The series finale of HBO's Hard Knocks starring the Atlanta Falcons began with a theme that has permeated the team's training camp.
To his credit, volatile and confrontational rookie linebacker Jacques Smith flashed in training camp as an undrafted free agent, but was ejected from the Falcons' third preseason game against the Tennessee Titans.
Smith sat down with a one-on-one chat with coach Mike Smith to address his conduct, which he called out of character. Dan Mathews of Score Atlanta came to Jacques Smith's defense, and his initiative to sit down with the coach reflected Mathews' assessment:
Dan Mathews @DanMathewsATL
Jacques Smith is a very good guy.., obviously emotional on the field. But great guy. Shook everyone's hand in interview room at #SECMD132014-9-3 02:04:15
The young linebacker later apologized in front of the entire team during Tuesday's fifth and final episode, which D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution appreciated:
D. Orlando Ledbetter @DOrlandoAJC
Jacques Smith is a stand up guy!2014-9-3 02:11:05
Atlanta has been trying to establish a more physical identity leading to the regular season, yet the footage has shown players letting their tempers boil over too far.
In the final preparations for Week 1 and with massive roster cuts looming, the Falcons were bound to bring plenty of entertainment to the last edition of the show.
Here is a look at the top moments from the thrilling conclusion to this season of Hard Knocks.
Matt Ryan Takes Receivers to School
One noticeable trend during Hard Knocks has been Ryan's ability to guide players. Be it getting on rookie Jeff Mathews for an uninspiring cadence or shouting receivers into place, Matty Ice has taken it upon himself to carry the Falcons in 2014.
The team's official Twitter account was pleased with Ryan's leadership:
Atlanta Falcons @AtlantaFalcons
Matt Ryan. A Leader. #OurQB #HardKnocks2014-9-3 02:04:46
AtlantaFalcons.com's Jay Adams also praised Ryan for taking charge of the team:
Jay Adams @JayAdamsSocial
Biggest thing I take from #HardKnocks: The scope and depth of leadership Matt Ryan shows on a daily basis.2014-9-3 02:05:28
There were only minutes available for the impromptu meeting, yet Ryan did all he could to make sure he and his receivers were on the same page. That bodes well for Ryan, who didn't have much of a defense, was missing an injured Jones and had no running game for much of 2013.
Instead of pointing to those as excuses, Ryan is on the same page as coach Smith and the rest of the staff. This is a clean slate in 2014, and the team is pressing onward, eager to redefine its identity and reascend to the NFL's elite.
T.J. Yates Steps Up in Preseason Finale
A perilous preseason preceded Yates' sensational performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Picking up a new offense for the first time in his career, Yates struggled to adapt at first. Then he broke out in a big way.
The team's Vice President of Football Communications Reggie Roberts highlighted how strong Yates was in the first half:
Reggie Roberts @reggierobertsPR
Halftime - Falcons 21, Jags 3 - QB T.J. Yates stats line for first half: 15 of 20 for 243 yards, 2 TDs with 0 INTs for 148.5 QB rating.2014-8-28 23:41:41
Ledbetter referenced the bomb Yates threw to Freddie Martino, who found his way to the practice squad:
D. Orlando Ledbetter @DOrlandoAJC
#Falcons QB T.J. Yates' TD pass to Freddie Martino was launched from their 27 and went to the Jags' 14 (59 yards in the air). #PlentyArm2014-8-28 23:30:42
There were plenty of battles to monitor during the game. Jacques Smith's quest to lock up the final linebacker spot on the roster was notable, as was the battle at defensive tackle between rookies Donte Rumph—owner of the "Cupcake" moniker—and Nosa Eguae. Neither of them made the team.
Yates was the clear headliner and separated himself as the proper backup, ahead of 2013 seventh-round pick Sean Renfree.
Final Cuts: Falcons Roster Trimmed to 53
It is a hard-knock life for many players who try to make their NFL dreams a reality. A multitude of hopeful Falcons got a call from scouting assistant Scott Sika, who told them to come to the team facility.
Veteran linebacker Pat Angerer, who has enjoyed tremendous production as a pro, found himself on the wrong end of cuts. Angerer was grateful to coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who were the only one of 32 teams to give him a shot at playing.
Angerer echoed that message on Twitter:
NFL Network's Ian Rapoport weighed in on Angerer's release before Hard Knocks aired how it went down:
Ian Rapoport @RapSheet
#Falcons are releasing LB Pat Angerer, I’m told. Also cut LB Yawin Smallwood, their 7th rounder. A bit surprising on Angerer, who is healthy2014-8-29 17:05:42
Going into the second day of final cuts, there were still 10 players the team needed to release.
Big-bodied former Boise State receiver Geraldo Boldewijn has definite upside, but he was shown earlier in the episode injuring his hamstring. The Falcons released him, though did reach an injury settlement with the man dubbed "Amsterdam."
Fifth-round pick Ricardo Allen was cut and relegated to the practice squad (h/t AtlantaFalcons.com), as was Jacques Smith. Both have been some of the biggest personalities on Hard Knocks, but Mike Smith reemphasized that the latter needed to keep his cool to keep progressing and eventually contribute on Sundays.
In a magnificent twist, coach Smith called rookie seventh-round pick Tyler Starr while he was on a walk with his fiancee. Smith informed Starr that he had made the team, which added a nice perspective on the other side of cut day's razor-sharp intensity.
Lighter Moments and Overall Outlook
Rookie second-round pick Ra'Shede Hageman decompressed with a massage, while another first-year defender in linebacker Prince Shembo treated his mother with some jewelry shopping.
Defensive line coach Bryan Cox sat down on his patio, displaying his penchant for cigars and positively assessed how he does at his job. Brian Linder of the Daytona Beach News-Journal, in addition to many others, have enjoyed Cox throughout Hard Knocks:
Brian Linder @SportsByBLinder
If they gave Bryan Cox his own football show on HBO, let him sit around and talk like he does on this show, I'd never miss it.2014-9-3 02:20:56
Jones led a card game during the closing credits, along with White and several other Falcons. The young star kept repeating the phrase, "That's how you play cards!"
Owner Arthur Blank stopped in to see progress on the Falcons' new stadium toward the beginning of episode five. It's an open-air stadium with a unique, retractable roof that encloses in a spiral-style maneuver.
The stadium has a sleek, modern look to it and is sure to attract plenty of fans—provided the team wins.
And that is the big question facing the Falcons at the moment. The preseason has been mostly uneven, and there are still areas that need to be addressed on the defensive side of the ball. Atlanta doesn't have a lot of depth, and will likely be improved, but not one of the top defenses in the NFL quite yet.
No matter how promising the offense looks and how well Ryan plays with a healthy Jones returning to the fold, Atlanta needs to see considerable improvement in other areas to recover from last year's 4-12 campaign.
With how important the quarterback position is, though, Ryan at least gives the Falcons a puncher's chance at a playoff spot. Even in what figures to be a tough NFC South division, Atlanta has enough offensive weapons to keep games close.