CHARLOTTE -- Immediately after Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith wrapped up his postgame news conference on Sunday, a recognizable voice yelled "Smitty, Smitty," from the back of the room.
The fact that team owner Arthur Blank summoned Smith in such a manner made you wonder exactly what Blank had on his mind, particularly after watching his team fall to 2-6. But as a red-faced Smith turned to respond, Blank moved closer and embraced the coach like a long lost son.
Smith needed a hug, indeed.
For all the optimism Smith and rest of the Falcons had entering Week 9, it all seemed to go for naught following a 34-10 thumping at the hands of NFC South foe Carolina.
"Obviously, we didn’t come anywhere close to playing the type of football that we needed to play," Smith said afterward.
Unfortunately, that’s been the storyline for the Falcons almost the entire season. That’s why they’ve doubled their loss total from a year ago despite playing just half a season.
Of course, playing without top receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White makes a difference, especially when you consider Matt Ryan has thrown seven interceptions in the last two games while working with a makeshift receiving corps. But injuries don’t explain holding penalties that take away touchdowns. Injuries don’t explain why the offensive line can’t get a better push on third-and-1. Injuries don’t explain biting on a run play and allowing a tight end to run wide open for a touchdown.
Injuries don’t completely explain why Ryan made some poor passing decisions the past two games, including one Sunday that led to a backbreaking pick-six by veteran cornerback Drayton Florence.
And injuries surely don’t explain why the ball didn’t bounce the Falcons’ way when they needed it to the most on Sunday. With 10 minutes left in the game and the Falcons trailing 17-10, Panthers receiver Brandon LaFell got behind Falcons cornerback Asante Samuel for a 23-yard pickup. But Samuel recovered and forced LaFell to fumble.
Fellow Falcon Robert Alford seemed set to pounce on the fumble, but the ball got away from Alford and landed right back in the hands of LaFell as the receiver was stretched on the ground.
Immediately after the lost opportunity, the Falcons gave up an 8-yard touchdown run to Cam Newton. Then Florence’s interception score followed.
If only Alford could have squeezed the ball as tightly as Blank did Smith.
"That play might sum up what our season’s been like,’’ Smith said. "You would look at that and say, 'How in the world did that happen?' Very reminiscent of the season that we’ve had."
At least the Falcons have learned the value of taking ownership of their mistakes. Alford was mad at himself for not grabbing the fumble. Safety William Moore took responsibility for coming down to stop the run on that fourth-and-1 play that resulted in Newton’s 14-yard touchdown pass to Greg Olsen. And Ryan refused to use the excuse of "pressing" on the plays that led to his interceptions. It didn’t help that tight end Tony Gonzalez, Ryan’s comfort zone, was taken out of the game in the second half.
"I think I just haven’t been playing well," Ryan admitted.
It's still hard to imagine the Falcons, even despite the injuries, could fall this far down the NFL ladder. They were supposed to be the No. 1 seed in the NFC. They were supposed to be Super Bowl favorites.
"We have many different problems," Smith said. "Sometimes, it’s the offense. Sometimes, it’s the defense. Sometimes, it’s special teams. Sometimes, it’s coaching. But when you’re 2-6, you’re obviously not doing anything very consistently and effectively."
With the Seahawks, 49ers, and Packers still left on the schedule, it’s hard to imagine life getting any better for the Falcons.