Falcons want more than just playoffs

The Atlanta Falcons have made a habit of reaching the


That’s not good enough anymore.

A few days after the Falcons were routed by the eventual Super

Bowl champion New York Giants in a wild-card game last season,

owner Arthur Blank summoned general manager Thomas Dimitroff and

coach Mike Smith for what amounted to a humbling public


The message was clear: Blank expects a championship.

Anything else will be considered a failure.

”The message to the guys is to be a better team this year than

we were last year across the board,” Smith said recently. ”If we

reach that goal, we’re going to like where we’re at.”

In a sense, the disappointment over 2011 is a sign of just how

far the Falcons have come under the current regime.

When Dimitroff and Smith were hired four years ago, they

inherited a mess of a franchise that was trying to recover from the

Michael Vick fiasco. The Falcons had never ever put together

back-to-back winning seasons, much less two consecutive trips to

the playoffs. Since then, they’ve had four straight winning records

and three postseason appearances.

But this group has yet to win a playoff game, and Blank is

clearly getting impatient.

A year ago, the Falcons were touted as a Super Bowl contender,

coming off a 13-win season and a division championship. But the

offense never seemed to click on all cylinders, despite the

addition of rookie receiver Julio Jones, and Atlanta slipped into

the playoffs as a wild card. It was another short appearance, the

Giants romping to a 24-2 victory and holding the Falcons’ offense

off the scoreboard.

”Anytime you get there and you’re not doing what you’re

supposed to be doing and you’re losing, it kind of (stinks),”

receiver Roddy White said. ”You go back and watch the tape and see

a lot of things you could’ve done differently. You want to go back

and play the game all over again, but you can’t. So you just get

ready for the next year.”

Well, next year’s here.

Even though Blank hinted at major changes, the Falcons return

with basically the same roster, just a little tinkering here and

there (such as the recent signing of quarterback Luke McCown, who

takes over as the top backup behind Matt Ryan). Cornerback Asante

Samuel was the only major player addition, the other big changes

coming on the coaching staff.

Smith hired two new coordinators: former NFL coach Mike Nolan to

run the defense, taking over after Brian VanGorder returned to the

college ranks as Auburn’s defense coordinator, and Dirk Koetter to

take over the offense from Mike Mularkey, who left for the coaching

job in Jacksonville.

”We have to step up because we have the team,” said tight end

Tony Gonzalez, who came back for his 16th season, still chasing

that elusive Super Bowl ring. ”If we can stay healthy and pick up

where we left off last year and improve with the new offense and

the new defense, it’s going to be exciting for us. We’ve got the

players on offense and defense.”

There’s certainly no lack of weapons on offense. When Ryan drops

back to pass, he can look to a dynamic outside duo (White and

Jones) or go with a shorter route to a future Hall of Famer

(Gonzalez). Michael Turner is showing a bit of wear and tear but

still rushed for 1,340 yards and 11 touchdowns. Jacquizz Rodgers is

only 5-foot-6, but he could get more playing time to take some of

the load off Turner.

Of course, as with every team in the NFL, the Falcons’ season

will likely come down to what they get out of the most important

position on the field.

Ryan has developed into one of the league’s top quarterbacks,

but he won’t be in the same class as the Tom Bradys and Peyton

Mannings of the world until he wins a championship or, at the very

least, a playoff game. Over his first four years, Matty Ice has

completed nearly 61 percent in the regular season, with more than

twice as many touchdowns (95) as interceptions (46) and a

cumulative rating of 88.4. He put up career-best numbers in 2011,

throwing for 4,177 yards and 29 touchdowns.

”We’ve got a real good quarterback,” White said. ”When you’ve

got a guy under center who’s consistent and brings his `A’ game

every week, you can win a lot of games. This is a

quarterback-driven league. When you’ve got a good one, you’ve got a


The playoffs are a different matter, though. Ryan has passed for

less than 200 yards per game in his three postseason losses, with

just three touchdowns, four interceptions and a significantly lower

rating (71.2). Gonzalez believes Ryan is poised for a breakout

season and postseason. The key will be getting better protection

from the offensive line, which allowed the face of the franchise to

get hit far too often a year ago.

”For quarterbacks, it goes about five or six years before they

really come into their own from what I’ve seen. I’m talking about

the great ones, too,” Gonzalez said. ”That is what’s happening

with Matt here. He’s gone the normal progression. We expect big

things out of him, but we also understand that we’re all in it, and

we’ve got to take care of our part to go out there and get open for


The Falcons traded for Samuel to team with Brent Grimes and

Dunta Robinson, giving the Falcons a trio of top pass defenders a

must playing in the same division with Drew Brees of New Orleans

and Cam Newton of Carolina.

Nolan will try to scheme away the Falcons’ weaknesses, which

included a lackluster pass rush. Defensive end John Abraham, for

one, believes VanGorder’s scheme became too predictable. He’s

looking forward to getting more opportunities to get to the

quarterback with Nolan doling out a variety of blitz and pressure


Of course, none of that will matter if the Falcons don’t win in

the postseason.

”Our whole thing is what we do in the playoffs,” Abraham said.

”We’ve shown we can get there, but that’s not enough and we know

it. We’ve got to get in there and win one game and then move


Associated Press Writer George Henry contributed to this


Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at


Online: http://bigstory.ap.org/NFL-Pro32 and