Now that the bar has been raised by the Falcons based on their performance last year, it's up to the coaching staff to keep the players motivated and hungry. Last year is gone.
The 2009 season is full of promise, but with all the hype, the coaching staff not only has to coach the players, but come up with innovative ways to cover up weaknesses, get the young players on the field, and get the team closer to the Super Bowl.
It's a tall task, but this staff is up to it, especially their key assistants.
Brian VanGorder is the defensive coordinator and has the task of improving their performance against the run, as well as making them more attack-oriented. VanGorder has the pedigree to make this unit special.
He's got 25 years coaching experience, and from 2001-2004 he was the defensive coordinator for the the Georgia Bulldogs in the SEC. In 2003, he received the Frank Broyles "Assistant Coach of the Year" award.
In his last season with Georgia, they finished 10-2 and had the eighth-ranked defense in the country. In 2003 VanGorder's unit finished 4th in total defense. This was not easy to do in arguably the best conference in the country.
In 2005, VanGorderwas the linebackersers coach at Jacksonville under Mike Smith, and the Jaguar defense was ranked sixth in total defense that year. He knows what Smith wants from his defense, and they have worked well together in the past.
That's important, because if your coaches have different philosophies on how to get things done, that could lead to friction on the staff, and the players pick up on that.
VanGorder joined the Falcons in 2007 as the linebackers coach, and prior to that he was the head coach at Georgia Southern in 2006.
His success with a revamped defense will go a long way toward how the Falcons do as a whole. It doesn't matter if you have a prolific offense if you can't get your defense off the field.
Under Mulakey's tutelage, Kordel Stewart had a career year and made the Pro Bowl. In his first two years as offensive coordinator, Pittsburgh's offensive finished in the top five.
He even turned a journeyman quarterback who hadn't played in five years, Tommy Maddox, into an efficient and dangerous signal caller, as he threw for almost 3,000 yards in 2002.
If Mularkey can turn Stewart and Maddox into successful quarterbacks, there is no doubt he can help Matt Ryan get to the next level. Mularkey's work as a tight ends coach is well chronicled as well.
He helped Mark Bruener of the Steelers become one of the best run-blocking tight-ends in the league, and he helped Jackie Harris of the 49ers lead the team in receptions (62) in 1995.
It is scary when you put one of the best coordinators in the league with a gifted quarterback, a hall of fame tight-end, and a Pro Bowl running back. The Falcon offense should be good enough to make up for any defensive short-comings and be very special in 2009.
Much of the success the Falcons will have on offensive hinges on how their line performs. The offensive line coach, Paul Boudreau, has 21 years of coaching experience and has coached lines that have led the way for four 10,000-yard rushers.
From 2006-2007, Boudreau was the offensive line coach for the Rams, and previous to that he was the line coach for Jacksonville. In 2003, the Jaguars set a franchise record for fewest sacks allowed.
He has spent two years as the line coach for Carolina and New England (1997-1998). He got his start in the league with the New Orleans Saints (1987-1993), and his group placed in the top three in fewest sacks allowed on four occasions.
Atlanta's offensive line had a banner year in 2008 under Boudreau's leadership. If they can protect Ryan and continue to open holes for Michael Turner, the sky's the limit.
Mike Smith's choice for special teams coach was 14-year veteran Keith Armstrong. He came over from Miami in 2008 after helping Ted Ginn finish fourth in the AFC in punt returns.
From 2001-2006, the Dolphins finished in the top eight in punt return defense all but one year, and in 2001, they led the league in that category.
This is Armstrong's second stint with Atlanta. He was the safety's coach back in 1994. He also coached in college at Temple, where he played, and coached defensive backs and special teams at Miami. Oklahoma State and Notre Dame are on his coaching resume as well.
Atlanta's special teams are in good hands with Keith Armstrong.
Emmit Thomas is the assistant head coach and the secondary coach. His wealth of knowledge from his playing days and coaching knowledge make him an extremely important part of the staff.
He has worked with the secondary and shined, even when they were banged up and he had to be innovative because of injuries in 2006, when the Falcon defense was ranked fifth in the NFC.
Thomas first started guiding the secondary in 2002 for Atlanta, when they finished tied for third with 24 interceptions.
In his 42 years of playing and coaching, he has a total of three Super Bowl rings—two as an assistant coach, and one as a player. Prior to his coming to Atlanta, Thomas was the defensive coordinator at Minnesota (2000-2001).
If the front seven can control things up front, they should be fine. Right now, the defensive backfield is the weakest part of the defense, as there is turnover, and almost every position is up for grabs.
The Falcons have the right man to get the defensive backs coached up and ready to surpass expectations.
Mike Smith has a top-flight coaching staff that he is working with, and they are all a perfect fit. That is why I believe they are on the right track to being good for a long time. If the previously mentioned coaches do what they have shown they can do already, all will be well in Falcon land.