So after the Atlanta Falcons' surprising run to an 11-5 record last season, the inevitable talk began: "Could this be the season the Falcons have back-to-back winning seasons for the first time ever?"
When you think about it, it's kind of a staggering problem, even for a franchise that hasn't been around very long. But with a loaded offense featuring Matt Ryan, Roddy White (we hope), Michael Turner, Tony Gonzalez, Jerious Norwood and others, plus a solid if unspectacular defense, the Falcons look like the might actually be ready to pull this off.
Haven't we been down this road before? What about 1991? Or 1998? Or 2004?
Well sure, all those teams were good, and the follow-ups failed miserably. So, if you're a relatively young Falcon fan, you might be regarding this season with the same sort of outlook.
I'm here to say the following:
Oh, I don't mean "don't worry about this season." Atlanta's schedule is brutal, they have a young quarterback, a running back who's coming off his first season, and well, the defense isn't much to write home about.
I just mean, don't use 1991, 1998 or 2004 as your guidelines for worry. Atlanta is not a cursed franchise. They just haven't been very good. And those three teams were, by and large, flukes.
Now, before I get a slew of hate, let me tell you: That's a good thing. Because these teams were flukes, next season's failure shouldn't have been a big surprise. And since the current team isn't anything like those teams, you shouldn't be worried. Let's go through the 1991, 1994 and 1998 teams, see how they succeeded, and how that's different from this year's Falcons.
1991: I'd Rather Be Lucky than Good
The 1991 Falcons were a truly lucky team. They went 10-6, and probably should have finished something closer to 7-9. Why?
Well, first, there was what was probably the most memorable win in recent Falcons history. Billy Joe Tolliver hit Michael Haynes with a Hail Mary pass as time expired to stun the Niners, 17-14
Next, it was a fourth quarter rally from 20-10 down in New Orleans to win in overtime, 23-20.
Finally, it was a 21-point fourth quarter against the Packers, aided by a touchdown on a fumbled kick return and a blown punt snap. Chris Miller hit Andre Rison with 41 seconds to go.
Now I know every team has fluke victories. But Hail Marys and fumbled punt snaps are the epitome of luck. Atlanta was a deeply flawed team that year. Leading rusher Steve Broussard had less than 500 yards rushing, making Atlanta one-dimensional. They also had a very brittle starting quarterback, Chris Miller.
Defensively, the team survived by getting turnovers—35, to be exact—but allowed many points and yards as well.
So what happened the next season? Miller got hurt, playing in only eight games, the running game was awful—team leader Broussard ran for 363 yards, and the team scored three rushing touchdowns all season. The defense secured a dozen fewer turnovers, but still allowed a staggering amount of points (414) and the team went 6-10.
Why this team isn't that team:
The main reason: This team has a running game. Michael Turner ran for 1,700 yards last season, and Jerious Norwood chipped in with close to 500 more. One-dimensional teams are easy to stop, and this team won't be.
Additionally, this team figures have its quarterback the whole season. I know, injuries are odd things, but Chris Miller was always hurt. He made only 92 appearances in 10 seasons in the league.
A strong running game and healthy quarterback are likely to keep this squad from suffering the same fate as the 1992 team.
1998: The Magical Season
The greatest Falcons team of them all, Dan Reeves' club went 14-2, stunned the Vikings in the NFC title game and made it all the way to the Super Bowl. They had the conference's leading rusher, Jamal Anderson, a capable veteran quarterback in Chris Chandler, and they led the league in turnover differential.
So what happened?
Anderson blew his knee out after 19 carries. With no running game to speak of—Byron Hanspard and Ken Oxendine averaged only 3.0 yards per carry—the offense turned stagnate. Chandler missed four games due to injury.
The schedule was merciless. The Falcons played all four eventual conference championship participants—going 0-5 in the process.
Why this team isn't that team
Chandler was another quarterback who was always hurt, and the team lacked capable depth at the running back position. They also lacked depth at wide receiver, as Tony Martin left following the 1998 season. Fullback Bob Christian was second on the team with 40 catches. Terrance Mathis was 32 at the time and more suited to be a number two wideout than the main option
This year's team has more depth at running back, as Norwood is worlds better than Hanspard, and will be in moderately capable hands should Turner go down. Assuming Roddy White's holdout doesn't affect the team, the wide receiver corps may be the deepest it's ever been, and the team has a great tight end in Tony Gonzalez. O.J. Santiago, Atlanta's tight end in 1999, proved to be only a one-year wonder.
2004: Vick runs the Falcons into the playoffs
The 2004 Falcons were led by the electric Michael Vick, who ran for over 900 yards and teamed with Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett to be the league's most dangerous rushing attack. The Falcons went 6-2 in games decided by seven points or less.
Next year's team wasn't so lucky. Despite starting 6-2, Atlanta faded down the stretch, going 2-6 to end the season, including a 44-11 embarrassment at home to end the season. They went 3-4 in games decided by seven points or less. Vick continued to be a better athlete than quarterback, completing only 55% of his passes and throwing only 15 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
Why this team isn't like that team
To start with, Ryan's a better quarterback than Vick. I know Vick was a tremendous athlete, and he made other teams game plan for him, but he simply could not make the needed throws to be a top-flight quarterback.
The wide receiver are the same in name, but Roddy White and Michael Jenkins are much better now than they were back in 2004.
Finally, though, I normally hate things like this, I think this year's team is mentally tougher. They've got a balanced offense that doesn't rely on one player to get the job done. They've got a coach who won't drop to his knees in shock when a pass is dropped. They're the kind of team that can rebound from losses—going 5-0 following a loss last year—which should help them avoid the late season swoon that killed the 2005 squad.
So that's it. No need to despair, Falcon fans. The ghosts of seasons past won't be coming around this season.