Falcons' mandate is to win in the playoffs
The Falcons had never known consistent regular-season success before Mike Smith and Matt Ryan.
The coach and quarterback now need to extend that success into the postseason.
A franchise which before Smith and Ryan arrived in 2008 never had back-to-back winning seasons suddenly is on a roll of four straight seasons above .500.
The success, including three playoff years, has raised expectations, making the postseason failures all the more painful. The Falcons are 0-3 in the playoffs, leading to restlessness and impatience from the top of the organization as the team prepares to open training camp.
Owner Arthur Blank summoned general manager Thomas Dimitroff, Smith and reporters to his office after last season to express the ''tremendous amount of disappointment'' for ''everybody connected with the organization.''
The Falcons' 24-2 wild-card loss at the Giants after a 10-6 record set the mandate for the 2012 season. The message from Blank is clear: Smith and the Falcons need to win in the postseason.
''We just have to figure out how to play better at the end of the season,'' Smith said.
There's more reason for an increased sense of urgency. Tight end Tony Gonzalez, coming off an 80-catch season, is 36 and entering what could be his final season. There are concerns running back Michael Turner, who is 30, could be affected by his massive workload the last four years. Top receiver Roddy White also is 30, though second-year receiver Julio Jones appears poised to take over as the biggest threat.
Ryan said it's time to push harder, and he said he began his efforts in the offseason.
''I've made an investment this offseason, probably more so than I have in the past,'' Ryan said. ''I feel like in order to get to a place you haven't been, you have to do something you haven't done. I've been trying to improve and get better.''
Ryan passed for a franchise record 4,177 yards last season with a career-best 29 touchdowns. He was sacked twice and constantly pressured - hit seven other times - in the loss to the Giants in the playoffs. He also was stopped on two fourth-and-1 runs.
Smith has opened the competition across the offensive line. Peter Konz, a second-round draft pick from Wisconsin, could push Garrett Reynolds at right guard and eventually replace Todd McClure, who is 35, at center.
This will be an important camp for left tackle Sam Baker, part of Ryan's 2008 draft class. Baker will compete with Will Svitek and third-round pick Lamar Holmes for a starting job.
''We are looking at a number of guys at different spots both on the offensive and defensive lines,'' Smith said. ''We need to make those evaluations through the first two or three weeks of training camp to try to solidify the guys who are going to be starting for us.''
Rookie Bradie Ewing will compete with Mike Cox to replace fullback Ovie Mughelli, who was released to clear salary cap space.
Smith lost his top two assistants when offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey took the head coaching job at Jacksonville and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder returned to the colleges for the same job at Auburn.
Dirk Koetter has taken over the offense, while Mike Nolan was hired to run the defense.
Running backs Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling could play more prominent roles behind Turner in Koetter's offense, which should feature more screen passes.
''It's going to be a more explosive offense,'' Rodgers said.
Another position battle to watch in training camp is at middle linebacker. Tackles leader Curtis Lofton signed with the Saints, leaving Akeem Dent and former Pro Bowler Lofa Tatupu the top contenders to start. Tatupu did not play in 2011 following his release by Seattle. Dent was a third-round pick from Georgia in 2011.
The team re-signed free-agent defensive end John Abraham. Outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who emerged last season with 113 tackles and four sacks, is the leader of the middle of the unit.
The team's most important free-agent addition is cornerback Asante Samuel, the four-time Pro Bowl pick for the Patriots and Eagles. Samuel joins Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes, who received a franchise tag, to make cornerback a strength.
''You look across the board and it's myself, it's Brent and it's Asante and you're like wow,'' Robinson said. ''If we do what we're supposed to do, we can be a very dangerous secondary.''
Samuel made a big early impression in offseason workouts with his energy and big-play skills, prompting White to say, ''Man I love that guy.''
''He keeps the defense up,'' White said. ''There are a lot of people doing a lot more talking since he's been here. He brought that spark that we need on defense and we love him.''