But in stepping down immediately after this latest so-near-but-so-far defeat in the West Indies he has shown quick feet and acute reflexes. The press, too, was snorting and pawing at the dust, confident that one more lunge could topple him; and the next couple of weeks promised to be a rather special tabloid nightmare. But in one nimble movement Atherton has leapt away from the sweeping horns, dodging the rising clamour for his replacement and earning himself sweet accolades as a guy who might have failed to light up the skies, but sure as hell gave it his best shot.
In a few years' time, when he looks back on his captaincy and wonders what he could have done differently, he will probably wish that he had somehow found a way to set a more vibrant and optimistic tone. The Atherton years won't really be remembered for their wisecracks. He chose a different route - the Allan Border route - and tried to act the tough guy. It didn't work; he was only rarely able to seduce the best out of the very good players under his command. And he ended up with the worst of both worlds: for tough guys, when they lose, simply look ungracious and unsportsmanlike.
Even when he bowed out, he might well have taken a leaf out of Brian Lara's increasingly impressive book. Lara's fulsome tribute to his opposite number made Atherton's own resignation statement seem a bit dutiful and below the occasion.
Atherton's supporters will be quick to point out that a captain is only as good as the ammunition at his disposal; if Athers had been able to wind up Walsh and Ambrose, the story goes, then this last series would have been very different. That might be true: everyone would love to have such good players. But England's much-abused bowlers could easily retort that in eight Test match innings, the West Indies scored 300 only twice. On four occasions they were bowled out for less than 210. The world's best batsman did not get a century. These figures also pay tribute to Atherton's sometimes maligned captaincy in the field. And yes, it's a shame that the bowlers didn't do even better. But the series would have been England's if they had batted with more purpose and adventure.
It was a series of fine lines. England twice came close to winning; in Barbados they were outflanked by the weather, and in Antigua they lost a cruel toss. But they have made a habit over the years of always falling just on the wrong side of these fine lines. In Trinidad they simply blew it, and the dropped catches in Antigua were much more decisive than any of the so-called bad decisions that left our batsmen glowering in the dressing-room. Lambert and Hooper should both have been sawn off in single figures. Between them they scored 212 runs.
The immediate question is who - Stewart, Hollioake, Hussain or Ramprakash - will take charge next summer. But the lesson of Atherton's reign might go deeper than that. It might remain the fantasy of almost every boy cricketer in England (a dwindling band) to captain his country one day; but these days the dream is tinged by the fear that as lovely jobs go, this might just be one of the worst there is. An England captain finds himself in charge of players who play too much, and pick up injuries almost faster than they gather runs and wickets (the list of England's crocked fast bowlers goes on and on). He finds himself sharing his days with a uniquely judgemental and angry national media who insist on burdening him with their own unrealistic hopes, or lamming him for the smallest perceived misdemeanour - almost alone among sporting celebrities, a cricket captain gets to pick his nose in super slow motion on prime time television. He finds himself lampooned when England lose (which is often) and absurdly ennobled on the rare occasions when they win. One way or another, he finds himself being blamed for unexpected storm clouds in the Caribbean, for brilliant bowling by the opposition, or for a schoolboy run-out involving two of his most trusted lieutenants.
Can it be fun? Atherton insisted yesterday that his time as captain had been "enjoyable"; but not everyone will be able to believe him. Certainly he looked demob happy in the field; the decision to step down brought a rare smile to his face. Many England followers would have found this poignant.