The Atlanta Falcons' offense was a good one in 2008.
Matt Ryan emerged as a true leader behind center, receivers Roddy White and Michael Jenkins exploded, and the running game was one of the best in the league, as it has been since Michael Vick made his way to Atlanta.
The Falcons had an Offensive Rookie of the Year, the NFL’s second-leading rusher, and a Pro Bowler at wide receiver.
That said, among the self-serve ice cream bar of NFL offenses, it was vanilla.
The process of simplifying playcalling for a rookie quarterback in Ryan necessitated this, as did having such a top-notch ground attack.
The latter hasn't changed—the Falcons ran the ball 55 percent of the time behind Michael Turner and Co. in 2008, and will likely hit a similar ratio of run/pass in 2009.
But enter Tony Gonzalez, and the opportunities for creativity and barn-burning plays jump through the proverbial glass ceiling.
Gonzalez is a Hall of Famer (albeit an aging one) at tight end, and will present an all new problem for opposing defenses, as Turner recently pointed out to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
“They have to play us honest,” he said. “We are not just a one-dimensional team. We can use the middle of the field more. Line him out wide. We can create some mismatches out there.”
As Steve Wyche of NFL.com (a very good reporter who I had the chance to meet at Falcons’ training camp when he was still with the AJC) adeptly points out, Gonzalez gives the Falcons and offensive coordinator “more options than Little Debbie has snack cakes.”
And options are good.
Tony Gonzalez is the absolutely perfect fit for the current Falcons’ offense, and will drastically change their playbook in 2009.
He presents the threat over the middle that Atlanta largely lacked last season (Falcon tight ends combined for 19 catches, 211 yards, and a pair of touchdowns last season).
He can prevent teams from double-teaming receivers. White and Jenkins were huge in 2008. They could have even bigger seasons in 2009.
And he’s no slouch of a run-blocker either. When you add Gonzalez to an offensive line that was relatively inexperienced but got better as last season progressed and couple it with Turner, also a Pro Bowler, you get a very dangerous concoction. And a lot of potential for creativity.
Gonzalez’s presence makes it harder for defenses to stop Turner, and vice versa—other teams often pushed an extra safety in the box to try and stop Turner last season. They do that this season, and they leave a linebacker or a safety covering Gonzalez.
First down, Atlanta.
In short, Gonzalez will make both the Falcons’ passing and running games significantly more effective.
Look for offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey to put pressure on opposing defenses in any and every way possible—from motion to play action to throwing on first down.
Mularkey is a former tight end and former tight ends coach. It would be fairly safe to assume he knows how to use a tight end, and that he let out a devilish cackle when he found out he would have the best one ever to work with.
And lest we forget, Gonzalez has put up the best numbers ever for a tight end with no quarterback better than Trent Green. And he worked on a few routes one-on-one with Ryan during the Falcons’ recently-closed minicamp. Head coach Mike Smith said he looked as good as ever, including when he ran vertical routes.
Look for the Falcons to stick with the run-first philosophy again in 2009. But, with Tony Gonzalez and a proven Matt Ryan, boy do they have options.
(On a very unrelated and completely unsubstantiated note, as a Georgia guy, I would love to see the Falcons try a Wildcat formation with DJ Shockley)