(UPDATED: 11:20 p.m.)
(Folks, here’s the early print column. I figured I would just post it above the original live blog.)
We shouldn’t judge football teams based on exhibition games, any more than we should judge paintings based on penciled outlines or architecture based on a stack of wood.
The idea is just not to look bad. A new receiver doesn’t have to make seven catches. But nobody wants to see him look up too late for a pass, have the ball bounce off his head and then run straight into the oversized inflatable mascot in the end zone.
Because that sort of thing can lead a team owner to throw his luxury suite cheeseburger at his general manager.
The Falcons played their first exhibition of 2011 on Friday night against the Miami Dolphins. Curtis Lofton had probably put it best earlier when asked what he hoped to see, saying: “We want to look like we know what we’re doing.”
They did (at least the starters).
But this night was less about the Falcons in general than it was Julio Jones in particular. We only saw him for only three series. That was enough.
He caught a 21-yard pass. He caught a 22-yard pass. He was handed the ball on a reverse and took off for another 12.
This is when Falcons fans must tell themselves, “I know he played for Nick Saban, but I’m OK with that.”
Thomas Dimitroff, the general manager, traded a boatload of draft picks for Jones. He sent two first-rounders, a second and two fourths to Cleveland so the Falcons could slide up 21 spots and grab Jones.
Some screamed, “No!”
Soon, you’ll scream for other reasons.
Jones’ early fireworks Friday night suggest that his No. 11 jersey is destined to become a hot item, and he’ll become one of the team’s most popular players.
He can be that special. Quarterback Matt Ryan targeted him on the first two plays from scrimmage, but threw behind him on both occasions. But on the second possession, a third-and-3 play from the Miami 35, he stepped away from the rush and threw short to Jones underneath.
Then it was like somebody pushed the turbo button. Jones took off for a 21-yard gain, eventually setting up a 2-yard touchdown by Michael Turner.
When asked later about his first catch, Jones said: “I was going to score. I wasn’t running too fast because I was trying to set up a block, but the defender never came down. So I just got what I could.”
You weren’t running fast?
“No, I wasn’t.”
Coach Mike Smith sent Ryan and Jones back out for a third possession, and opening night became the Julio Jones Show. On a difficult second-and-12 from the Falcons’ 15, Ryan stepped back and found Jones wide open over the middle for 22 yards. On the next play, the rookie took a handoff from Ryan on a reverse and gained 12 yards. Soon it was 14-0.
Jones on the reverse: “I did OK. I could’ve done better.”
I think I like this kid.
The last time we saw the Falcons, they were rolled by the Green Bay Packers 48-21 in a home playoff game. The initial thought most had was that this team needed help on defense. But more than anything, they needed a game-changer, and Jones can be that.
As important as defense is in the NFL, the past two Super Bowl winners, New Orleans and Green Bay, both had explosive offenses. For that matter, even Pittsburgh the year before could throw it deep (before Ben Roethlisberger morphed into mutant frat boy.)
The Falcons are anxious to use this preseason to find out what this bunch can do. The addition of Jones, the return of wide receiver Harry Douglas — now two years removed from a major knee injury — and the drafting of running back Jacquizz Rodgers gives the offense the potential for pyrotechnics that we haven’t seen in some time, if ever.
Dimitroff was careful not to attach too much significance to Friday’s exhibition, saying, “The preseason to me is just a little more than a practice setting. It’s a little more live, a little more real. But you can’t get too up or down about it.”
That had to be difficult Friday. Jones had everybody up.
By Jeff Schultz
I know it’s only Aug. 12. I know it doesn’t count. I know we’re likely to see quite a bit of John Parker Wilson and little of Matt Ryan.
But football is back tonight. The Falcons face the Miami Dolphins at the Georgia Dome, and I’m probably looking forward to this game more than any NFL exhibition since … well, ever. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s just the hangover from the lockout. Or maybe it’s the Falcons’ moves to increase their speed and explosiveness on offense that has created some intrigue going into this game.
The players I’ll be watching:
♦ Julio Jones. The Falcons sold the farm in the draft to get him but he’s a dynamic player. I expect Ryan (and those who follow) to look in Jones’ direction a lot as the Falcons try to get him into the flow of the offense. It should be fun watching Jones on one side and Roddy White on the other.
♦ Jacquizz Rodgers: Spoke to the rookie running back this week. I like talking to pro athletes I can look down to. Rodgers is only 5-foot-6, but he’s quick and built like a tank. The Falcons plan to utilize him as a backup to Michael Turner and Jason Snelling in the backfield and will try to get him the ball in space as a receiver.
♦ Harry Douglas: He has been sort of the forgotten receiver in training camp. But he’s now two years removed from a knee injury and is expected to add more speed as a slot receiver.
One interesting side note: Falcons’ starters haven’t yet had a full tackle practice in training camp so this will be their first truly live action. Third stringers played in the team’s only scrimmage in Flowery Branch.
Coach Mike Smith generally has kept his starters in for only one or two series in the first preseason game, but his plans could change tonight, depending on how long (or well) those series go.
OK, that’s it for now. Ready to talk some football. I’ll be blogging live during the game, although I may have to break away to serve the print master.
Coffee time. Back soon.
By Jeff Schultz