2009 Season: Falcons Success Contingent On Defense, Tough Schedule

Abraham BaldwinContributor IMay 14, 2009

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 03:  Quarterback Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons celebrates after Michael Turner (not pictured) scored a rushing touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals during the second quarter of the NFC Wild Card Game on January 3, 2009 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

Prior to the start of last season, the conventional wisdom around the league regarding the future of the Atlanta Falcons was things would get worse before they got better. Reeling from the dastardly resignation of Bobby Petrino and a woeful season, football experts didn’t expect the Falcons to amount to much, if anything.

In fact, the ESPN “experts” were unanimous in their prediction that Atlanta would finish last in the division. According to ESPN writer John Clayton, the Falcons didn’t “have enough good players to get out of the cellar.” Fortunately, games are played on the field and not in columns.

Misguided predictions aside, the Falcons won 11 games and earned a berth to the playoffs. Atlanta was led by rookie head coach Mike Smith, who narrowly won Coach of the Year honors, and rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, who become the first Falcons quarterback and the second rookie quarterback in NFL history to amass over 3,000 passing yards. What’s more, Ryan became the third quarterback to be named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.

For all intents and purposes, the Falcons basically snuck up on the league last year. Yet, this season the Falcons won’t have the luxury of the element of surprise.

For starters, in terms of strength of schedule, the Falcons have the fourth toughest schedule, which includes road games at New England, Dallas and New York (Giants).

This off-season saw the departure of veterans Lawyer Milloy, Keith Brooking, Grady Jackson, Dominique Foxworth and Wayne Gandy. The Falcons also traded wide receiver Laurent Robinson to the St. Louis Rams.

On the flip side, the Falcons traded for tight end (and future Hall of Famer) Tony Gonzalez, signed linebacker Mike Peterson, running back Verron Haynes and re-signed defensive end Chauncey Davis. In the draft, the Falcons mainly focused on filling defensive holes, which included drafting Mississippi defensive tackle Peria Jerry in the first round and Missouri safety William Moore in the second round.

The Falcons managed to keep their offensive unit intact, but the fate of the Falcons this season will depend largely on a young defense, where five of the 11 starters were drafted within the past three seasons. While it’s hard to make any substantive predictions, one is safe to assume that based on a tougher schedule and a fledgling defense, the Falcons will be hard-pressed in building on the success of last season.

As President Lincoln once stated, “The best thing about the future is that it only comes one day at a time.” Or, in Atlanta’s case, one game at a time.