The new-look Falcons are becoming the team they need to be

One giant step for Julio Jones, six big points for the Atlanta Falcons. (AP photo)

That's one giant step for Julio Jones, six big points for the Atlanta Falcons. (AP photo)

Flowery Branch — For 35 months, the Falcons were an operation that ran smoothly and thought alike. Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith had been handed a broken team in January 2008 , and by January 2011 they’d presided over three winning seasons and seen their latest product claim the NFC’s No. 1 seed.

Then the Falcons lost to Green Bay in the playoffs, and suddenly it was possible to wonder if this aggregation had, as constituted, gone as far as it could. That 13-3 regular season was nice, but losing 48-21 at home indicated that certain other teams — the Packers and Saints and Steelers and Patriots — had something the Falcons still lacked.

Three months later, Dimitroff moved up 21 spots to draft Julio Jones, and that ineffable “something” was  given a name: The Falcons’ general manager dared to risk five precious draft picks for one wide receiver in the hope of making his team more “explosive.” But there were times last season when Dimitroff’s vision wasn’t being realized.

In a wretched Week 3 loss at Tampa Bay, Jones caught one pass in the first three quarters. With the Falcons playing from behind, he caught five balls in the fourth period. It was as if Mike Mularkey, then the offensive coordinator, had just realized the rookie was on the roster. The next week the Falcons scored 30 points at Seattle; Jones caught 11 passes for 127 yards.

But the moment didn’t last. Jones hurt his foot and missed some games, and for every bravura performance (131 yards and two touchdowns at Indianapolis), there was a day where you wondered how this massive talent could be marginalized. Come the playoffs, the Falcons were eliminated by the Giants with the offense scoring no points and Jones catching seven dinky passes to no effect.

On that bleak day in the Meadowlands, the coordinators who had served this franchise so well — chiefly Mularkey, but also defensive man Brian VanGorder — appeared to run out of ideas. That spawned a key question: Would Smith, the head coach, move to fire either?

As it turned out, Mularkey and VanGorder left of their choosing — the former to Jacksonville as head coach, the latter to Auburn as defensive coordinator — and Smith never had to declare. But their absences created an opportunity for this head coach to remake the Falcons in a fashion more suited to the players he had in 2012, which is a far cry from the roster of 2008.

Back then, the Falcons were thrust in the hands of a rookie quarterback working behind a rookie left tackle and handing off to a free agent who’d never been a feature back. Full credit goes to Mularkey for nurturing and developing Matt Ryan, but by 2011 the Falcons were more seasoned and much more gifted. They were fully capable of being “explosive,” but too often they came across as ponderous.

Asked Monday if there was a time last season when he felt the Falcons’ vision of themselves wasn’t being implemented on the field, Smith said: “Absolutely never.” But that could be a loyal and grateful head coach protecting his former employees. Smith also said this: “Those guys [meaning Mularkey, VanGorder and line coach Paul Boudreau, who was fired] were an integral part of the success we’ve had.”

But then: “There’s always change in the NFL. You strive to have continuity, but your roster is always changing. And even if you have the same 53 guys as last year, you’re never the same team. Because they’re a year older.”

And that’s the point: In 2008 the Falcons were a fledgling crew trying to string a few wins together; by 2011 they should have been capable of all manner of flourishes and improvisation. They should have been fully grown. But Mularkey and VanGorder, while good football men, are good in a rigid way. This team needed new eyes, new voices. This team needed to acknowledge what it could become, not what it had been.

On Sunday in Kansas City, we saw what this GM and this head coach had in mind: An offense breathtaking in its skill and precision, a defense capable of making game-changing plays. You can argue that it was just one game, but it won’t be just one game if the Falcons have anything to do with it. They regard this as the new normal.

Over the offseason, some wondered if new coordinators — Dirk Koetter on offense, Mike Nolan for the defense — could make a real difference in a team that hadn’t much changed. We already have our answer. In their last game under Mularkey, the Falcons didn’t seek to wrong-foot a ravenous Giants’ front four with screen passes. In Week 1 under Koetter, the Falcons scored their second touchdown on a screen. To Julio Jones.

By Mark Bradley

58 comments Add your comment

T-Bone

September 10th, 2012
4:46 pm

Gritz Blitz

September 10th, 2012
4:48 pm

Tally Falcon

September 10th, 2012
4:48 pm

Great column. Hopefully Nolan can shore up the defense in the first half. Nice second half adjustments.

Jason

September 10th, 2012
4:50 pm

Great Article

T-Bone

September 10th, 2012
4:53 pm

Not to throw rain on anyone’s parade, but . . . The offense looked solid, but they were playing against a defense without some starters. And, to me, the defense still has something to prove. The first half KC threw against us at will. And the halftime score was close. And if you take away the scores given to us due to KC 2nd half turnovers, the final score would have have been close. (Of course, you can’t take away turnovers–sometimes you create turnovers . . . but, I’m just sayin’.)

Mr. Really??

September 10th, 2012
4:58 pm

I hope you are right Mark, but remember this is dubbed “Overreaction Monday” for a reason. Lets hope that you aren’t succumbing to this malady that seems to be striking sportswriters and fans alike. It’s only week one. I am optimistic, but I will truly be excited if Atlanta’s offense is producing like this consistently in week 10.

Wilbo

September 10th, 2012
5:31 pm

Atlanta teams have always been proficient at looking good early. In the long run that doesn’t mean squat. This homer 1/2 wit of a reporter would see the Falcons all getting their uniforms on correctly as evidence of Super Bowl potential.

Mike S.

September 10th, 2012
5:40 pm

Losing Grimes is going to hurt. The D didnt look so hot in the first half. Next up is Manning and Denver on Monday night in the Dome. I think the team will be better as the season moves on, especially on offense which should help the D stay off the field and fresh. It puts less pressure on the D as well. The D looked shaky at first, but toughened up in the second half.

falCANS

September 10th, 2012
6:05 pm

GREAT WIN FELLAS…..NEED TO SHORE UP THAT MLB POSITION THO. R.I.P Brent grimes (Recover in peace) KEEP DAUNTE AT NICKEL PLEEEEEEAAAAASSSSSEEE. CAN U SAY BURNT CITY?? Franks>Owens

Mark Bradley

September 10th, 2012
6:12 pm

Kudos, T-Bone.

Falcon Fan

September 10th, 2012
6:13 pm

That was not the only screen, I counted at least 5, 6 or more. Plus BVG would have never made the adjustments at halftime that Nolan made. That is why with MM & BVG we lost in the second half to good teams, they made adjustments and MM & BVG didn’t or couldn’t.

kane337

September 10th, 2012
6:54 pm

Great game by the Falcons. This is the way Falcons football should be played. So excited for next week to get here and the rest of the season.

darren harper

September 10th, 2012
7:12 pm

Mark, It’s time to call a spade a spade. Mike Mularkey is a dinosaur from the 70’s. The reason The falcons have not one a post season game is mostly on his predictable play calling. Players from other team knew what plays we were running a % of the time. I could call the plays as I watched on TV. Also Brian Van Gorder was in over his head. He was good at Georgia mostly because his athletes were almost always superior. Both are above average coaches but you can’t win with a Mularkey offense unless your defense is top in the league. The Falcons may not win The Super Bowl but we have a chance with a scary offense and an above average defense.

Joey

September 10th, 2012
7:26 pm

the birds are flying high again. maybe they will go all the way this year i hope

Dave

September 10th, 2012
7:27 pm

Like the optimism, we’ll see; and, I hope you are right.

Flacons R idiots

September 10th, 2012
8:16 pm

Realy? What I seen was the defence sux reel bad. How is that diffrent then last year?

A Complete Blank

September 10th, 2012
8:23 pm

Back in the Falcon ’90s… Tim Green was fired from the Falcon radio broadcast team for saying…. “speaking of burnt toast.. lets talk about the Falcon secondary…” This coming week…. Tims quote may come true again… Falcons have NEVER… EVER… been a prime time team… This game is HUGE… Win.. and maybe the JJ draft was right… Lose… same ol Falcons with a tough schedule ahead…

Jim

September 10th, 2012
8:26 pm

Until they beat a good team with something really on the line, I will remain skeptical…most anyone with ability can play well when the pressure is not high; let’s see how they do when the heat is really on them and they must win.

Michael

September 10th, 2012
8:45 pm

Please don’t overlook some of those 3 rd and long conversion that the team gave up for first down to Kanas City. You must stop those long conversion t to be a good team and do something in the playoffs.

falcondawg

September 10th, 2012
8:48 pm

Falcon fans have been teased only to be suddenly let down so often that they are hesitant to embrace a single victory as an omen of good things to come.

fanATicaL

September 10th, 2012
9:49 pm

I love the improvement of the team.In years past the Falcons would have found a way to lose that game against the Chiefs.Also I find it funny no one is mentioning Sam Baker and thier protection of Matt Ryan.It is only the first week of football.But if Carolina don’t pay attention .A loss next week may ut them in a hole they maynot be able to recover from.Too many confererence losses.A long with the loss against the Falcons week 4 could be death sentence to Cam and co.

Kyle

September 10th, 2012
9:53 pm

Do you guys huff paint thinner and stare into the sun for 3 hours before posting on here. Its funny, people bash coaches and football teams but barely possess enough knowledge of the english language to compose a legible thought. Go back to the Saints board or the hood where people can understand you. The Falcons are on of the top 5-6 teams in the NFL. Ryan is an elite quarterback. They will be in the playoffs with as good a shot as any to win a playoff game. I bet they win a couple of those come January. In my intelligent opinion. Don’t expect the moronic masses of the AJC message boards (that are Wal-Mart cashiers and NFL analysts by night) to agree with me. Good thing you people don’t have to put your contact info. You can post your ignorance in obscurity.

Comcast Stinks!

September 10th, 2012
10:57 pm

Wish I could have actually seen the 1st half but Comcast decided to drop most of the broadcast. Interesting these boneheads continue raising my prices but deliver less and less. Going to give Direct TV a shot.

Comcast Stinks!

September 10th, 2012
11:05 pm

@Kyle- you wrote: “The Falcons are on of the top 5-6 teams in the NFL”. This is what you call a legible thought?

Dr. Warren

September 11th, 2012
1:16 am

Very good writing. Mularkey seems to have been the biggest problem. As for this year’s defense, I think the loss of Grimes will hurt but hopefully Nolan, who didn’t sound too confident in his squad’s talent in the AJC interview last week, will adjust.

Hooty Goot

September 11th, 2012
2:08 am

Kyle — Huffing paint thinner never crossed my mind……..but I think I’ll give it a try. Thanks !

Day One Fan

September 11th, 2012
3:22 am

We have Comcast here in the Savannah area. Service so bad the city council got heavily involved.

dean

September 11th, 2012
6:11 am

Savannah City Council. The best comedy on television.

WestSiderATL

September 11th, 2012
8:16 am

While I was excited that the offense looked to be firing on all cylinders, my overriding thought watching the defense was “Here we go again…” I really can’t understand why more attention hasn’t been given to upgrading our secondary to make them one of the elite units of the NFL. We can score all the points we want, but when a REALLY decent QB faces the Falcons, he will slice and dice to his hearts content. T-Bone is absolutely correct…if you take away the ‘gimme’ points (and it was good that the offense was able to capitalize on those turnovers), you really had a close game against a very mediocre team. I will wait to see if they can make the necessary adjustments on defense to tighten up that really soft middle.

Who Me?

September 11th, 2012
10:02 am

Finding an effective Brent Grimes replacement and keeping the defense healthy, never mind keeping our skill players on offense healthy, will be key to our success. Big game Monday night. Win that one and the league will take notice.

LawDawg

September 11th, 2012
10:46 am

As great as the Falcons looked, let’s not forget that KC could end up being a 4-win kind of team and the D did not exactly excel. Hopefully, they can improve. Koetter is looking like a great hire.

SR

September 11th, 2012
11:00 am

I’m with ya T-Bone one game does not a season make and I am still not sold on this defense. Let’s see how they fare against top-rate competition. They won one game in the state of Missouri and you know what that state is known as…..

yo mama

September 11th, 2012
11:37 am

Missouri is known for it’s Kansas City Strip steak, and bbq.

Rick

September 11th, 2012
11:38 am

@Kyle
Great post I am voting you for official President of Blogs on the Falcon website. Tired of these BadBeckys and TerribleTims that never give props where props is due. KC is one of the toughest places to win in the NFL and yet we get dissed becasue they had players hurt? When week 10 comes as we are 8 and 2 or 9 and 1 it will still be said that we “have not played” anyone or the excuse will focus on “can they do it in the playoffs”. All I asked is that you NegativeNancys stay this way……..we dont need you on the bandwagon in a couple of weeks. Nothing is ever good enough for you DoubtfulDans! If you part of the Rise Up Nation, then you rise and fall no matter what! If you not BEAT IT and keep your negativity to yourself. TIME to RISE up on Peyton

PDK

September 11th, 2012
11:55 am

Good column, Mark. Offense definitely looked sharp, even if it was against a depleted Chiefs D. Nice to see them unleash Ryan to sling it around a bit, and I liked the new screen game – that will be huge for this offense going forward.

On the D side, they looked pretty shaky in the first half, but ya gotta hand it to Nolan for making some great adjustments and basically dominating the 2nd half. As noted by several previous posters, the loss of Grimes is tough. However, I think they’ll be okay (if not necessarily great) with Moore and/or Franks filling in. I guess we’ll find out soon enough with Peyton and the Ponies coming to town ;)

SimpleDawg

September 11th, 2012
12:05 pm

Better develop a running game quickly. The really good teams will crush the QB without the fear of a running game.

SimpleDawg

September 11th, 2012
12:10 pm

I thought Franks was released.

Dunt’a and Assante will have the opportunity to put their dreds and reputations on the line…..hopefully both will match their boastful manner.

More bad news….here comes more Christopher Owens. Ouch!

PDK

September 11th, 2012
12:14 pm

Correction: I think the secondary will be okay with Owens (not Moore) and/or Franks filling in for Grimes.

Michael

September 11th, 2012
12:19 pm

Hopefully the Defense can continue to created turn overs, to compensate for some of those 3rd and long conversion the Falcons can’t seemed to stop.

WarEagle

September 11th, 2012
12:28 pm

They played Kansas City…the first real test comes this weekend against Peyton and revamped Broncos…they looked pretty good againt that vaunted Pittsburgh D…and our secondary is still suspect to me….

Delbert D.

September 11th, 2012
12:29 pm

Babineaux is tied for 2nd on the team in passes defended. Maybe he’s the guy to replace Grimes.

mikep

September 11th, 2012
1:12 pm

Guys as good as our passing game looks, I’m afraid it took away from obvious issues we could face in running game. Lets face it….Turner is no where near a burner anymore. If the O-line doesnt create a hole the size of Roswell he doesnt have a prayer.. I trust we are out there looking to sign a DB this very moment..Internally we do not have the skillset to replace grimes…

Nervous Nelly

September 11th, 2012
1:14 pm

To early to tell, get back with me in about 5 weeks,,,

Real American

September 11th, 2012
1:37 pm

Oh Lord, its week one..it was Kansas City. Don’t start getting ring sizes just yet there.

GT

September 11th, 2012
1:41 pm

Thomas, Hill and Johnson how about the wishbone developing receivers!

DawgDad

September 11th, 2012
2:00 pm

Whoa, not so fast. Nice win, yes. Annointment time? Uh, no.

Over the past two years the Falcons have lost Harvey Dahl, Ovie Mughelli, Curtis Lofton, and now Brent Grimes, all Pro-Bowl caliber players. Compound this with the host of draft picks traded for Julio Jones and the result is going to be a LOT of holes in the roster. You just don’t lose this much talent (in terms of quality and numbers) in this time frame and get better.

The passing game might well be better this year, but the running game probably isn’t. The defense clearly has issues, big ones. The run defense looks horrible at best. The pass rush is highly suspect. The remaining two top cornerbacks may not be able to man cover effectively anymore, and the depth is torch-quality. Falcons are back to the nickel situation Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees exploited to build their legacies.

I’m hopeful the offensive line plays better this year, Turner rediscovers his mojo, and the defense holds up. At this point there’s no use speculating, just watch the games and see what happens.

Matt "CHOKE" Ryan

September 11th, 2012
3:24 pm

Flacco sure throws a pretty deep ball.

Did I mention……………….

Should have drafted Flacco? :)

Matt "CHOKE" Ryan

September 11th, 2012
3:31 pm

Chiefs were 7-9 in 2011 & missing 3 starters on defense.

When does the parade start? :)

Tommy

September 11th, 2012
3:53 pm

The Cheifs were 7-9 last year with Matt Cassel out half the season and Jamal Charles out the final 14 weeks. . . they were a playoff team last year if those guys don’t get hurt. Denver took the division at 8-8.

It’s funny. . .44-21 since 2008, and unless they win every game by 20 points it’s ’same old falcons’. . . . ironically most of this criticism comes from Georgia fans, who came up with about 17,000 excuses to explain why the Dawgs lost 19 out of 22 to Florida. . .

Ron

September 11th, 2012
3:58 pm

Good game yesterday love the offense but I’m worried about the defense a little bit they played a good 2nd half but once again the pass rush is a problem quick question where is sidbury??? I’m hoping its just because its still early let em get settled in the scheme. That’s always the main question to me every year how is the defense going perform, we got a championship caliber offense get that defense to apply consistent pressure we can beat anybody.