It's well-documented that the Atlanta Falcons have yet to have back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history.
Seemingly random spurts of success (a Super Bowl run in 1998, a road playoff win in Green Bay) have come in the recent past — but have been spoiled by injuries, bad trades and just plain bad football (not to mention Bobby Petrino mid-season expatriation and the Michael Vick fiasco) in the following years.
Now the Falcons are coming off of an 11-5 season and a playoff appearance (a loss to eventual NFC champion Arizona) in 2008. They have their franchise quarterback, their head coach and their hotshot GM. They have their marquee running game, a brand new tight end, and an energy and positive attitude they've lacked for a long time.
The stage is set for another disappointment.
But this time, it won't happen.
Ryan's rookie season was unprecedented, no doubt, and we aren't likely to see another debut like it. Ever.
But that said, it's easy to see that there's less pressure on Ryan this year than last.
He's smart, efficient, and is a good (nay, great) decision maker. That's a good formula for sustained and consistent success.
Ryan threw for 3,440 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2008. He threw 11 interceptions, but five of those came in the Falcons' final four regular season games. Two came in their finale, already having clinched a playoff spot.
That bodes well for Ryan, and for the Falcons.
He has a strong running game behind him, and a defense good enough to keep him in games.
Not to mention he will not face the daunting task of trying to replace Michael Vick, he will not have nearly as much pressure to perform as he did as a top draft pick in 2008, and, let's face it — he has a better team around him.
Which leads us to our second point.
Justin Peelle is not Tony Gonzalez.
Nobody is, and Ryan's new plaything at tight end comes in the form of a surefire Hall-of-Famer who's averaged more than 76 receptions and 900 yards a season over his 12-year career.
Peelle, the Falcons' best tight end a year ago, has career-highs of 29 and 228 with the Dolphins in 2007.
A good, young quarterback's best weapon is a good tight end. Matt Ryan is a young quarterback who had the best rookie season ever without the benefit of a good tight end.
Tony Gonzalez is a great tight end. And he's only 33.
Plus, he has a new offensive coordinator that is a former NFL tight end and tight ends coach.
Which leads us to our third point.
Yes, losing linebackers Keith Brooking and Michael Boley hurts.
Losing safety Lawyer Milloy hurts.
Losing nose tackle Grady Jackson and corner Dominique Foxworth hurts too.
But this defense is still good enough, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder knows what he’s doing, and this year's draft was defense-centric.
How well rookies like first-round pick Peria Jerry at tackle and William Moore at safety play could be huge, especially in the secondary — the Falcons gave up 220.4 passing yards per game in 2008, good enough for 21st in the league.
Second-year players like starting corner Chris Houston and D-end Jamaal Anderson will loom important as well.
The Atlanta defense will be young no doubt, but there’s still a healthy mix of veteran players.
Defensive end John Abraham is still around and showed what he can do when healthy with 16.5 sacks in 2008, and guys like Erik Coleman at safety and 11-year veteran Michael Peterson at linebacker have seen their fair share of things.
Matching last year’s defensive production (even as subpar as it was) should be achievable. That should lead to another winning season, but with this year’s grueling schedule, it probably won’t be good enough to go 11-5 again.
Which leads us to our next point.
This will be both a blessing and a curse for the 2009 Falcons.
Atlanta kicks off the season by hosting fellow 2008 comeback kids Miami. Aside from their divisional games, the Falcons also host Chicago (a game that got a whole lot tougher when the Bears acquired Jay Cutler), Washington, and a greatly improved Philadelphia team. Not to mention a visit from Buffalo, which now boasts Terrell Owens.
And whoever scheduled road trips to New England, Dallas, and both New York teams is just cruel.
Divisional foes Tampa Bay and Carolina are both admittedly down, but New Orleans’ offense continues to get better, making for pretty tough but manageable home-and-home sets with all three.
All that said, here’s why it’s a good thing — it’s keeps you grounded.
Matt Ryan is a smart, even-keeled kid. But this is a young team, and too much success, even for a Falcons team that has so often wallowed in irrelevancy, is not a good thing.
You want to establish some confidence, but that was already done in 2008. A cupcake schedule can breed cockiness, and that’s not what Atlanta needs. If they manage to make it through this schedule above .500 and somehow get into the playoffs, they’ll be battle-tested, mentally tough and better for having been through it.
It will be tough for fans (above) and coaches (see next slide) alike, but it could breed something very special.
The Atlanta Falcons' upcoming season is going to be tough.
They still have a young quarterback, an inexperienced defense, and the most difficult schedule in the NFL.
But they do have Tony Gonzalez, and an inexperienced coaching staff and front office led by Mike Smith (above) and Thomas Dimitroff will have another year under its collective belt.
I won't venture a guess on specific games (for now, look for another article in the coming days), but here's what Falcons fans can reasonably expect from their football team in 2009:
— A 4-2 finish in the NFC South, splitting their games with New Orleans and Carolina, and sweeping Tampa Bay
— A strong showing, but a 2-2 mark in their road trips against New England, Dallas, the Giants and the Jets
— A 3-1 stretch against Miami, San Francisco, Chicago and Buffalo
— A split of home games against Washington and Philadelphia
All that would put Atlanta at 10-6, and hoping for a playoff spot. If they did find their way into the postseason, they have the potential to win a few games and get to the NFC Championship game.
It will be a long road for Atlanta, but it has the potential to be a succesful one.
And whether the playoffs are involved or not, the Falcons will have a second consecutive winning season. For the first time ever.