No Longer Punchless, Atlanta Falcons Could Be This Year's Biggest Surprise

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterAugust 8, 2014

Dale Zanine/USA Today

The nicest team in the NFL, with the nicest quarterback in the sport and the nicest head coach, opened up Hard Knocks with a brawl. 

One brawl in particular was between rookie offensive lineman Jake Matthews and defensive lineman Kroy Biermann. Punches were thrown. In fact, throughout Atlanta's camp, there have been a number of fights. The Biermann fight happened on the first day of camp.

"Hey Bier," quarterback Matt Ryan yelled, via Fox Sports. "Fight first day? First day? First day?"

Yep, first damn day.

This is a different camp than Falcons camps of the past. This is, in many ways, a different team than recent Falcons teams. This team is shaping up to be tougher than any has been under coach Mike Smith.

This is where the Falcons could be scary. If Smith is successful, and his insertion of a spine in a team that many across the league have recently viewed as physically and mentally soft does work, this Falcons team, so far under the radar they are cloaked, could shock the NFL.

No one is picking the Falcons. No one. Outside of Atlanta, at least. We talk Denver, Seattle, Green Bay, Chicago, San Diego, Indianapolis, Philly, Washington...hell, we talk even about the choking-ass Cowboys as having a chance at a title before the Falcons.

Some of that distrust is earned. Some around the NFL view the team as too mentally weak to make a serious Super Bowl run. Too soft. The fact Atlanta went 4-12 last year doesn't help with that perception.

To some, the Falcons are a sleek, dangerous machine during the regular season—front-runners. But when things get tough, they crumble.

"They didn't start soft," said former Falcons running back Jamal Anderson, now an NFL analyst, speaking of the Smith regime, "but they clearly got comfortable in the penthouse with two (Roddy/Julio) sports cars on the outside."

In other words, the Falcons did what many other organizations would: They rode their two receiving stars in Roddy White and Julio Jones. Yet Atlanta made the mistake of forgetting what makes a team truly imposing, and that's mental toughness. That's the biggest reason the Seahawks won the Super Bowl. They were tougher, in any way, than almost any team in football.

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 20:  Wide receiver Julio Jones #11 and wide receiver Roddy White #84 of the Atlanta Falcons celebrate after Jones catches a 20-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game at
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The Falcons themselves seem to acknowledge the team needs to toughen its backbone. The theme at camp this year has been "nothing will come easy." Fight for everything. 

"This year's training camp is night and day from last year with intensity," Anderson said. "Intent to be physical. And no vacations for a vet (Tony Gonzalez)."

No vacations for anyone. This is Camp Punch You in the Face.

You're also seeing the difference with Ryan. He looks, in many ways, like a new person.

"His demeanor has always been very Brady/Manning," Anderson said. "Appears like he's more of a leader on the field at camp."

There are times when the analysis of a quarterback's expressions and gestures are nonsense. Eli Manning has won two Super Bowls and sometimes looks like an extra from Dude, Where's My Car?. Yet he can be an absolute killer.

John Bazemore/Associated Press

Ryan is, at times, also glacial, and while not wanting to make too big a deal of that, there are indeed times when a team needs its leader to be more fiery. Ryan must think the same because he's been as vocal in camp as he's ever been.

The Falcons aren't the Buffalo Bills. This is a solid organization with a talented head coach. But around football, when you talk to other players and coaches, the feeling was always that late in the game, under pressure, the Falcons would crack.

Punch the Falcons in the mouth, one assistant coach told me, and they fall to the canvas.

That's not fair, but the NFL isn't, well, fair. Perception kills.

So here we are, and the Falcons are like a muay thai fighter with speed and skill, trying to harden a soft chin. Now, it's the Falcons who will do the punching.

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. 


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