Falcons need title to cement status as elite team
When Tony Gonzalez decided to return for one more season, he
knew there was only one outcome that would make it a success.
A Super Bowl ring.
Gonzalez’s tunnel vision is pretty much indicative of everyone’s
mindset in Atlanta, where the Falcons have become one of the
league’s most successful franchises but still need a title to reach
truly elite status.
”I came back to win a championship,” said Gonzalez, looking
ahead to his 17th – and, he insists this time – final season.
”That’s the kind of team I think we have. We want to pick up where
we left off last year.”
Since Thomas Dimitroff took over as general manager and Mike
Smith was hired as coach in 2008, the Falcons have gone 56-24
during the regular season, put together five straight winning
seasons, made the playoffs four times, won a pair of NFC South
titles, and twice earned home-field advantage.
The postseason has been a different story, though Atlanta – and
Gonzalez – cleared a huge hurdle last season. For the first time in
the Dimitroff-Smith era, the Falcons won a playoff game. For
Gonzalez, it was the first playoff win of his career.
Alas, the Falcons came up 10 yards shy of the Super Bowl, losing
to San Francisco in a thrilling NFC championship game.
Coming so close persuaded Gonzalez to postpone his retirement
plans. The team showed its commitment by signing quarterback Matt
Ryan to a nearly $104 million contract extension and landing
free-agent running back Steven Jackson to complement one of the
NFL’s most dynamic passing games, with Matty Ice throwing to
Gonzalez, Julio Jones and Roddy White.
If the offensive line holds up and the defense makes a stop
every now and then, there’s no reason the Falcons can’t go even
farther than they did last season.
”It’s incredible,” Gonzalez said. ”The sky’s the limit to
what we can do.”
Here’s five things to watch as the Falcons try to win that
elusive Super Bowl title:
RYAN’S WEAPONS: The Falcons have the potential to be even more
explosive than a year ago, when they ranked seventh in the league
in scoring. The 28-year-old Ryan is right in his prime and coming
off the best year of his career, with highs in completion
percentage (68.6), touchdown passes (32) and yards (4,719). White
and Jones combined for 171 receptions, 2,549 yards and 17
touchdowns. Gonzalez (93 catches, 930 yards, eight TDs) looks like
he could play another decade. Now add Jackson, who should be a much
more versatile threat than his predecessor, Michael Turner. Of
course, to take advantage of all those highly skilled players, Ryan
will need some protection. Which brings us to …
PROTECTING MATTY ICE: The Falcons’ offensive line is a huge
question mark. Todd McClure retired, Tyson Clabo was released, and
Mike Johnson sustained a season-ending injury in training camp.
Left tackle Sam Baker is solid, and Peter Konz should do just fine
taking over for McClure at center. But the right side looks very
shaky with guard Garrett Reynolds and tackle Lamar Holmes. Atlanta
got a glimpse of its potential problems when Ryan was sacked five
times by Tennessee in a preseason game. Considering the backup
quarterback is untested Dominique Davis, the Falcons must keep Ryan
DEFENSIVE SCHEME: The Falcons didn’t get much pressure on
opposing quarterbacks last year, coming up with only 29 sacks (and
10 of those were by since-released John Abraham). Coordinator Mike
Nolan prefers a 3-4 alignment, so he’s trying to adjust the
personnel to fit the scheme. Kroy Biermann has looked more like an
outside linebacker during the preseason than his listed position,
defensive end. Newcomer Osi Umenyiora also might fill more of a
hybrid role. Youngsters such as Jonathan Massaquoi and Cliff
Matthews will be expected to contribute more.
YOUNG SECONDARY: Cornerback was a prime focus in the draft after
the Falcons cut Dunta Robinson and lost Brent Grimes in free
agency. First-round pick Desmond Trufant was handed a starting job,
and second-rounder Robert Alford will plenty of playing time in
nickel and dime packages. They must grow up fast, playing in a
division that guarantees two games a year against Drew Brees of New
Orleans and Cam Newton of Carolina.
SMITTY’S TEAM: Smith has quietly become one of the league’s top
coaches, though he does his best to avoid getting noticed. He lets
his assistants do their jobs, gives the veterans plenty of leeway
but makes it clear he’s the man in charge. Seriously, how many
coaches would’ve let a player leave training camp for three weeks
to be with his family, as Smith did with Gonzalez? That sort of
give-and-take has made Atlanta a popular destination for free
agents, and Dimitroff does his part by signing team-first players
who mesh well together. ”We’ve had guys that have been the right
fit for this organization,” Ryan said. ”When you win first in the
locker room, I think that transcends onto the field.”
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at