless franchise couldn’t put together back-to-back winning seasons — I’ve been gratified to see the Birds achieve some degree of relevance over the past six seasons.
Even 2013’s dismal effort has left me mostly unfazed. I fully expect the team, under its current leadership, to be back in the mix next year, with a winning record and perhaps a playoff berth.
I just don’t expect them to win a Super Bowl.
Not next year. Not the year after that, or the year after that, or any time in the foreseeable future. They simply don’t have the coach or the quarterback.
I don’t have anything against Mike Smith or Matt Ryan. I like them both, and I appreciate the stability and credibility they’ve brought to a franchise that has been the butt of jokes for much of my lifetime.
I’ve just observed that, to win a Super Bowl, a team has to have either an elite coach or an elite quarterback, and preferably both. Atlanta has neither.
Smith seems to be a good guy, and he’s definitely a solid coach. But elite? There are 32 teams in the NFL. If we define “elite” as the top 10 percent, that means he would have to be one of the three or four best coaches in the league. Anybody really want to make that argument? (Note there are 10 guys who have a better winning percentage with their current teams.)
Solid, it appears, can bring a reeling franchise back from the brink, as Smith did when he arrived in 2008. But these days solid doesn’t win championships. That requires genius, creativity and charisma — none of which, I’m afraid, describes Mike Smith.
And what about Ryan? No one denies he’s been a good quarterback, at times maybe even very good. But again — is he elite?
We know he has at least four guys ahead of him, the “Big Four” of Manning, Brady, Brees, and Rodgers. So let’s expand our definition of “elite” to include the top eight QB’s — a full fourth of the league’s starting signal callers. Does he make the cut?
Besides the Big Four, there are three current quarterbacks who have a higher career passer rating than Ryan: Philip Rivers, Tony Romo and Ben Roethlisberger. Five others were rated more highly this year, including Russell Wilson, Nick Foles and Colin Kaepernick, while Cam Newton certainly had more big moments and a better record. And don’t forget Joe Flacco and Eli Manning, who may have had off years but have won multiple Super Bowls.
In other words, objectively speaking, Ryan is probably the 11th or 12th best quarterback in the league. That’s good, but it’s hardly elite.
And that’s why the Falcons, like their quarterback and coach, will continue to be good but not elite.
Rob Jenkins is a local freelance writer and the author of “Family Man: The Art of Surviving Domestic Tranquility.”