The Falcons had an impressive run of consistent regular season success.
Then they even won a playoff game.
But last year, a rash of injuries exposed some weaknesses in the roster, and the bottom fell out, in a big way, with a 4-12 record after five straight winning seasons.
But with the return to health of a few key players and an offseason emphasis on adding some toughness, they could be poised to bounce this year.
Here are five questions that could determine whether they’re ready to win double-digit games again.
1. Are they actually healthy now?
The Falcons kept the training wheels on wide receiver Julio Jones after last year’s broken foot, and it appears it paid off.
Jones caught a long touchdown last week, and looked like his old self talking it to the house. If he can stay on the field along with Roddy White, the Falcons are always going to have a chance to score.
2. Can the offensive line protect Matt Ryan?
That was a big issue last year, as injuries pecked away at a unit that wasn’t all that good to begin with.
And with all due respect to Sam Baker after his torn patellar tendon, the Falcons might actually have a better offensive line without him. First-rounder Jake Matthews is a natural left tackle, and Lamar Holmes gives them a bigger body to run behind on the right side. Baker’s six-year, $41 million contract is one they’ll regret sooner rather than later — if they don’t already.
3. Can toughness be quantified?
Those moves at least give them a personality along both fronts.
As talented as they were, the Falcons were correctly labeled a finesse team, but a tough guard and two stout run-stoppers should help.
4. Will Steven Jackson ever be well?
It sure would help the Falcons avoid the dip created by the loss of Tony Gonzalez if they had a consistent running game.
Jackson was a consistent producer on some bad teams, and then when he got to a good one he fell apart. He missed most of the preseason with a hamstring strain, and if that lingers, it could throw a serious kink in their plans.
The Jackson of old would be a perfect complement to their passing game, but it’s hard to tell if we’ll ever see that, or just the Old Jackson.
5. Is there enough defense left to matter?
Losing linebacker Sean Weatherspoon this offseason was a tough blow, as he’d have lent some stability to a group of day laborers and rookies.
They stay in nickel most of the time, which minimizes the need for impact linebackers, but it would help if they had some veteran presence there.
They need to get a consistent pass rush from the group including Osi Umenyiora, Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Babineaux, and there have been indications (at least in the past) they could scratch together enough pressure to matter.
But in a division with diverse offensive attacks, that side of the ball will miss Weatherspoon’s leadership and steady play.