To the naked eye, the 2013-14 Atlanta Falcons (preceding the season) had little resemblance to a squad that would finish with a 4-12 record. Fronted by one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL in Matt Ryan, while being supported by the pass-catching trio of Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White and Julio Jones, the Falcons looked to be on a fast track to procuring the Lombardi Trophy.
And when you factored in the addition of star veteran running back Steven Jackson, it looked as though Atlanta was a shoo-in to win on offense alone.
Today's NFL is centered on the line of scrimmage. Passing the ball almost 70 percent of the time is a recipe for disaster, especially behind a suspect offensive line, as the Falcons found out this season.
For teams to truly have a shot: It must be able to both run and stop the run primarily—which is referred to as "football character." If Atlanta is able to reach back into the recent past and re-establish its football character, which at one point it was virtually peerless with; it will be a swift turnaround for the Red and Black.
But with plenty of cap space and room to create a lot more, it should make for a very interesting offseason out in Flowery Branch. Let's take a look at some of the toughest decisions the Falcons' brass will have to make this offseason.
When the Falcons' current regime began operation in 2008, the local media adopted the term "the Patriot way" to describe how the Falcons would deal in football endeavors. This term refers to how the uber-successful New England Patriots operate on a daily basis.
Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff was afforded the Atlanta opportunity due to his time spent under Patriots coach Bill Belichick (with both the Cleveland Browns and in New England). Belichick is the master at making decisions that are to the betterment of the franchise despite how much vitriol he'd potentially receive from fans and pundits alike.
Going into the most crucial offseason in recent memory, Dimitroff has a prime opportunity to channel his inner Belichick. Veterans like Asante Samuel (corner) and Osi Umenyiora (defensive end) would be no-brainers to be jettisoned by New England.
In fact, Samuel was allowed to leave New England in his prime by Belichick in 2008. For Dimitroff to fully evolve the culture in Atlanta, underachieving players like Thomas DeCoud (safety) and Kroy Biermann (linebacker) also need to receive the proverbial pink slip—despite their popularity among the fan base.
A great GM could find more cost-effective players who can replicate the mediocre production players of that ilk generate. Better yet, they can find players who can produce at a high level and can contribute to the re-establishment of this great franchise.
Holding onto busts and malcontents like Jamaal Anderson and Ray Edwards is something you'd rarely see the Patriots do. Dimitroff needs to make sure these average players don't end up having a longer tenure than he does...
Once Dimitroff makes those tough decisions regarding those underachieving veterans, he then has to make possibly the toughest draft selection of his tenure. The Falcons fortunately, or unfortunately (depending on your perspective), hold the sixth-overall pick in the forthcoming draft.
By most accounts, there will be game-changing players available on both sides of the ball by the time the Falcons are up to bat. Some are clamoring for Atlanta to attempt to shore up its offensive line woes. A great deal of pundits, including yours truly, believe the Falcons should bolster their atrocious pass rush.
Texas A&M left tackle Jake Matthews and South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney are two players that would look great in a Falcons uniform. But both could certainly be long gone by the time the sixth pick rolls around, according to ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. (subscription required).
The selection could very well be between outside linebackers Anthony Barr (UCLA) and Khalil Mack (Buffalo), two players that are scheme-specific fits in the Falcons' multiple-scheme outfit. Both are physical, explosive and extremely athletic.
There's little doubt that either will eventually make a significant impact in the NFL. But there's no substitute for competition in sports.
While Mack looks extremely dominant, we must take into account that the majority of his competition will be selling insurance after their college careers are done (hopefully they can save me 15 percent on my car insurance).
Barr, on the other hand, is playing against prime competition and generating superb production in the process. That's not to say that Mack won't earn his keep in the NFL, it's merely to shed light on an aspect that should always be seriously weighted by scouts.
Good luck Dimitroff.
The NFL's final four remaining teams all have something in common: They have the ability to control the game by running the ball. In a league that's widely considered pass-centric, the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos and Patriots are four of the best rushing outfits in the NFL.
San Francisco (third), Seattle (fourth) and New England (ninth) are all in the top 10 in rushing yards, while the Broncos average 4.1 yards per rush—and sit 11th in total attempts, as for the Falcons...not so much.
Atlanta used to be one of roughest, toughest teams around. Now it may be the softest team in the entire league. It's certainly the softest of the most talented teams. According to teamrankings.com, the Falcons passed the ball close to 69 percent of the time!
The only team that made the playoffs that was remotely close to having that lopsided of a ratio was the New Orleans Saints (62.7 percent). Who would've thought there would be a time when the Falcons were softer than the Saints?
Atlanta wanting to be like the Saints, in terms of explosiveness, may end up being the undoing of the current regime. If Atlanta would've stayed the course, it would've made sure both the offensive and defensive lines remained at a championship level rather than trying to rely solely on skill players.
Moving forward, it's imperative for the Falcons to revamp the offensive line and find a back that is capable of taking over if the pass game is not getting the job done. The Falcons used to be able to win off game-specific plans.
Depending on what aspect you were deficient or proficient in, they had the ability to exploit it. As they are presently constructed, they have to throw and pray.
That's not Falcons football.
By operating out of a 4-3-based alignment, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has deviated from what made him successful. In previous duties, both as a head coach and a defensive coordinator, Nolan's defenses operated out the 3-4.
While most think rotating schemes, and being multiple, is the way to go, there's a lot to be said for scheme-specific fits and continuity. Going back and forth between alignments can trick an offense, but it can also trick the players executing it.
The 49ers defense, which Nolan had a hand in constructing as he was the head coach from 2005-08, has been successful, most in part, due to its ability to execute to virtual perfection. It's not an outfit that tries to disguise schemes or blitzes; it just lines up and stops you.
Having potential Hall of Fame players all throughout the unit doesn't hurt, but putting those players in constant positions to succeed only adds to their effectiveness. It's time for Nolan to add scheme-specific parts to his defense which would simplify the scheme, while allowing players to play faster.
There were too many times where players were out of position trying to execute an exotic blitz, or cover a player they had no chance in doing so (e.g. Thomas DeCoud). If Nolan can revert back to a 3-4, the Falcons will have an excellent chance at righting the ship in a rapid manner.
He just needs the personnel.
With the Falcons having plenty of cap space, according to overthecap.com, finding resources to acquire players for a personnel revamp shouldn't be an issue. In addition, making a few of those tough decisions would provide even more cap relief to go after proven veterans.
Many fans don't have confidence in Dimitroff's ability to acquire free agents, due to misses like Edwards, Umenyiora and even running back Steven Jackson—to a certain extent. But as the old adage goes: If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.
The quality of free agents available works right into the Falcons' needs. With the offensive line full of average to below-average talent, Oakland Raiders tackle Jared Veldheer or Baltimore Ravens tackle Eugene Monroe could change the outlook immediately.
Additionally, an interior lineman like Alex Mack (Cleveland Browns) would go a long way in solidifying the unit. On the defensive side of the ball, nose tackles Jerrell Powe (Kansas City Chiefs) and Shaun Rogers (New York Giants) would allow the Falcons to fully commit to an odd-front alignment.
In the secondary, safety Jairus Byrd would give Atlanta the cover safety it needs to effectively execute its blitz packages, while a corner like Richard Marshall (San Diego Chargers) could give the Falcons a more effective option at the nickel slot.
The decisions are plentiful, which means the opportunity to compete next season will be as well. The Falcons' brass is entering its most important offseason to date, which is both exciting and scary for all parties involved.
After covering the rival New Orleans Saints for the 2013-14 season, Atlanta native Murf Baldwin returns home to cover his hometown team in 2014. Follow Murf on Twitter and welcome him home.
Follow @ MurfBaldwin