The 2008 season for the Atlanta Falcons far exceeded most predictions, but the expectations for 2009 are even greater.
The young team will try to accomplish something never done before in franchise history, which is to post winning records in consecutive seasons.
Consistency has eluded the Falcons since their inception in 1966. Winning is not something new for Atlanta, but winning every year is, and this year's team hopes to accomplish just that.
Some factors in the NFL can be controlled to some degree, like roster moves or free agent signings. Other things like youth and inexperience or the schedule can't be controlled. In 2009 both of the previous detractors could be formidable obstacles for the Falcons to overcome.
The 2009 outlook for the Atlanta Falcons could be bright if a few things fall into place, and the youth movement instituted by General Manager Thomas Dimitroff and Head Coach Mike Smith takes shape. Breaking down the key elements of the Falcons and their 2009 season should go like this:
The Falcons enter 2009 with a strong young nucleus of talent and enough veteran leadership to push the league leaders in most statistical categories.
Matt Ryan comes off of a stellar rookie season in which his production, leadership and game management all exceeded what most pundits predicted. Ryan finished the year ranked 13th in the league overall for Quarterbacks, posting an impressive 87.2 passer rating while completing 61% of his passes.
Running back Michael Turner and the rest of the Falcons running game contributors made last year's offensive unit a very balanced one. Turner finished the season second in rushing with 1699 yards.
Roddy White continued his development as a wide receiver, hauling in 88 receptions. White was second in receiving yards with 1382 yards and a 15.7 yards per catch average.
The Falcons traded for future Hall of Fame Tight End Tony Gonzalez, which should add even more punch to an already strong offensive unit. Falcons QB Ryan will have the big safety blanket receiver at TE that many NFL franchises covet for emerging passers.
Overall, the Falcons offense will be a strength for this young team, and will push for the league lead in most statistical categories.
The Falcons defense was strong at times in 2008, and enjoyed relative success during last year's campaign. There were moments last season when the Falcons seemed to shut down opponents at will, and others when the defense looked old and slow.
General Manager Thomas Dimitroff addressed the age and speed of the defense during the off-season, opting to re-build around youth.
Several key veteran contributors from 2008 were not retained for 2009, including fan favorite, Line Backer Keith Brooking. Others who are not returning to the Falcons D include DT Grady Jackson, DB Lawyer Milloy and LB Michael Boley.
The Falcons drafted heavily for defense this year, selecting all but one of their total draft choices on the defensive side of the ball. The youth movement on defense begins in Atlanta in '09, and may be the key to how well the team fares this season.
With many veteran leaders gone from the 2008 roster, especially on defense, the Falcons went into the draft looking to fill many holes on the roster. The only big-splash draftee chosen by the Falcons seemed to be in first round selection Peria Jerry. The big defensive tackle from Ole Miss should more than fill the void left by run-stopper supreme, Grady Jackson.
In round two, the Falcons continued to address needs on defense, selecting hard-hitting Safety, William Moore from Missouri. Moore saw more than his share of footballs in the air during his senior season at Mizzou, he and the Tigers competed in the pass-happy Big XII.
Overall, many analysts rated the Falcons 2009 draft as a B or B+ which should mean that the additions on defense need only time to acclimate to NFL speed before contributing on a regular basis.
The 2009 schedule for the Atlanta Falcons is considered by some to be among the toughest in the league. This may prove to be the make-or-break factor for Atlanta in 2009.
The Falcons have never posted back to back winning seasons, their defense is going to be young and inexperienced, and Matt Ryan will try to avoid the sophomore slump that comes to most second year quarterbacks.
The 2009 schedule includes games against the AFC East, which as a division had but one team that did not post a winning record. Buffalo came in at 7-9, and with a few breaks, could have landed in the playoffs themselves.
In the NFC South in 2008, there were no teams with losing records.New Orleans came in at 8-8 and Tampa Bay posted a 9-7 record. A strong divisional schedule will test the metal of the young Falcons team.
If things take shape for the Falcons in 2009, they should post consecutive winning seasons for the first time in franchise history. Even though the Falcons will be young on defense, and playing a brutal schedule, the outlook for the upcoming term still looks bright.
Consistency is something that any professional sports franchise hopes to achieve. Winning consistently is even more paramount.
As the Falcons head into another season, they hope to establish a winning tradition in Atlanta, one that will carry them through the 2009 season and beyond.