One of the most painful days for Falcons fans in 2009 was the day that wide receiver Harry Douglas went down with a torn ACL. The budding young slot receiver and dynamic local product (Jonesboro High School) was expecting to have an even bigger year in his sophomore campaign than he did in his superb rookie season. HD, as he’s been nicknamed by some fans, was a quick fan favorite by adding a great burst to the Falcons receiving corps, where he hauled in over 300 yards receiving with a touchdown, 60 yards rushing with a TD, and 226 punt return yards with a touchdown. Even more impressive was the fact that Douglas only took over punt returning duties about halfway through the season and was slowly worked into the lineup as a receiver.
The guy simply made everyone around him better: being a favorite target for Matt Ryan, stretching the field for Roddy White and Michael Jenkins, and creating space for the running backs. Throw in the fact that HD was known for making big plays (who can forget the crucial third down catches, kickoff return that set up the Bears miracle win, and the electrifying punt return for a TD that put a nail in the coffin of the Panthers in the Dome). Some even believed that Douglas may challenge Jenkins for the number 2 spot. Falcons fans drooled over the fact of having Turner, Roddy, Jenks, Douglas, and Tony Gonzalez on the field at the same time.
Even though the injury was very painful, many fans believed that the addition of tight end Tony Gonzalez might offset missing Douglas in the lineup and being able to stretch the field. To an extent, this was slightly true with Gonzalez becoming Matt Ryan’s favorite target, but the offense still wasn’t the same without the slot receiver. Roddy White was double-teamed and still found a way to go over 1,000 yards receiving and make his second consecutive Pro Bowl, but it wasn’t easy for him and when they took him out of the game the offense generally sputtered. Michael Jenkins couldn’t take advantage of the single coverages rolled his way and generally had a sub-par year. Tony Gonzalez had another great year with over 800 yards receiving and 6 TDs, but made some really tough catches while being bracketed throughout the season. Lastly, and most importantly, not one single receiver could take advantage of the huge void left by Douglas. Marty Booker played about as well as you’d expect from a 33 year old player signed as an emergency. Brian Finneran was injured again and is not really a slot receiver. Eric Weems missed a huge opportunity where his speed and quickness seemingly translated to the slot position.
Obviously, there were many other factors that contributed to the Falcons taking a step back in 2009, including a plethora of injuries, Matt Ryan’s struggles, a more difficult schedule, and some very poor and predicatable play-calling. Although the Falcons came in at the exact same spot in terms of passing rank (14th) in 2008 and 2009, but Ryan in particular saw a drop-off in completion percentage from 61.1% in 2008 to 58.2% in 2009, 500 less yards passing, and an increase of interceptions (+3). And perhaps the biggest area where Douglas was missed was in the deep passing attack. Ryan went from throwing 15 less passes over 20+ yards (45 in 2008 to 31 in 2009), and 5 less passes of 40+ yards (9 in 2008 to 4 in 2009). Beyond all the stats, the Falcons seemed lost at times when teams successfully double-teamed Roddy White and bracketed Tony Gonzalez.
Back to the original question of how important Harry Douglas is to the Falcons offensive success. The injury rehab is on schedule and is going very well. The advent of medicine and rehab now allows players to get back to their original forms in less than a year, even though most believe its takes a full 2 years to get back to speed, especially for cornerbacks and wide receivers. The Falcons didn’t really address HD’s insurance in the slot through the draft or free agency. Kerry Meier may could have success in the slot with his field awareness and quickness, even though he lacks Douglas’ speed. Eric Weems could take another shot, but he’ll be in a fight for his spot. Brian Finneran and Brandyn Harvey are more possession receivers and Ryan Wolfe will be in a major fight just to make the squad. So the question remains: do the Falcons need Harry Douglas back in full form to play at a high level on offense?