NFL Bettors Shouldn't Jump On Falcons Bandwagon Quite Yet
by Trevor Whenham - 10/16/2008
I don't like to make a habit of it, but from time to time I can admit when I am wrong. When it comes to the Atlanta Falcons this season, I was really, really wrong. I thought, and think, that the future is reasonably bright with Matt Ryan and company in town. I didn't think, though, that the future would be now. They are 4-2 straight up and ATS, and in their last two wins against Chicago and Green Bay they have shown that they can be competitive against decent if not overwhelming teams. The addition of Michael Turner has keyed a running game that is second best in the league, and he has proven to his critics, like me unfortunately, that he is ready to be a featured back. The team already has matched their win total from last season. More significantly, they are currently tied for the NFC South lead. With some cracks appearing in the NFC East they may not even need to win their division to make the playoffs.
So, is it time for me to admit that I was wrong and that this team is actually good? As good as the media, which is tripping over itself fawning over this team, says it is? Perhaps, but first let's take a look at what they have done and what they are doing, with attention to how it affects bettors.
Obviously, we have to start with Matt Ryan. When you are dealing with a rookie quarterback, the fate of the team starts and ends with how quickly he adjusts to the challenges of the pro game. Joe Flacco is making for some long days in Baltimore. JaMarcus Russell isn't technically a rookie, but he's playing more like a guy who isn't technically a football player. Compared to those two, and many others we have seen in recent years, Matt Ryan looks like an all-pro. He plays with a confident swagger, but in a way that he is able to back up. He hasn't looked panicked or uncomfortable, and for the most part he has avoided making stupid mistakes. He's looking pretty good, and the media is eating it up.
But how good is he really playing? The numbers say he is solid for a rookie, and fairly solid for a vet, too, but he's not yet ready for Canton. His 7.2 yards per passing attempt is more than competent. His passing yards are in the top half of the league. There's a deeper story there, though - he has fewer yards than any QB who has played six games. Fourteen players have more than his five touchdowns, and only David Garrard with four has fewer while having played the same number of games. You can decide for yourself how much significance you attach to QB rating, but Ryan is ranked just 17th in this category.
So, Ryan has some work to do. That's not to suggest that he won't do it - as a rookie he looks better than a few well-seasoned pros. It's just that his actual numbers so far don't measure up to the perception that the casual public is getting about him from what has been written or said. Writers seem to be projecting ahead to his potential stardom instead of living with his current competence. That could create a real opportunity for bettors, especially if the team continues to do well. That will increase the public attention and likely the lines, but also ratchet up the pressure and the intensity of the competition. Better players than Ryan have faltered the first time they have faced situations like that.
There are a couple of obvious areas that need improvement for Ryan. His completion rate of 57.2 percent towers over the lesser lights of the league like Tyler Thigpen, and even over some stars like Matt Hasselbeck, but 23 starters have a better rate of success. All other things being equal, his accuracy won't improve as the games get more important. He also needs to work hard to improve his red zone play. It was Ryan's heroics that led his team past Chicago, but it wouldn't have needed a last second miracle if they had been able to score on their previous opportunities.
We can't talk about the Falcons without at least briefly touching on the defense. If you believe that defense wins championships then you don't need to worry about getting your seat on Atlanta's Super Bowl parade route just yet. The team is ranked 25th in total defense, and Denver is the only worse team with a winning record. Their run stopping is only the 20th best, but that shines compared to their pass defense - a dismal 29th. The saving grace is that their points per game are in the middle of the league pack, but then they have yet to play a team that has the proven, consistent ability to run up the score. With Philadelphia, Denver, San Diego, and New Orleans twice still left to play chances are pretty good that their points per game number is going to go in a bad direction. I can't enthusiastically believe in this team until the defensive situation is dealt with.
The more I look at it, the more I keep ending up with the same conclusion. This is a decent team, but there is still a lot of work left to do. I hope the public continues their newfound love affair with them, because that will just lead to higher lines for their opponents.