2009 Outlook for The Atlanta Falcons

Tim DarnellContributor IMay 10, 2009

FLOWERY BRANCH, GA - MAY 9: Quarterback Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons attempts a pass during minicamp at the Falcons Complex on May 9, 2009 in Flowery Branch, Georgia.  (Photo by Paul Abell/Getty Images)

No professional sports franchise in history had to overcome more obstacles in 2008 than the Atlanta Falcons.

The challenges were overwhelming: a new GM, a new head coach and staff, a rookie QB, and an untested free agent running back, all of whom came on board after the team’s disastrous 2007 campaign replete with… well, you know the whole sordid story.

So how did the 2008 Falcons respond? Only with a playoff appearance.

Now, GM Thomas Dimitroff; Head Coach Mike Smith and his entire staff; QB Matt Ryan; RB Michael Turner; and the Falcons are challenged with maintaining the momentum they began in 2008, faced with one of the NFL’s toughest schedules.

The league didn’t do the Falcons any favors when they drafted the ’09 campaign, as the Falcons open the regular season at home against 2008’s other big surprise team, the Miami Dolphins.

Besides two games apiece against division rivals Tampa Bay, New Orleans and Tampa Bay, the Falcons also square off at home against QB Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears; the Philadelphia Eagles and Donovan McNabb; and the Washington Redskins.

One of the league’s toughest road schedules include trips to New England, Dallas, and the New York Giants and Jets. Indeed, perhaps the only “soft spots” in the Falcons’ schedule come during week five against Head Coach Mike Singletary’s 49ers in Candlestick Park; and week 16, when Terrell Owens and the Buffalo Bills come to town.

That, in a nutshell, is the biggest obstacle facing the Falcons in 2009: a tough schedule that will test Ryan, Turner and company. But that challenge is made even more complicated by several key questions that the team will have to address during the coming campaign.

First off is Ryan, whose first regular season NFL pass was a touchdown to wide receiver Michael Jenkins. Ryan’s first professional campaign was a work in progress; he played well in many games played well, and not so well in others.

His first playoff appearance was erratic against an Arizona Cardinals team that, at least on paper, lined up well against the Falcons.

The question is, will Ryan suffer through a sophomore slump, like countless other rookie QBs have endured after an unexpectedly successful season?

Virtually every team on the Falcons’ schedule has a strong defense, particularly Chicago, Dallas, the New York Giants, Philadelphia and Singletary’s defensive-minded 49ers.

If Ryan does falter, Turner’s burden will be even heavier. Last year’s No. 2 NFC rusher enjoyed a remarkable campaign in his first starting role. But teams may have figured him out by the time the ’09 season begins, and he’s going to be facing smart defensive coordinators who have built solid defenses in virtually every single game this year.

The only major addition to the Falcons’ offense came during a pre-draft trade for Kansas City’s Tony Gonzalez, the NFL’s leading receiver in receptions (916), yardage (10,940) and touchdowns (76) for a tight end.

The Falcons acquired the 10-time Pro Bowler and likely Hall of Famer to give Ryan another target, besides Pro Bowl wide receiver Roddy White and Michael Jenkins.

But he was also brought on board to stabilize a locker room that is now extremely short on veteran leadership. During the offseason, the Falcons jettisoned popular veterans Grady Jackson, Lawyer Milloy and arguably its most popular player, Keith Brooking.

All of those key losses came on defense, and the Falcons, through its draft, will feature one of the league’s younger defenses. Expect rookies Peria Jerry (DT); William Moore (S); Lawrence Sidbury (DE); and Chris Owens (CB) to either start or make frequent appearances on defense throughout the year.

For the Falcons to have any chance of repeating or bettering their remarkable 2008 success, this young defense must hold its own against the likes of Drew Brees (twice); Tom Brady; Cutler; Tony Romo; Eli Manning; McNabb; and even Trent Edwards and Owens.

Mike Smith earned his stripes as a defensive coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars, and he may have his biggest professional challenge to date in ‘09, molding an extremely young defense in the face of the league’s best offensive machines.

In short, a lot has to fall in place for the Falcons to post their first back-to-back winning season in franchise history.

The biggest factors going in the Falcons’ favor?

Coaching staff continuity; a stable offensive scheme that is diversified by the Gonzalez signing; and the scouting acumen of Dimitroff and Smith, who scored an A+ in their first year together.