Falcons at 1-4: Circumstances or worse?

The Falcons' season is on the verge of a collapse after their fourth loss of the year. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

ATLANTA -- A last-minute loss at the New Orleans Saints, now 5-0?


A four-point defeat at the Miami Dolphins, who moved to 3-0 with the win?

OK, I get it.

A comeback falls just short against the then-4-0 New England Patriots?

Far from a shocking outcome.

Now then: How should we view the Atlanta Falcons' fourth loss of this still-young season, a 30-28 defeat Monday night to the New York Jets?

"Your record," said Falcons tailback Jacquizz Rodgers, "is who you are."

Make no mistake: The Falcons are 1-4 and, by definition, one of the NFL's worst teams. History suggests they have little chance to make the playoffs, one year after reaching the NFC Championship Game. Common sense tells us there is more going on here than an unfortunate collection of close losses, and standard cynicism brings us to question the future of their leadership for the first time in its tenure.

Has coach Mike Smith's charm worn off? Is this roster, the one collected by celebrated general manager Thomas Dimitroff, as skilled as we once thought? Are the Falcons, a model franchise for the past six seasons, headed toward a watershed moment?

We're not there yet. More than two-thirds of the season is still ahead. But judging by the near-silence in the Falcons' postgame locker room, many players and surely some coaches were wondering what might come next.

"We just can't play like this. We can't," safety William Moore said. "It's a long season. I know we've got a bunch of winners around here. It just doesn't feel right to lose. Speaking individually, I've never been a part of this. We've got to get it together.

"We're running out of time."

Yes, 118 NFL teams started 1-4 between 1990 and 2012. Only six of them made the playoffs. That's 5 percent. In other words, 95 percent of the teams in the Falcons' current predicament have not made the playoffs.

"This puts us in a deep hole, a deep, deep hole," tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "It's going to be tough to dig ourselves out of it. That's what we have. It's 1-4. What are we going to do? Sit here and feel sorry for ourselves? I'm not going to say the season's over. We've still got a lot of football left to play. I'm going to believe and I expect our team to believe that we can dig out."

For that to happen, of course, the Falcons would need to be the simple victims of a tough early schedule and some bad timing. Our eyes suggested otherwise Monday night. The Falcons' issues seemed to run deeper.

For one, they fought all night in their home stadium just to take a one-point lead with 1 minute, 54 seconds remaining against a Jets team that few have mistaken for a playoff contender. Their offensive line was overwhelmed by the Jets' admittedly strong front, their defense was gashed by rookie quarterback Geno Smith -- who never came close to a turnover after committing an NFL-high 11 through four weeks -- and their special teams gave up two long returns as well as a blocked punt.

It culminated with Smith's stunning and surgical game-winning drive -- 56 yards on eight plays over the final 1:54. Nick Folk's 43-yard field goal won it on the final play, giving the Falcons four losses by a combined 19 points.

"We're better than that," Moore said. "We all know that. We know we're better than that. We're not getting blown out. It's coming down to last-second drives."

Those tight margins might reflect more of a mirage than comfort, however.

I don't want to minimize Smith's breakout performance, but let's also recognize that the Falcons' inconsistent pass rush and soft coverage helped spur him to a career-high 147.7 passer rating. The Falcons blitzed Smith on seven of his attempts, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He completed passes six of those times, including two for touchdowns.

Smith took four sacks, but one came when he ran out of bounds and the Falcons put him under duress on only two of his 20 attempts.

"He's a rookie," Moore said, "and we made him look like a 10-year vet."

And perhaps the Falcons' offense will look different when tailback Steven Jackson returns from a hamstring injury, but Monday night it managed 64 yards on 22 attempts. When Atlanta needed 1 yard at the goal line on the final play of the first half, Rodgers ran into a wall of penetrating defenders. Maybe the return of left tackle Sam Baker (knee) could help. At the moment, however, the Falcons are solely reliant on quarterback Matt Ryan generating downfield plays against a heavy pass rush.

The Falcons will have two weeks to consider mid-level changes while nursing Jackson and others back to health. But their schedule won't get much easier -- it includes games at Seattle, Green Bay and San Francisco, among others -- and they are already four games behind the Saints in the NFC South.

"You get what you earn in this league," Ryan said, "and we haven't earned it."

And so now the big questions begin. Has Smith brought this team as far as he can? Does Dimitroff need to rebuild with a fresher roster around Ryan? Will Gonzalez's final NFL season be a dud?

The Falcons should be better than this. Right? Are their issues circumstantial or systemic? Monday night was the first time you could argue the latter point. Success in this league has never been more fleeting, has it?