It was supposed to be the Atlanta Falcons' bye week. But for the team's secondary, the recent hiatus was transformed into a bye-bye week for their starting jobs.
Desperate times call for desperate measures and, reaching for any move that might help pull the club out of a tailspin, Falcons defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has overhauled his entire secondary for Sunday's home game with the Philadelphia Eagles. The revamping includes the demotion of Ray Buchanan and Tyrone Williams, two of the Falcons' highest-profile defenders and a pair earning nearly $8 million combined this season in bonuses and base salary.
"The status quo certainly wasn't getting us anywhere," said Phillips. "We've got to move some people around to see what we can do."
While the shakeup was made in part out of desperation, with Atlanta ranked statistically as the NFL's most generous defensive unit, it was wrought by deed as well. In a season that has unraveled since the injury to quarterback Michael Vick, the secondary qualifies as one of the year's primary disappointments.
The Falcons invested heavily during the offseason to improve the group that ranked a respectable 16th in the league in 2002. Atlanta signed Williams and another former Green Bay cornerback, "nickel" specialist Tod McBride, as unrestricted free agents. The club also imported free agent Cory Hall, with a $12 million contract, to play strong safety and used its highest draft choice to select safety Bryan Scott of Penn State in the second round.
The result: Ineptitude, indifference, and a current statistical ranking of 29th out of the 32 NFL teams. Atlanta has surrendered too many big plays, botched coverages and registered just two interceptions, fewer than all but two other teams.
In the revamped secondary, Juran Bolden replaces Buchanan at left cornerback and McBride bumps Williams from the right cornerback spot. Hall, who was supposed to be the starter at strong safety but has missed five of seven games because of injuries, starts now at free safety. The rookie Scott, who has played principally as an extra defender in "sub" defense situations, now will start at strong safety.
It is rare, of course, for a team to make such an extreme move. The Buccaneers on Sunday fielded a secondary in which not a single starter was in his usual spot, but that was as a result of injuries. The refurbishing of the Falcons, who will also switch from the 3-4 front they have played the past two seasons to a 4-3 alignment, was rendered because the defense has played so poorly.
"It's a big swallow, all at once like this, but we had to try something to snap us out of this streak we've been in," said Bolden, who just recently returned from the physically unable to perform list and will start his first game of the season. "The coaches just felt like they had to shake things up and, man, they sure did."
Most noteworthy are the demotions of Buchanan and Williams, a move that means that the Falcons will now have two high-priced backups on the bench, with the pair likely to play only in "nickel" or "dime" packages.
A former Pro Bowl performer, Buchanan is among the flashiest and outspoken of the Atlanta players. He is almost certain to have some analysis of the moves later this week. Over the past two seasons, Buchanan has just three interceptions, and there was some thought in the offseason he might be released after a poor '02 season. The Falcons, however, are paying him a base salary of $4.15 million and, since it is guaranteed fully, they could not absorb the salary cap hit created by cutting him.
Team officials went out of their way this summer to boast to the media that Buchanan was enjoying a superb training camp. If that was the case, his performance in camp has not carried over to the season.
Between his signing bonus and base salary, Williams is earning $3.65 million for 2003, and it clearly looks like a losing investment. The former Green Bay Packers starter has not played well, groused openly about his role and was suspended for one game because of what the Falcons termed "conduct detrimental to the team." There were some players who felt that Williams, a closet malcontent and an indifferent player who is obviously out of shape, would be released during last week's bye.
About the only surprise in the secondary remaking was the benching of free safety Keion Carpenter, arguably the steadiest starter on the unit. Carpenter has not played as well as he did in 2002, but has still outperformed his minimum base salary, and never displayed any of the lack of passion demonstrated by some of his teammates.