There is no doubt that increased practice time helps offensive and defensive player alike. The more practice time players get the more they can explore the highest levels of their playing capabilities, as well as their own role within the an offensive or defensive scheme. Without that practice time, the players and therefore the team can’t explore all the intricacies they would like to be able to implement in an NFL season. The 2011 lockout was a big problem for stunting the growth of NFL teams schemes, but one positive can be seen from it: ALL aspects suffered, not just one side of the ball.
During the course of an offseason, each side of the ball gets the chance to work on very complex schemes. Offenses get to work on a lot more route combinations, increased use of the no-huddle, more creative blocking schemes, and are able to practice a lot more ways to attack defenses. The same thing goes for a defense. The defense can work on stunts and twists by the line, zone blitzes, different zones to bait the quarterback, and other how to better play as an entire defense, not just individual players. In a situation where there is no offseason for an entire team, as was the case for the entire NFL in 2011, or an individual player (as is the case when a player holds out for a contract), guys end up behind the learning curve. Teams either must A) simplify the scheme to make all players capable of playing it or B) force the player to catch up, even if it creates situations where the player is lost at times. In 2011, most coordinators were forced to dumb things down (even if it was only a little bit) in order to accommodate all players the team would be using.
There is so much talk not just around the Falcons blogosphere, but around the NFL as a whole saying that their team’s offense would have been much more successful with an offseason, their defense would have been more effective with the full offeason, etc. There is no doubt that both of those things are true; your team would be more effective on both sides with that time to practice. But here’s the flip side: the other teams’ offense and defense would be improved with the full offseason as well.
So much of the argument is that their team could have been so much better, that they could have achieved a lot more. The only way that works is if the rest of the league is locked out, but only your team isn’t. I’ll give one illustration where I see this as true. Matt Ryan threw 4100 yards, 29 TDs, and a 92 passer rating in the 2011 post-lockout season. He threw 3700 yards, 28 TDs and a 90+ passer rating in the un-lockedout 2010 season. I believe that he was bound for the 2011 stats regardless of the lockout. If there wasn’t a lockout, he would have had more time to prepare and get on the same page as his teammates. Opposing defenses would have had more time to get themselves ready as well. The point is, most every aspect of offense and defense would have their sharp edge eliminated by the lockout. The level of play and competition was still at a high level in 2011 despite the lockout, and I don’t think we saw a dramatic difference of results whether or not there was the extra time or preparation or not.
The one place where I think a person could make an argument we will see a great improvement in is the play of second year players, guys who were rookies in 2011 like Julio Jones, Jacquizz Rodgers, and Akeem Dent. Those guys had zero NFL experience, were thrown into an abbreviated offseason and training camp, and still were asked to produce at the highest level of football. I think we can expect to see bigger and better things from second year players around the league (especially those who experienced injuries) who see their first training camp experience. This is one department where the Falcons can reasonably improve, and I am looking forward to improvements.
Scheme is important. That is highlighted by the Falcons’ recent hiring of Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan, and OC Dirk Koetter. Obviously the Falcons offense and defense will have big adjustments to their new schemes, but that learning curve will not be as great as it would have been if there were a coordinator change in a lockout year. In 2011, the majority of players were familiar with the schemes already, which helped. Making offensive and defense schematic changes is only possible with a full offseason program, and that is something that gives the Falcons a chance to achieve.