TAMPA, Fla. – Plenty of theories bounced around inside the Atlanta Falcons locker room Sunday as players tried to explain how a touted Super Bowl contender slumped to a 2-8 record.
No one summed up the madness better than veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez, who seemed perplexed by the team’s current status heading into a quick turnaround and Thursday night matchup against NFC South-rival the New Orleans Saints.
"I don’t know what it is," Gonzalez said, "but I know this: We’ve got to go out there and play. New Orleans doesn’t care what our record is. They don’t care if we’re feeling sorry for ourselves.
"The only thing you can do is go out there and work to get out of it. It’s confidence right now. It’s not about talent. It’s not about anything else except confidence; knowing that we can go out there and get the job done. If you don’t have confidence, then things are going to be bad for you. And that’s with anything you do in life."
The Falcons don’t have a lot to be confident about. They dropped their fourth straight game with Sunday’s 41-28 loss to Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers (2-8) just won their first game of the season last Monday night and totally dominated the Falcons in every facet of the game.
Based on Sunday’s outcome alone, it’s reasonable to wonder if the Falcons will win another game this season. Besides the Saints, they also face the 49ers, Packers, and Panthers. Playing Buffalo in Toronto won’t be easy, either, considering how the Bills dismantled the New York Jets in Week 11.
That leaves the Dec. 15 home matchup against the Washington Redskins as the one game the Falcons might be able to handle. Then again, Robert Griffin III could have his way against a Falcons defense that has surrendered 17 plays of 40-plus yards this season.
Even Falcons owner Arthur Blank had a tough time digesting his team’s sudden transformation from one of the NFL’s best to arguably one of the league’s worst.
"Obviously what's disheartening is this year, when you're sitting at 2-8 with the expectations that were reasonable coming into this year," Blank said Sunday, reflecting on the five-consecutive winning seasons prior to 2013. "It's very disappointing for our fans [and] for everybody connected to the franchise."
In the same breath, Blank expressed confidence in both head coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff to get the team back on track. Smith tried to shake things up this week by changing up the offensive line, benching right guard Garrett Reynolds, moving center Peter Konz to guard, and inserting Joe Hawley at center. That worked for all of four plays as the Falcons picked up 52 quick yards on their first possession Sunday. Then, they reverted to their bad habits for most the rest of the game, allowing Matt Ryan to play under duress and picking up a handful of unnecessary procedural penalties. Konz was eventually benched after Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy sacked Ryan three times.
"Right now, we're not playing good football," Smith said. "We're not coaching good football. And it's unacceptable for our team. It's unacceptable for our fans. It's unacceptable for the organization. We have got to play better football. We have got to coach better football."
Ryan had two more interceptions -- including a pick-six as a result of a defender tipping his arm -- that brought his total to eight interceptions over the last four games. He completed 19 of 36 passes for 254 yards and a passer rating of 70.8. The last time Ryan faced the Bucs, he posted a career-best 148.4 passer rating.
As Ryan stood at the podium trying to remain upbeat, he was asked how the Falcons could possibly finish the season on a positive note.
"Clearly, we’re 10 games into this thing and certainly far, far, far away from where we want to be," Ryan said. "We’ve got six games to go, and it’s about pride. It’s about going out there and taking pride in what you do and being competitive. And knowing that if we do play without the mistakes, without those kinds of things, we’re capable of getting the job done."
Based on their current record, the Falcons won’t be able to finish the job they started in 2012 until next season.