The season hasn’t started, but the Falcons know the postseason will be a legacy building time for many of their key parts.
Atlanta hadn’t even posted winning records in back-to-back seasons when general manager Thomas Dimitroff, coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan arrived in 2008.
Now, they’ve done it four straight times, with 43 wins and three playoff berths. Only the Patriots, Saints, Steelers and Ravens have won more regular season games over that span, which you’d think puts them in good company.
The only thing the Falcons lack is a playoff win, and that haunts and motivates them going into this season. If they can push through that barrier, this is a team that might be built for the long haul. But if they don’t do it soon, there are a few veterans who might not be around for the next push.
In a tough division that’s suddenly gone pass-happy, the Falcons can match skill position players on offense and defensive backs with anyone.
Matt Ryan’s a smart, polished quarterback, and only his lack of a playoff win mars an otherwise sharp resume. If they could protect him a little better, he’d probably get even better.
Wide receiver Roddy White’s still got game-breaking ability, and partner Julio Jones is on the verge of justifying the massive trade they made to acquire him in last year’s draft.
Coupled with tight end Tony Gonzalez (back for one more year trying to break his own winless-in-the-postseason streak) and running back Michael Turner (at least in the early part of the season before he tapers off), the Falcons can match fantasy draft picks with anyone.
They’ve also assembled a dream team of cornerbacks, trading for Asante Samuel to pair with franchise player Brent Grimes and 2010 free agent splurge Dunta Robinson.
Robinson will slide inside this year, giving them a solid nickel which they’ve lacked while leaving name-brand talent outside. That will allow them to match up well with the Saints when they try to spread the field.
The Falcons offensive line, for lack of a better word, is just a mess.
Former first-round pick Sam Baker has battled injuries and ineffectiveness, and was so bad last year they tried him inside at guard to see if they could get something out of him. They’re going to give him a chance to reclaim his job from backup Will Svitek, and if he doesn’t, it’s going to he hard to fix things. The right guard spot is equally unsettled. Garrett Reynolds couldn’t hold the job last year, and guys such as free Vince Manuwai and second-round pick Peter Konz will get a chance there, though Konz is the long-term replacement for Todd McClure in the middle.
They used their top two picks here (they lacked a first-rounder from the Julio Jones trade last year), and Konz and third-round tackle Lamar Holmes are pieces to build around even if neither ends up starting this year.
Fixing a bad group is the job of new position coach Pat Hill, and he’s got his work cut out for him.
For a team that has created a sense of stability under coach Mike Smith, the Falcons are changing both coordinators, and that could shape the way the team approaches things significantly.
With Mike Mularkey gone to Jacksonville as head coach, quarterback Matt Ryan’s safety blanket is gone. In his stead, new coordinator Dirk Koetter wants to move the ball downfield more, challenging Ryan and perhaps taking better advantage of his talented wideouts.
On defense, Mike Nolan’s new, replacing Brian Van Gorder (who took one of the best mustaches in the NFL back to Auburn). Nolan’s going to try to implement a hybrid 3-4 style, and find multiple pass-rush options besides steady veteran defensive end John Abraham. It sure would be nice if they’d get anything out of defensive end Ray Edwards, who responded to a five-year, $30 million contract with 3.5 sacks last year.
Having depth in the secondary (and signing veteran safety Chris Hope late in free agency shouldn’t be overlooked) will allow Nolan to take more chances on the front side, and they have some intriguing personnel up front such as utility defensive lineman Kroy Biermann and defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux to make it interesting to see how it develops.
The most interesting will be at middle linebacker, where former All-Pro Lofa Tatupu is back after a year on the shelf, battling with 2011 third-rounder Akeem Dent.
One of them is going to have to replace the production of Curtis Lofton, who left for New Orleans in free agency, the only significant loss for the team this offseason.
Dent’s a young and active player they like, who was very good on special teams last year and they think he deserves a bigger role.
But Tatupu would be an upgrade, if he’s well and playing like the Tatupu that went to Pro Bowls with the Seahawks. The 29-year-old was a smart and instinctive player then, and it will be interesting to see if he’s able to stay on the field long enough to make it a competition.
With the problems in New Orleans, the Falcons have a shot to stake their claim to the NFC South. That’s always a tough road, as the division teams have taken turns excelling. The Saints will be a tough out despite lacking a coach, and the Panthers are clearly on the rise.
But grading the Falcons on what happens the first 16 games is almost moot. We know they can play well September through December.
Until they can push through with a January win, there will be questions about Smith and Ryan in particular.
This is the year to do it, as players such as Tony Gonzalez, Michael Turner and John Abraham are at or near their functional end, and because of the aggressive moves they’ve made such as draft-day trades, the roster skews old.
If Sam Baker can play again in a contract year, and the line settles itself, it’s the kind of team you can see making a run. But if the pieces don’t fall into place on both lines, the Falcons could again the watching someone else make the postseason push.