Prior to last year, it was fair to wonder if the Falcons were simply fantasy football Hall of Famers, guys who put up great numbers, but weren’t going to win in January.
But head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan broke through the playoff drought by beating the Seahawks, and were a play or two away from a Super Bowl appearance.
That was enough to talk tight end Tony Gonzalez back for one more shot, and with a few strategic offseason additions (though they weren’t able to make many), the Falcons should be in position to make a similar push.
Whether they can get to a Super Bowl will depend on how their defense holds, though they don’t have the pressure of having to be dominant.
The Falcons had a set of offensive skill position personnel to rival any in the league last season.
Then they got better.
By swapping out the old-and-slowing Michael Turner with the old-but-still-effective Steven Jackson, the Falcons upgraded their running game by a significant amount. Turner was a liability most times, still able to pop a 100-yard game occasionally, but no longer able to carry the burden of an offense. Jackson appears still able to do that, and could be a more versatile back, actually able to catch a pass.
Coupled with a smart quarterback in Ryan, one of the best tight ends in NFL history in Gonzalez and wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White (it’s no longer Roddy White and Julio Jones), the Falcons catch create matchup problems for most NFL defenses.
Jones is growing into one of the top downfield threats in the game, with the kind of size and speed to make him hard to cover without drawing a defense specifically geared to him.
On the other hand, most NFL offenses can create matchup problems for the Falcons defense.
They simply don’t have enough good players on that side of the ball to prevent other teams from moving the ball up and down the field.
They’re assuming Osi Umenyiora will replace the pass-rush they had in John Abraham. But that might be a dangerous assumption, and there isn’t another immediate provider of pressure among the parts on hand. They’re also breaking in rookies throughout the secondary, having jettisoned Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes.
Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon can be an impact player, but they don’t have enough of those, and the defensive line is a bunch of guys.
They’re not very good stopping the run either, and considering half their division (and a few potential playoff foes) will make that a priority, it’s hard to feel too good about their chances of improving considering the limited additions this offseason.
It’s funny, for a team built around an explosive offense, to blow up 60 percent of its offensive line in one offseason.
But that’s what the Falcons did, with the retirement of center Todd McClure and cutting right tackle Tyson Clabo.
Peter Konz will slide to the middle to replace McClure, which is what he was drafted to do, and then a cast of characters will compete for the starting jobs at right guard and right tackle.
Garrett Reynolds will likely get the first crack at the guard job again, and Mike Johnson and Lamar Holmes are competing at tackle.
Plus, this assumes they get the Sam Baker of the first few years and the salary push, and not the left tackle that was benched for ineffectiveness in 2011.
It’s a dicey proposition, but with where they were salary cap wise, they need some young players to make jobs their own.
It wasn’t that long ago the Falcons were three-deep with expensive corners, built to match up with the Saints.
Now, Asante Samuel is all have left, and they’re stacking kids up and hoping for the best.
They used their first two draft picks on Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, and both should play in the nickel package, with Trufant expected to start opposite Samuel. Robert McClain has played well at times and can be a good reserve, but they needed to add top-end talent to the position (really, to many positions on defense), and this was the area of urgency this year.
They’re going to give Akeem Dent a chance to play nickel, and he’d likely be an upgrade over the solid but exploited-by-tight ends Stephen Nicholas.
They also need some defensive linemen to emerge. Jonathan Babineaux and Kroy Biermann are solid utility linemen, who have served a lot of roles over the years. They have young players in Malliciah Goodman and Cliff Matthews who could win starting jobs, but that may say more about the guys in those jobs than Goodman and Matthews.
The Falcons are talented, smartly coached and well-quarterbacked.
That’s going to make them contenders automatically, and they broke through the ceiling of a playoff win last year, beating Seattle.
Their biggest problem is that they don’t match up well with the 49ers, and at some point, will have to get through them to reach the Super Bowl.
Otherwise, there aren’t many teams in the league that can slow them down.
Ryan’s about to get a giant contract, and he’ll deserve every nickel of it. He’s a smart, efficient passer and leader, who has brought in a sense of stability which they needed.
But as good as he is, his first task is to overcome his own defense.
Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is going to have to scheme his way past personnel problems, as they don’t have much up front to create pressure. They’re pushing all their chips to the middle of the table on Osi Umenyiora returning to his old form, because there’s no one else on the roster you could expect double-digit sacks from.
Otherwise, they’re simply counting on outscoring everyone.
Which remains a reasonable proposition, and the reason they have a chance to get to the Super Bowl.