In 2008, the Atlanta Falcons were destined for doom. The majority of media outlets predicted the Falcons to be among the worst teams in the league with little hope for success in the future. A year earlier, the team’s franchise quarterback, Michael Vick, had been sent to prison; their head coach left without warning; and the roster appeared to be in shambles.
Owner Arthur Blank took it upon himself to recreate a winning organization. He started the process with the hiring of a completely new staff, including General Manager Thomas Dimitroff, who in turn hired head coach Mike Smith.
Together, Smith and Dimitroff went on to assemble a roster for the type of team that they envisioned. They drafted a new class of rookies, signed a few key free agents and instilled a new sense of pride into the team.
The Falcons slapped the doubters in the face by jumping on the back of rookie quarterback Matt Ryan and newly-acquired free agent running back Michael Turner. They won 11 games and were seconds away from being the NFC South champions, had the New Orleans Saints held on to beat the Carolina Panthers in the final week of the 2008 regular season.
All of the surrealism came to a screeching halt on January 3, 2009, when the Falcons lost in the first round of the playoffs to the eventual NFC champion Arizona Cardinals.
Now, nearly five months removed from the heartbreaking loss, the Falcons have their sights set on the 2009 season.
This time around though, things are different. There is no sense of doom for the Falcons. You won’t find them at the bottom of any preseason power rankings, and if someone were to say the Falcons have no future ahead of them, they would be lying.
This upcoming season, mediocrity will not cut it. The Falcons added arguably the best tight end in NFL history by acquiring Tony Gonzalez from the Kansas City Chiefs, and their young core will be a year older and salivating at the idea of making another playoff run.
You can expect the Falcons to once again be one of the best offenses in the league in 2009. With an uncanny big-play ability that very few teams possess, the Falcons should be able to score at will. They are complete at every position on the offensive side of the ball. They have a Pro-Bowl wide receiver, a Pro-Bowl running back, and the best rookie quarterback the league has ever seen will be in his second year.
Tony Gonzalez adds a dimension that the team did not have last season. The Falcons underutilized their tight-ends more than any other team in the league, as they recorded only 18 receptions as a unit. Last season, Gonzalez had 96 receptions by himself, more than the Falcons leading receiver Roddy White, who recorded 88.
With Gonzalez, the Falcons will use the middle of the field more often and torture opposing defenses that try to stack the box and prevent them from running.
While everything seems to be in place for a stellar 2009 season for the Birds of Atlanta, questions remain about the ability of the team’s defense to produce at a level high enough to complement the offense. The defense is the one big obstacle that stands between the Falcons and the Super Bowl.
This offseason, the Falcons let go of veteran linebacker Keith Brooking, who led the team in tackles in 2008. Brooking’s age was becoming a factor, and it began to hinder his play. He became a liability in pass coverage, and the team decided it needed to go in a different direction.
They also released safety Lawyer Milloy, the team’s most outspoken leader and best tackler in the secondary. Milloy recorded 93 tackles as the team’s strong safety, the sixth-highest tackle total at his position in the league. This could be the one man that the team truly misses this coming season.
To replace these two vets, the Falcons will look to their youngsters to step up to the plate. They drafted Safety William Moore out of Missouri and hope to have him as their strong safety of the future. Moore is a versatile player with an unbelievable mix of athleticism, size, and speed. He can make tackles, he can cover deep down the field and his potential is completely untapped. Falcons fans and coaches are very high on Moore and hope he can come in and instantly contribute at the same level that Milloy did.
At the linebacker position, the Falcons have another youngster with promise. Stephen Nicholas out of South Florida has shown flashes of ability in his two years with the team, and has been waiting in the shadows for his chance to make an impact. He is a playmaker with speed that is unmatched for a linebacker. This year, it appears that he will finally get his opportunity.
At the other linebacker position, the Falcons reached out to sign Mike Peterson, who formerly played for the Jacksonville Jaguars. They hope he can come in and be the leader that the team needs. Peterson played with Mike Smith in Jacksonville, and is thrilled to be working with him again. If he can play at the level he did with the Jaguars, the Falcons may have found themselves a free-agent steal.
In the secondary, while they lack a big name, the Falcons have a squad of young guys who could step up and be impact defenders for the team. Last season, the squad played exceptionally well despite not being very recognized around the league.
Third-year man Chris Houston will be the No. 1 guy for the Falcons this year after steadily improving each year since his rookie season. Houston is athletic and fast but lacks ball skills. If he can work on his physicality and turning his head, he can solidify his starting position for years to come.
It remains unclear at this point who else will be joining Houston in the starting rotation at the cornerback position, and this could very well be the biggest weakness the team has. Von Hutchins and Chevis Jackson are the two names that will be in the mix on the other side of the field. They will battle it out the remainder of the offseason to earn their way on the field.
The most improved part of the defense could be up front. Coach Smith is an advocate for strong defensive line play. He has been on record saying that he believes the game starts and ends in the trenches.
Accordingly, the team chose to select a defensive tackle in the first round of this year’s draft. They chose a dominant player in Peria Jerry out of Ole Miss, a tackle with experience playing in the tough SEC against some of the most outstanding offensive lineman in the country.
Jerry will join big boys Jonathan Babineaux and Trey Lewis in the tackle rotation. Babs received a hefty contract extension from the Falcons last year, and is in place to be one of the team's anchors in the middle for a long time. Lewis will most likely rotate with Jerry along his side and give the Falcons good depth at a position once considered a weakness.
While defensive end John Abraham remains one of the best in the league, his counterpart on the opposite end of the line isn’t quite in the same boat. Jamaal Anderson, the eighth overall choice by the Falcons in the 2007 NFL Draft, has underachieved in his first two seasons. Even though he was handed a starting position, Anderson has only recorded two sacks in his career, one of the worst totals ever by a defensive end selected in the top 10.
Despite his inability to be productive, the coaching staff remains confident in his ability to contribute this coming season. If Anderson plays well, the Falcons defense could surprise in 2009.
Behind Anderson is veteran Chauncey Davis, a solid role player who recorded four sacks in limited playing time last year. The Falcons dished out money to secure Davis to a four-year, $14million contract. If Anderson returns to his own ways and underproduces, it is almost certain that Davis will see the field more than he is used to.
The 2009 season should be one of the more exciting seasons in recent Falcon history. Though 2008 drew much excitement, 2009 has the potential for big success in the playoffs. With last year's Offensive Rookie of the Year at the helm, the team will be in position to win every game they play in. Matt Ryan has the smarts, athleticism and natural leadership to lead the team anywhere.
If the Falcons can overcome having the fourth-toughest schedule in the league, they could very well have rings on their fingers by the end of February 2010.