FLOWERY BRANCH — On a hot day in July, Mike Smith made reference to January. That was the new beginning, the coach said, the day his Falcons beat Tampa Bay to finish 9-7. Not that Smitty was celebrating the 9-7.
“We got the result we wanted to get us over the hump with the consecutive winning seasons,” he said Friday, “but I have to tell you I was very, very disappointed in the final result of the season. Internally our goals were much, much higher.”
In Tampa, Smith told his players: “This is the first game of 2010. We need to start 2010 in the right fashion.”
And they did. And the Falcons have scarcely put a foot wrong since. They signed Dunta Robinson. They drafted Sean Weatherspoon. They re-signed Brian Williams. And now here they were, after the first practice of Training Camp 2010, hot but happy.
“The fact that it’s 100 degrees doesn’t matter,” said Tony Gonzalez, the tight end.
See, this team fully expects to be playing when it’s below freezing. (Meaning: in January 2011.)
The offseason moves met with internal approval, Gonzalez said. “Defensive backs were our biggest need, and Dunta Robinson is one of the best. From what I saw in one practice, that was the best decision we could make. And drafting for defense in the past two drafts was the right thing.”
Said John Abraham, the defensive end: “Dunta’s a great guy. He’s a hard-nosed guy, a no-nonsense guy. Having him there makes it easier to do what I do.”
The defense should be better. The offense, which figured to be great last season but wasn’t quite … well, here’s Gonzalez: “Offensively we’re pretty confident. We can move up and down the field. We have the horses.”
So: A 9-7 team stands to improve on both offense and defense. What does that mean? Gonzalez again: “If we stay healthy, the sky’s the limit.”
The Super Bowl champion plays in the NFC South. The Falcons don’t care. The first three games are against Pittsburgh, Arizona and New Orleans, the first and third of them being road dates. The Falcons won’t be fazed. These are no longer the feel-good fresh faces of 2008. This is a team about to enter its prime.
Said Smith: “It’s part of our process. We’re in Year 3 now. We should be advanced.”
Said Gonzalez: “We’ve got a lot of guys in their third and fourth years. That’s when it’s supposed to click. That’s the norm in the NFL. If we do that, we’ll be pretty good.”
Third-year Falcons: Matt Ryan, Sam Baker, Curtis Lofton, Thomas DeCoud, Kroy Biermann. Those were the plums of Thomas Dimitroff’s first draft crop, and they’ve already done good work. The good news is that they’re capable of doing even better.
A bit later, Gonzalez said: “That third and fourth year is when guys start to hit their peak. It’s not, ‘We hope we do it.’ It’s, ‘We have to do it.’”
In the cold light of hindsight, the 2008 team probably wasn’t as good as 11-5. The 2009 Falcons, of which much was expected, were gifted but not terribly deep, and that’s why they wound up 9-7. Another injury to Ryan or Michael Turner would hurt the 2010 team, sure, but this bunch would appear to have more ways to win.
“That 9-7 was good for the organization,” Abraham said, “but for me it was not good. I felt we should have been a playoff team. We lost some close games.”
That said, the 2009 Falcons were stout enough to play the eventual Super Bowl champs tough twice, the second time without Ryan and Turner. They were able to whip the Jets, whom a lot of folks regard as the coming power in the AFC, on the road in December. Utilizing hindsight yet again, we can now say that wrangling nine victories from a season going wrong was a test of both will and skill.
And now a new training camp has commenced and a new season is six weeks away, and here’s a team for which January cannot be the beginning of something. This is a team for which January should be a culmination.