The Atlanta Falcons are the latest NFL team to hog the spotlight during training camp in the 2014 edition of HBO's Hard Knocks television show. Tuesday marked the first episode of the season, with plenty of notable storylines and nice moments to kick things off on the reality program.
NFL Network's Andrew Siciliano summed up what makes this annual series unique:
A suitable mix of practice-field footage, behind-the-scenes looks at what goes on inside the team facilities and candid sound from players and coaches made for a compelling opening episode, as Shaun O'Hara of NFL Network alluded to:
The team's official Twitter account suggested that the Falcons approved:
One particular area the Falcons have focused on this year is establishing toughness, tempo and competitiveness. Owner Arthur Blank expressed concern during their 2013 season opener, in which star quarterback Matt Ryan was hit late on a slide, and no teammates came to his aid.
Going from the NFC title game to a 4-12 record means significant changes have to be made in Atlanta. Head coach Mike Smith appears intent on implementing them, as he raised the intensity level with the Oklahoma drill, where two linemen battle it out with a ball-carrier.
That was just one highlight, along with an enthusiastic Friday-evening scrimmage that offered some intriguing subplots that will be interesting to monitor moving forward. Let's take a look at some of the key developments that transpired.
Kroy Biermann and Jake Matthews Mix It Up
It's hard to blame defensive end Kroy Biermann for getting back after it, since he missed all but two games last season with a torn Achilles. But one of the most explosive moments toward the beginning of the episode was when Biermann faced off against the team's No. 6 overall draft pick, offensive tackle Jake Matthews.
Whether it was rust on Biermann's part or an extremely positive sign on Matthews' end, Biermann was dominated by the rookie and couldn't get around the former Texas A&M All-American.
Bleacher Report's Will Carroll weighed in on the battle in the trenches:
Biermann began to get physical with Matthews after getting stood up, and then the two exchanged blows, with the veteran conveying impassioned animosity. It was quite the start to the first day of camp, and coach Smith implied in private that he was pleased the two were mixing it up for competition's sake.
That is something the coaching staff is emphasizing, with assistant Mike Tice being a particular advocate for a more physical identity.
Rookie Linebacker Jacques Smith Causes Stir
In that vein, undrafted free agent Jacques Smith, who hails from the University of Tennessee, drew the ire of several Atlanta players with his practice antics. Smith had to have known he'd be prominently featured based on this tweet beforehand:
ESPN's Bomani Jones feels like Smith fits the toughness paradigm the Falcons are promoting and thus deserves to make the team:
Jay Adams of AtlantaFalcons.com took notice of the acclaim Smith received for his refusal to back down no matter who was coming after him:
Getting under the veterans' skin may not be the best way for Smith to integrate himself in the locker room, but as long as he's producing actual results, Atlanta should keep him around.
The Falcons' official website lists Smith at 6'2" and 258 pounds. That is immense size for a player of his position, and he was moving around well enough at practice to hint he has the NFL athleticism to match. Smith is an unheralded player to watch due to his SEC experience and the chip on his shoulder after being passed over in the draft.
Peria Jerry Informs Falcons He Will Retire
Although the news was announced last week, there was a palpable surprise behind the scenes within the Falcons organization when Peria Jerry elected to walk away from the game.
Numerous injuries prevented the 2009 first-round pick from making a big impact in the pros, but coach Smith was still in relative disbelief when Jerry came to him and declared his intentions.
Terez A. Paylor of The Kansas City Star weighed in on the conversation Jerry had with Smith in his office:
CBS Sports' Josh Katzowitz brought up a valid point concerning the Jerry-Smith exchange:
The hope is that Jerry figures out what he can do outside of football. At age 29, he may have made the proper decision with regard to his physical well-being. However, it's vital that Jerry has something else lined up to look forward to now that his days on the gridiron are finished.
Walking away from a rather stable organization was a bold move, especially considering the Falcons re-signed Jerry this offseason. That will put more pressure on second-round pick Ra'Shede Hageman to fill the defensive void created by Jerry's absence and contribute right away.
Lighter Moments and Overall Outlook
The preview for next week's edition promised that coach Smith was going to eliminate some of the chippy plays from practice while keeping the intensity high, preventing any fights from breaking out in the process.
In such a competitive NFC South division, it's going to take a big leap for this Atlanta team to acquire the toughness required to get back to a competitive level. Players returning from injury will definitely help, but Smith must be careful to press the right buttons without pushing the Falcons over the edge.
Smith did keep it light in the team meetings at times, though, showing that he deserves his reputation as a player's coach. A "before and after" photo segment drew plenty of laughs, along with forcing the rookies to sing a song in front of the entire team.
Wide receiver Harry Douglas also revealed a humorous secret of his—pun intended—per Trevor Sikkema of RoadToRadioCity.com:
Even though aging running back Steven Jackson is missing camp time dealing with an injury, he still gave an inspiring speech to his fellow ball-carriers before practice toward the beginning of the show. Bleacher Report's Aaron Nagler was impressed, as was MMQB.com's Peter King:
Jackson emphasized that it's going to take a collective effort for the Falcons to turn things around. They need to help each other instead of counting on each individual to figure out how to correct mistakes on his own.
Team unity is something Atlanta must establish in this training camp. A more ardent approach figures to help the players build mutual respect for each other, but it must be a collaborative effort to bounce back from a woeful 2013 campaign.
The banged up but magnificent receiving duo of talkative Roddy White and freak athlete Julio Jones looked to be in full force based on the Hard Knocks footage. That's good news for Ryan and the offense, as is Matthews holding his own against Biermann, because the Falcons need an upgrade to control both sides of the line of scrimmage better than they did a year ago.
Signs of progress and a potential bounce-back season are too bold to forecast at this early stage.
However, a tougher mindset, a heightened sense of urgency on the practice field and the sheer talent and explosiveness on offense suggest a strong camp is in the cards. Whether the Falcons can mesh once the real games start remains to be seen, which is why Hard Knocks will be worth tuning in to as the regular season approaches.