Personally, I hate excuses, so I refuse to make any for the Atlanta Falcons and a season that disappointed many fans. I will, however, offer some reasons for the expectations we all had going unfulfilled. Injuries are a major player in this sad tale, but there's more to it than just that.
First, we have Matt Ryan. Ryan, playing in his second NFL season, simply made some sophomore mistakes. The youngster started fairly strong, but relied too heavily on Tony Gonzalez as an outlet when coverage downfield took away primary weapon Roddy White. It's an easy mistake to make, but realistically, Ryan would have been better served checking down to other players as well as Gonzo, if only to keep the defences on their toes. Ryan's turf-toe injury didn't help either, but in a physical game, injuries are a de facto part of life. I expect this offseason will see Ryan working on strength training and overall fitness more than any technical aspect of his game.
Next, the running game. Michael Turner, our ace in the hole, missed much of the season with several injuries, which again is simply fact, not an excuse. Without Turner, the Falcons looked to Jason Snelling, Jerious Norwood and even Eric Weems to carry the ball. Trouble really hit when Norwood also went down to injury, leaving Snelling as our featured back. Surprisingly, Snelling performed admirably, and either assured himself a regular spot for next season with Atlanta, or raised his trade value. Either way, it's a good piece of a puzzle that is just starting to take shape.
Receiver-wise, Roddy White again showed that he is one of the best deep-ball threats in the NFL. The guy is money. He can make the difficult catches in traffic, or create space for himself on deep routes. The coaching staff would be well served to get the ball to him more often downfield, regardless of how much easier that is to say than do. The guy breaks off routes and gets into clear areas of the field, making his work with Matt Ryan this offseason very important. They need to know how to read each other, and my guess is that next year will be huge for the tandem.
Michael Jenkins was decent, but not spectacular. While highly touted as a primary receiver, Jenkins drops the ball more often than he catches it, making him a liability. We can not afford to have wide-open receivers wasting downs by not making elementary catches, especially in space. Off the top of my head, I can count at least 5 touchdowns that never happened because on 3rd and long Jenkins didn't come up with the pigskin. Maybe it's a confidence thing, or maybe he's trying to do too much – ie: thinking about what happens after the catch before he even makes it. Either way, he's going to need some work before he's considered a player worth fearing.
Tony Gonzales was everything he was billed as. A clutch tight-end who can be counted on in tricky situations. I remember watching the game against the Bucs where Chris Redman was our QB, and seeing him dish off to Gonzo on 3 fourth down situations late in the game while we were trailing. Gonzo won us that game. The only issue I have with Tony is that he doesn't seem like a very good blocking TE. That's compensated for by his receiving yards, but one has to wonder if maybe we need more protection for Ryan in the pocket.
I am going to say that the above paragraphs were the “positives” for the Falcons this past season. Now, we move on to the negatives…
Defence. Simply put, we're an easy team to score on, especially via the deep ball. Tackling was a major issue all season long, resulting in many runs going for 20+ yards, and passes that should have been easy to contain ending up as 6 points for the opposition. Our secondary has been a big problem for two seasons at least now, and it needs to be addressed. If we're going to continue playing a loose coverage scheme, then we need to add a game-breaker like Asante Samuels or Charles Woodson – just to name a few examples. We play soft on receivers, which is okay if you can tackle them after the catch, but this season saw us victimized in that department. It would be nice to have someone other than Brent Grimes and Thomas DeCoud back there, someone you could feel might make a key interception by jumping a route. In fairness, Grimes played fairly well at the end of the season, while DeCoud played well at the start. Between the two, they had one good season, I suppose…
Our D-line was not what I expected it to be. John Abraham wasn't nearly the sack-monster he was last season, and that put the rest of the defence on its heels. It would be great if in the offseason we could pick up someone to play on the left end to force other teams to spread out their top-blockers and allow us to get pressure in the backfield on a more consistent basis. I'm going to guess that we're drafting someone for this…
Kicking? Well, the whole NFL seemed to experience a weird kicking season. I don't know if Jason Elam is the answer for us, as he was fairly pedestrian in missing 7 of 19 attempts. Matt Bryant and Steve Hauschka weren't any better, so we're definitely lacking there… Maybe we could sign former Czech international soccer legend Pavel Nedved to kick for us next season?
In the final analysis, we were a young team this year, and that can work for or against you. In our case, it was a season of lessons that must be learned to prop us up to a legitimate contender. I truly believe we have a great chance to take a deep run into the NFL playoffs next season, provided we stay relatively healthy, but there are a few areas of concern that need to be addressed. The draft is one place we can make a splash, but it would be nice to acquire a top-end free agent for the secondary. We'll see what happens as the weeks and months following tomorrow's big game unfold.
For now, I'm entering a chili cook-off tomorrow in advance of the game, and hoping that my particular take on “deep south” cooking goes over well with the judges, who include some of the best chefs in Ottawa. Wish me luck and keep the faith Falcons fans!
About the Author
Written by Dan Rakusan
A huge Rangers (NHL), Falcons (NFL), PGA Tour and soccer fan, I have been writing semi-professionally for about 7 years now. I try to impart information with some degree of humour, and always have an opinion. PSB is another feather in my cap, and am really proud of the team assembled here, and look forward to the long-term journey PSB is embarking on in terms of establishing itself as the best sports blogging collective on the net! Look for articles such as 4-Play, Rangers blogs and PGA Tour updates, along with my NFL handicapping service!