Atlanta Falcons: There Is Plenty To Be Excited About In 2014


The start of the football season, especially to us Atlanta Falcons fans, is always a time of extreme optimism for fans.

Unlike the NBA and, to a lesser extent, Major League Baseball, any team in the NFL legitimately has a shot to win each season. We all know that the Philadelphia 76ers or Houston Astros will not win a title next season, but any team with a solid quarterback has a chance. For that matter, the Baltimore Ravens have proven twice since 2000 that even mediocrity at the quarterback position can be overcome. Yes, the start of the football season is when wish fulfillment is a viable possibility.

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Fast forward to the Tuesday after the first day of the NFL season, and half the teams in football are panicking.

They have seen the statistics from the New York Times that indicate something scary. Only 22.7% of teams that lose in week one over the past decade have made the playoffs. How is that for a bitter pill to swallow? If your team is already 0-1, they have less than one chance in four to play in January.

Of course, the teams who won their first game should not be much more excited. Only 52.3% of 1-0 teams since 2002 have earned a playoff berth. Yes, all of the undefeated teams in the league are still just a coin flip to make the playoffs. What can we draw from this data? Football fans and (especially) football analysts do not appreciate the difficulty in becoming a playoff team. We have become a results-oriented society that diminishes any result that does not reflect primacy.

Where does that leave a team with the best wide receivers in the game and an upper tier quarterback but a questionable offensive line and no defensive pass rush of note? The answer is that they are in a situation where they have to start from scratch. Until the Atlanta Falcons prove that they are virtually the same team as the 13-3 squad that claimed the best record in the NFC two seasons ago, they have no hope for respect or credibility. And based upon what was said of the team in the offseason in 2013, even after such success, respect is not guaranteed. Of course, that only matters to football organizations that play for headlines, and the Falcons are thankfully not one of those groups.

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  • In order to start the campaign the right way, the Falcons had to beat a team that is a popular pick to win not just the NFC South but also the NFC itself. Since no Super Bowl champion has won a playoff game in a decade, the perception is that Seattle will not repeat as conference winner this season. Since they are the unquestioned choice as the best team in football at the moment, the choice of who to pick instead seemed to go to the New Orleans Saints by default.

    During the offseason, I noted the oddity of the logic as that team is only one season removed from having THE worst defense in the history of football yet that is how football prognostication works. Nobody takes a moment to consider that the last team to beat the upstart Seattle Seahawks in a playoff game was none other than the then-healthy Atlanta Falcons. But I digress.

    The point is that the Falcons experienced something of a Groundhog Day scenario last Sunday. As was the case in 2013, they began the season against their most hated foe, the New Orleans Saints. And as was the case in 2013, the game came down to the final play. Twice, actually. The difference in the outcome this season as opposed to last year is that we did not rely on our veterans, Steven Jackson and Tony Gonzalez, at the end of the game. That is partially because Tony Gonzalez was on CBS participating in NFL Today, his new gig. It is also partially because Jackson received only 13 out of the 30 touches provided to Falcons running backs on opening day. Suffice to say that the Falcons are embracing multiplicity in 2014.

    What is multiplicity? A fairly lousy Michael Keaton movie, for one. It is also an embraced idea of providing many looks as possible in order to run basically the same plays from 30 years ago, only in new and exciting ways. That is not actually what I mean with regards to the Falcons, though. They are multiple in a novel fashion. Thanks to being four deep at running back and featuring five NFL veterans at wide receiver, the team has a total of nine different skill position players. Including the tight ends, the number grows to 11, which is technically about the same as every other team in the NFL.

    There is plenty to be excited about this team in 2014

    The difference is that all of Atlanta’s primary receivers have either had a thousand yard seasons during the past two seasons or are Devin Hester. Now consider the running game, which features the active leader in NFL rushing yardage (no, really!) in Steven Jackson plus the future starter at the position, Devonta Freeman. Throw in the shifty Jacquizz Rodgers and the new Fred Jackson, Antone Smith, and the Falcons can stake a claim to having the best rushing personnel group in football in addition to having the best wide receivers. How in the blue Hell did that happen? No matter the explanation, this combination plus a stud QB in Matt Ryan and a 6’8” tight end, Levine Toilolo, for red zone situations, and the Falcons become historically difficult to defend.

    The proof is in the pudding. The Falcons ceded a 13-point lead to the defending champion in the NFC South, they committed the cardinal sin of football by fumbling inside the five-yard line, and they trailed by 10 points at halftime to the perceived best team in their conference. How did they respond? On offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter’s signal, the Falcons unleashed Hell upon the literally and figuratively defenseless Saints.

    The Falcons tallied 334 yards and 27 points in the second half and overtime. For the entire game, they torched New Orleans at an incomprehensible pace of 8.2 yards per play. Even if provided live artillery, the Saints may not have been able to slow down the Falcons. And here is the scary thought about the entire affair. The Falcons were better per play in the first half (8.7 yards per play) than during the second half scoring frenzy (8.0 yards per play).

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    Their initial excellence was hidden by the fact that Julio Jones fumbled on the last play of an otherwise brutally efficient 8 play, 79 yard drive. Also, New Orleans dominated first half time of possession 16:22 – 13:38, thereby preventing Atlanta from further damage, at least temporarily. Once Atlanta received the second half kickoff, the game became a month worth of Falcons highlights in 30 minutes of game film. Before you nitpick about overtime, remember that the only play of note was the fumble. Atlanta simply ran into the pile for the three plays after that.

    All of this is the good news. The bad news is obviously that the Falcons also fielded a defense, at least theoretically. They too were largely incompetent. The Falcons navigated free agency by placing a laser focus on the idea of stopping the run. Early results were less than satisfactory. The less than vaunted Saints rushing attack gained an average of 5.0 yards a carry. Per Pro Football Focus grading, Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson were respectively terrible and average. Soliai was graded at -2.2 against the run while Jackson claimed a respectable +0.5. Atlanta’s plan to dictate play calling for the other team failed in this regard.

    The end result was that New Orleans also managed a lofty per-play average of 6.7. Fortunately, the young tandem of Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant held up well in coverage. Both players earned a +1.7 in pass defense, which is exceptional. They are currently tied for the 17th in the NFL in this category. If they continue to perform at such a high level and the run defense improves to expected levels, the Atlanta Falcons could very well stage one of the strongest season to season recoveries in recent NFL history.

    Then again, the entire game could be a mirage. The entire NFL was subject to a rash of upsets in week one. It is far too early to draw any conclusions about the rest of the season, particularly since injuries could change the entire complexion of the team. Already, the Falcons are down to their third string left tackle, Gabe Carimi, which is hard to do one game into the season.

    Thankfully, Jake Matthews avoided catastrophe with his knee injury. Since I have dubbed him the most important member of the Falcons this season, I cannot overstate the importance of his health in determining the overall fate of the Falcons. Carimi scored a team-worst -7.1 on Sunday; he is also currently the lowest graded offensive tackle on Pro Football Focus. Atlanta is more vulnerable when he is on the field in place of Matthews. It is that simple.

    Still, the overall team picture after week one is glowing. As long as the pass protection holds up, the Falcons unquestionably have one of the top five wide receiver AND running back groupings plus a top ten quarterback who played like the best player in the league last game. If the defense can even slow down the opposition, the Falcons are poised to become the latest NFC South team to pick early in the draft then win 10+ games the following season. Atlanta is already 10% of the way there. Meanwhile, New Orleans is winless, which is an equally good feeling for Falcons fans.