Falcons pass rusher Kroy Biermann, left, puts a punishing hit on Dallas Cowboys quarter Tony Romo earlier this year during one of Atlanta’s impressive nine wins it has tallied to open the 2012-13 season. Biermann is just one of many players who have come on strong this season and continue to fight each week to keep their starting job.
WHO: Falcons (9-1) at Tampa Bay Bucs (6-4).
WHAT: NFC South showdown between Top 2 teams.
WHEN: 1 p.m. Sunday.
WHERE: Tampa, Fla.
LINE: Atlanta by 1.
FLOWERY BRANCH — They sound like idle words, even for a team with the NFL’s best record.
Everyone is being evaluated on a weekly basis. No one’s job is safe. If someone isn’t performing up to expectations, they can be replaced.
Well, the Atlanta Falcons weren’t kidding.
Coming off their first loss and an ugly but still cruising at 9-1, the Falcons made a bold move recently when they dumped big-money defensive end Ray Edwards. In less than two seasons with the team, he had done little to justify a contract that included $11 million in guaranteed money, so the Falcons decided to go in a different direction.
The message to everyone else is clear — don’t get complacent.
“It’s a wakeup call,” safety Thomas DeCoud said Wednesday. “The message has been received.”
While it might have been convenient to let Edwards languish on the bench, especially with the team playing so well, coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff decided it’s never good to keep an underperforming player on the roster. Edwards had only nine tackles and no sacks this season, his starting job claimed by Kroy Biermann.
“I don’t want to get into sending messages and what not,” Smith said. “We evaluate every day. We evaluate after every game, from top to bottom. We talk about it all the time. It starts with me. This is a decision that we made. We feel like it makes our team better today and makes our team better in the future.”
With Edwards gone, the Falcons will give more playing time to fourth-year player Lawrence Sidbury, second-year lineman Cliff Matthews and rookie Jonathan Massaquoi, who got his first playing time in the 31-27 loss to the New Orleans Saints two weeks ago.
In the meantime, all the younger players have seen the cruel side of the business.
“It’s scary,” rookie offensive lineman Peter Konz said, managing a weak smile. “It makes you think. But if you do the right things, get the job done on the field, you don’t have to be too worried about it.”
Edwards had not done much right since signing a five-year, $30 million contract with the Falcons just before the start of training camp last season.
After combining for 16.5 sacks in his final two seasons with Minnesota, he was supposed to team with John Abraham to give opponents a two-sided nightmare coming off the edge. Instead, after undergoing knee surgery during the lockout, Edwards struggled to regain his mobility and managed just 3.5 sacks in what turned out to be his only full season with the Falcons.
This season, things only got worse.
Biermann, the player Edwards was supposed to replace, was much more effective as a rusher and at playing the versatile role required by new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan (sometimes even dropping into pass coverage). Edwards started four games, but found himself spending more and more time on the sideline.
Finally, the Falcons had seen enough.
Even with a $4.5 million hit on the salary cap next season, Smith and Dimitroff made the move.
“We’re about winning games here,” defensive lineman Corey Peters said. “It’s in the best interest to do everything we can to help our team get to that goal. We’re not hesitant to make decisions and make changes.”
If nothing else, Smith has always tried to be up front with his players. If someone’s not playing up to their ability, he’ll tell them. If change is needed, he’ll pull the trigger and move on.
“This is not anything new,” Peters said. “I’m grateful to be in a place where they’re pretty transparent. The let you know what they think of you. That’s all you can really ask for.”
While some players surely have more leeway than others — Matt Ryan is not going to be replaced at quarterback, no matter how poorly he plays Sunday at the Tampa Bay Bucs (6-4) — coaches have always relied on a bit of the fear factor to keep everyone motivated.
Given that most players don’t have a lot of guaranteed money in their contracts, the desire to succeed takes on new importance. There’s always someone looking for a job. There’s always someone eager to take your place.
“That’s the way this game goes,” cornerback Dunta Robinson said. “You can be replaced.”
In a sign of how quickly things change, Massaquoi had already taken over Edwards’ locker space, claiming a more prominent spot among the other defensive linemen.
“Ray was a great friend of mine,” Robinson said, looking over at Edwards’ former locker. “I hate to see him go. But it’s a business. Things like this are going to happen when it’s a business.”
Linebacker Mike Peterson said he wasn’t surprised at all by the move.
“This organization definitely believes in trying to get better at each position each and every week,” he said. “Even when we’re winning. Even when we were 5-0, 6-0, 7-0, we were trying to get better each week.”
Safety William Moore heard Peterson’s comments as he walked by.
“You better believe that,” Moore said.
No one doubts it now.