As an Atlanta Falcons fan, I'm still basking in the glow of our 11-5 season in 2008. Unless you've followed a team that has never been able to put together consecutive winning seasons in their history and is still recovering from the incarceration of their superstar, you may not know how sweet '08 was for us Dirty Bird faithful.
Right now, when people approach me with questions about the Falcs' next season, I practically burst with optimism. I'm ready to just soak in some more success and repeat the mantra "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" over and over again.
And maybe I can, but as for the club itself, that's a no-can-do. Opponents are going to be better prepared for the Birds this year; there will be no sneaking up on teams. New acquisitions will take some working in, no matter what pedigree they're coming in with. And despite all the steps forward taken this past campaign, we must continue to develop all parts of the roster and remain vigilant to prevent regression.
What adjustments do I see my hometown team making to keep the feeling alive? Read on for the most noticeable changes I see occurring in 2009.
Addition of Tony Gonzalez: The New Dimension
You got tired of hearing it last fall, and if you read my Falcons pieces with any regularity, you're no doubt sick of me saying it: All our O needed was a tight end to become dominant.
Boy, do we have a tight end now. In case you've been in a cave, let me update you: Tony Gonzalez has escaped from NFL purgatory and joined a suddenly potent Falcons attack.
And while I'm generally sunny when regarding the trade that got us the 12-year vet, I'm willing to recognize that simply putting a pass-catching machine on the field doesn't necessary result in receptions.
So what specifically will happen to accommodate both Ton and the club?
Gonzalez will become the main target for Matt Ryan, but he will have to realize (as will the entire team) that Michael Turner's ground work is just as important to the offense, if not more. The good news for Tony here is that Roddy White truly emerged last season and will create plenty of space.
Of course, both will hope that Harry Douglas improves even more. That will keep defenses honest on every down.
Personally, I think the greatest thing about this move is that Tony allows the Falcons to finally run legitimate two-tight end sets. The former Chief complements incumbent Ben Harstock rather well; Gonzalez is a solid blocker but a better receiver, while Harstock has always specialized in setting others up with his blocking.
So there's one new look for the offense.
Further Development of White, Jenkins, and Douglas: Reaping the Receivers
Thank you, Roddy, for coming through. Hotlanta wasn't sure you were going to live up to your first-round pick status, but with your kickass, Pro Bowl, record-breaking 2008, you made us all eat our words.
Now, pass along the secret to success to Michael and Harry.
That's not to say Jenkins and Douglas were total slouches last year; the 50 receptions of the former and three TD (one receiving, one rushing, and one returning) of the latter were much appreciated. But I for one long for greater balance.
Had you said last year that we were going to run a three-wide set, I would have told you we must be in a pretty desperate situation. It's not that I don't trust these guys; it's just that the run game was always the focus, and though Ryan performed beyond his years in pressure situations, we did lose all five games in which he had to throw 30 or more times.
In 2009, I want to have more confidence when the team fills the field with receivers, and I think the coaches want this too; for this reason, I expect to see them run more three-plus receiver sets to help build up experience. Having multiple deep threats is just the next logical step, seeing as how the team picked up their over-the-top target in Gonzalez.
Plus, being able to put that many receivers on at once would add another look to the O.
Substituting Mike Peterson for Brooking and Boley: Adjustments for All
If you really want to rain on my Falcons parade, you can always mention to me the losses of linebackers Keith Brooking and Michael Boley. Those two were of high quality and had repped the team for some time.
But even if you manage to depress me for a moment, I'll probably soon bounce back when I remember our pickup of Peterson. No, I'm not deluded enough to believe that one man will replace two, but getting excited about acquiring the leader of a tough Jacksonville D isn't hard to do.
His 84 total tackles falls between Brooking's 102 and Boley's 70 from last season, but his sack count was infinitely higher than both of the ex-Birds' combined.
OK, so he got one to their goose eggs, but that stat illuminates the point I really want to make: Peterson plays the 'backer position a different way than both of the departures, and his unique methods fit our overall scheme well, perhaps even better than Brooking's and Boley's styles.
Mike is aggressive as hell, and he could therefore perhaps make a decent end with greater size. He plays the midfield and line tougher than the old fellas, and that's not saying they're soft.
I'm simply trying to explain that Peterson will stuff your runners and create havoc at close to the line before he'll drop into coverage.
Yes, that will shift greater pressure to the other linebackers and the secondary in passing situations, but they're ready for it. Do I need to remind you that Erik Coleman led the team in solo tackles last season, that Chris Houston made major strides, and that one of the other projected Falcons linebackers, Coy Wire, is himself a former defensive back?
That's what makes Peterson a good match for the Falcons D: He shifts the responsibilities, but he allows each individual to play to his strengths.
Other teams will be better prepared for Atlanta this season; the Birds will not benefit from being underestimated in 2009 the way they did in '08. And, yes, the schedule difficulty has dramatically increased.
But leave it to me to find the silver lining—I see the Birds making these changes and getting better for it.