For four seasons the Falcons were essentially the same team, give or take. Since the arrival of Thomas Dimitroff (general manager), Mike Smith (coach), Matt Ryan (quarterback) and Michael Turner (running back), the franchise that had never known consecutive winning seasons had known nothing else — no fewer than nine victories in any year, three playoff appearances in four tries.
But also: No playoff success.
The belief here is that the steady-as-she-goes dynamic is about to change. The Falcons, I submit, will get really good in 2012 — and by “really good” I mean play-for-the-NFC-title-good — or they’ll slip below .500. No more 10-6 or 11-5 and lose to the eventual champ in Round 1. Either it’s the big breakthrough or the big bellyflop.
The oft-expressed belief here is that the Falcons had outgrown their coaching, and by this I don’t mean Smith. (He’s the best coach in Falcons annals by some distance.) But the coordination, particularly on offense but also on defense, had gone stale. This team had gone as far with Mike Mularkey and Brian VanGorder doing the scheming as it could. Now there are different men in charge of both X’s and O’s, and now we’re about to see if the Bradley Theory was correct or, as has been the case with other Bradley Theories, as wrong as all get-out.
I kept counting heads — Ryan, Turner, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez, Julio Jones, John Abraham, Curtis Lofton (since departed), Brent Grimes, Dunta Robinson, Sean Weatherspoon — and telling myself: “There’s no reason for a team with this much talent not to win a playoff game.” I was telling myself as much even as I was watching this able aggregation lose 24-2 to the Giants in the Meadowlands. But here’s where I play devil’s advocate with myself and say, “Old son, what if you were again in error? What if this roster isn’t all that special?”
As much as I believe in what Dimitroff has done, I also confess to having moments of doubt. There are games when I’d wonder why White drops so many passes, if Turner isn’t already two steps over the hill, if Ryan is capable of leading a team to more than just respectability. I’d wonder about an offensive line incapable of getting an inch’s worth of push. I’d wonder about a defense that couldn’t trouble one of the league’s elite quarterbacks. In sum, I’d wonder if I hadn’t overrated the whole operation.
Let me be clear: I don’t think I had, or have. I thought/think this is one of the NFL’s most gifted teams. But now, for better or worse, we’re all about to find out. There can be no more excuses for these players. The defense has a new coordinator in Mike Nolan. The offense has a new coordinator in Dirk Koetter. The O-line has a new steward in Pat Hill. If Ryan can’t throw the deep ball or the linemen can’t get outside to block for a screen pass (which Koetter plans to feature), it won’t be Mularkey’s fault. He’s coaching the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The belief here is that this team will indeed break upward, that the Falcons stand closer to the Super Bowl today than at any time this century. But with great expectation — and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels optimistic — comes intense pressure, and there’s a small part of me that thinks a sluggish start could spawn the sort of finger-pointing this team under Dimitroff/Smith has managed to avoid. (Only in 2009, when both Turner and Ryan were hurt, was there cause for real angst.)
And this schedule won’t be easy. Technically only five games will come against 2011 playoff qualifiers, but the Falcons must play six times against non-qualifiers who went 7-9 or better last season. Any given Sunday and all that.
I say again: I believe the 2012 Falcons will be stout enough to handle whatever comes their way. I believe that the new coaches will help lift this team to higher heights. But if these players don’t perform any better than they did under their old coaches, I don’t foresee (to invoke an infamous Falcons word) a plateau effect. If this doesn’t work, I see a cliff — and a fall.
Oh, and for all who feel this post was ambiguous as to my expectations for the Falcons … take a peek at this CineSport video.
By Mark Bradley