Falcons know the time is ripe to finally win a championship
ATLANTA (AP) — There are times that come along in the NFL, when the confluence of bountiful drafts, stars in their prime and a still-manageable salary cap align to put a team in position to win a championship.
For the Atlanta Falcons, that time is now.
A franchise still scarred by blowing a 25-point lead in the Super Bowl looks poised to make another run at that elusive first title, but the window of opportunity is starting to close just a bit.
Matt Ryan is 33, yet only two seasons removed from an MVP performance.
Julio Jones put off his demands for a new contract until 2019 .
Tevin Coleman is still a year away from potential free agency.
A talented young defense is poised to really make its mark.
“From a player’s perspective, the window is always one year,” said Ryan, who became the NFL’s first guaranteed $100 million player when he signed a massive contract extension during the offseason . “That’s something that you learn the longer you play, that sense of urgency, how quickly it goes by.”
Coming off their Super Bowl disappointment, the Falcons still managed to go 10-6 and earn a wild-card berth in the highly competitive NFC South last season. They breezed past the Los Angeles Rams to start the playoffs before losing a 15-10 heartbreaker to the eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles .
Atlanta had first-and-goal at the Eagles 9 with just over a minute remaining. But Ryan threw three incomplete passes, the last of them intended for Jones to cap another bitter postseason ending.
The Falcons are hoping to get another chance. Here’s some things to keep an eye on in 2018:
SARK’S SECOND YEAR
Steve Sarkisian is definitely on the hot seat heading into his second year as offensive coordinator .
The Falcons slumped from the league’s highest-scoring team in 2016, when Kyle Shanahan was calling plays, to the middle of the NFL pack under Sarkisian. The offense really struggled in the red zone, capped off fittingly by that goal-line stand in Philly.
It’s worth remembering that Shanahan also got off to a rough start in Atlanta. To increase the chances of a similar turnaround, the Falcons brought in longtime offensive coordinator Greg Knapp as the quarterback coach.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence,” said Ryan, eager to regain his MVP form . “I think Sark’s a lot more comfortable with the personnel, knowing what guys to use in certain situations. I think that just comes with experience, and we all kind of have a feel for his flavor as well.”
In his bid to land a new contract more fitting with his role as one of the NFL’s top receivers, Jones skipped offseason workouts and a mandatory minicamp.
But, on the eve of training camp, the Falcons worked out an adjustment to Jones’ contract and promised to negotiate a new deal in 2019. They knew there was no way to contend for a Super Bowl title without No. 11.
“It definitely gives you a better shot,” coach Dan Quinn conceded.
The 29-year-old Jones has put up four straight years with at least 80 catches and 1,400 yards receiving. He’s also a valuable mentor to the team’s younger players .
Since Quinn was hired in 2015, the Falcons have drafted with a heavy emphasis on defense.
That philosophy has produced three starters out of the first round — Vic Beasley, Keanu Neal and Takkarist McKinley — as well as a number of key contributors in the later rounds, most notably Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell and Duke Riley.
This year, look for rookies Isaiah Oliver and Deandrin Senat to contend for significant playing time.
“A number of guys are going into year two or year three or in some cases, year four,” Quinn said. “Like a lot of jobs, if you’ve been on this team for a while, you’re getting better.”
One notable exception was Beasley , who struggled with a move from defensive end to outside linebacker. He recorded just five sacks after getting 15½ the year before.
Not surprisingly, he’s back at end.
Devonta Freeman struggled through an injury-plagued season that included two concussions and a sprained right knee.
With all signs that his knee is healthy , Freeman is eager to reclaim the form that made him the NFL’s highest-paid running back. It could be the final season of his dynamic 1-2 pairing with Coleman, which combined for nearly 1,500 yards rushing in 2017. Both are also potent options in the passing game.
“It is awesome to see Free back, feeling like himself,” Quinn said.
For the first time in Quinn’s tenure, the Falcons used a first-round pick on an offensive player, Alabama’s Calvin Ridley.
He’ll slide into the third receiver spot that was held by departed free agent Taylor Gabriel. Atlanta is counting on the rookie to lure coverages away from Jones and help boost the team’s production in the red zone.
“He definitely has all the tools to be a great wide receiver,” Jones said.