The Atlanta Falcons’ Case for a Repeat of History


In the famous 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, the main character Jay Gatsby recited one of the most famous quotes in modern literature: when told that he can’t repeat the past, Gatsby challenged that notion, saying “why of course you can.”

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What does repeating the past mean for the Atlanta Falcons? This team wants to get back to the time when it was in the playoffs seemingly every year, and when it won 13 games and achieved homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, twice in three years. Having said that, the Falcons have made the best possible start to their 2014 season: beating the hated rival and division favorite New Orleans Saints, 37-34, in an overtime thriller. With the offense actually healthy to start the season, Atlanta looked more like the 2012 team that won 13 games, as opposed to the 4 win team from 2013.

In 2012, Atlanta made it all the way to the NFC Championship game, and came an agonizing 10 yards shy of getting to the Super Bowl. That was the closest a professional Atlanta Sports team has gotten to winning a championship since the Braves did it in 1995 (which is to this day the only professional sports championship in Atlanta history). Other than a 2nd half in that title game which saw the Falcons blow a 17-0 lead against the 49ers, that was the season every Atlanta fan dreamed of. This year, the Falcons will look to repeat history and get back to that very recent stretch where they were a contender every year, in what has been the most successful stretch in franchise history.

The most important piece in an attempted repeat of history for the Falcons will undoubtedly be Matt Ryan. The seventh year man from Boston College (yes, its been seven years already) has been the Falcons’ undisputed leader since entering the league in 2008, and is on the cusp of becoming one of game’s elite quarterbacks. Ryan had the best game of his career (… so far) against the Saints in that week 1 shootout: throwing for a franchise record 448 yards along with 3 touchdowns, while also surpassing Steve Bartkowski to move into first place on the the Falcons’ all time passing touchdown list (156) in the process (he was already first in passing yards and completions).

Sep 7, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) celebrates their 37-34 overtime win over the New Orleans Saints at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

When Atlanta went down by three points with less than a minute and a half left in the game, every Falcons fan genuinely knew that “Mattie Ice” was going to lead the 4th comeback to at least force overtime (which he did). The definition of the word “clutch” is a picture of Matt Ryan. He has the most 4th quarter comebacks out of anyone in the league since 2008 (the year he was drafted). Former Falcons head coach Jerry Glanville said of Ryan: “This kid, he has a pulse rate that doesn’t change, he’s gonna take it down there and he’s gonna make the plays. And does he do it once? twice? He does it all the time, he’s not a normal person.” Ryan was top 5 in the NFL last year in completions and passing yards despite having no protection in the form of an offensive line (we’ll get to that), and an injured stable of receivers.

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Nobody expected last season’s extreme free fall, but then again nobody can predict injuries. Probably the biggest reason for the four win year was various injuries to offensive playmakers, which proved to be crippling. The big blow was obviously the loss of Julio Jones, who broke a screw in his surgically repaired foot in a matchup against the New York Jets on Monday Night Football. Jones ended up missing 11 games, which is a shame because he was leading the league in catches and receiving yards before the injury. Roddy White, Matt Ryan’s other favorite target, suffered a high ankle sprain in the preseason; he tried playing through it, but it was obvious that he wasn’t the same. White missed three games and didn’t get into form until the last month of the season. Matt Ryan will have his number one and two receivers back this season along with a battle tested Harry Douglas, who had over 1000 yards last year as the defacto number one WR, and an explosive Devin Hester. Ryan spread the ball to nine different receivers against the Saints, five of which had 50 yards or more: the receiving core looks stronger than ever, even with the departure of the legendary Tony Gonzalez.

Aug 1, 2014; Lawrenceville, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons wide receivers Roddy White (84) Julio Jones (11) and Harry Douglas (83) talk on the field during practice during Falcons Friday Night Lights at Archer High School. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

This great quarterback, these great receivers, and even the case for a repeat of history itself, would mean nothing if the offensive line plays the way it did last year. This shouldn’t be a problem however, because the Falcons’ offensive line is rebuilt and poised to make strides this season. New arrivals Jake Matthews (the 6th overall pick in the draft), Jon Asamoah, and Gabe Carimi, should solidify this formerly tumultuous offensive line. They join Justin Blalock, Joe Hawley, and Lamar Holmes in providing the front line of defense for Matt Ryan and the run game. They did an excellent job in the game against New Orleans: Matt Ryan was given time in the pocket (and made time for himself when he didn’t have it) and the run game was effective. The addition of new offensive line coach Mike Tice has been very underrated: he has instilled a new attitude in this unit and he will prove to be an important offseason addition. If the line can continue to play the way it did against the Saints, then it’ll be a fun year for the offense.

Other than Matt Ryan, the main beneficiaries of the re-designed offensive line will be Steven Jackson, Jaquizz Rodgers, Devonta Freeman, and Antone Smith: the running backs. Mike Smith has made it known that the Falcons will be going with a committee approach this year, and that should give all four of these backs an opportunity to make an impact. Jackson is the experienced vet and will get the bulk of the carries due to the fact that he’s by far the best pass blocker of the group. Devonta Freeman was the 4th round pick in the draft and has been impressive throughout the preseason and in the first game against the Saints. Falcons fans are all familiar with Jaquizz Rodgers and know what he brings to the table: he’s a proven backup who can carry the load, during stretches, when asked to do so. And then there’s Antone Smith, who’s a big play threat every time get touches the ball: just ask the Saints. The running backs totaled 123 rushing yards against a Saints defense that was ranked number 4 overall in the NFL last year. The run game this season will be much better than last year’s, when it ranked dead last in total yards, and it will be better than the ground attack in 2012, which featured a burned out Michael Turner.

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Now, despite all of this adversity, all of these injuries, and a bad offensive line, Atlanta was still in almost every game it played last season: of the 12 losses the Falcons had, eight were by one possession. Atlanta didn’t play a single game last season where they had both Roddy White and Julio Jones at 100%: this could have been the difference between a 4-12 season and a 12-4 year accompanied with a playoff birth and a first round bye. This year, arguably the best receiving duo in the league is healthy, and Matt Ryan actually has time to throw to them; the sky is the limit for this offense.

"“This kid, he has a pulse rate that doesn’t change, he’s gonna take it down there and he’s gonna make the plays. And does he do it once? twice? He does it all the time, he’s not a normal person.” – Jerry Glanville on Matt Ryan."

The defense this year looks to be much better than last year’s unit, and might even be better than the 2012 defense. Don’t let that first game fool you, Drew Brees lights up the scoreboard against any team not named the Seattle Seahawks. The main criticism of this Falcons defense is that it doesn’t have a true pass rusher: John Abraham is gone, and Osi Umenyora isn’t close to being what he once was in New York. The philosophy this season is to collapse the offensive line from the inside in order to pressure the quarterback. Paul Soliai, a recent free agent acquisition from Miami, is a 355 pound nose tackle who will demand a double team almost every play. Jonathan Babineaux and 2nd round pick Ra’Shede Hageman will also be a handful for the offensive line. If these big Defensive Tackles can be disruptive, then that’ll create opportunities for Kroy Bierman and Osi Umenyora on the edges, along with linebackers Joplo Bartu, Prince Shembo, and Paul Worrilow to get to the quarterback. It’s an unorthodox approach, but it’s one that might just work.

Sep 7, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant (21) defends on a pass intended for New Orleans Saints wide receiver Joe Morgan (13) during the first quarter at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The strength of this defense is the secondary. 2013 first and second round picks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford have become one of the best young CB tandems in the league, and underrated Strong Safety William Moore has developed a knack for making the big play. Trufant proved to be one of the best players in his draft class last season, exhibiting great closing speed and wonderful instincts which earned him the reputation of being a shutdown corner as early as the second half of his rookie season. It was amazing how, in a week 17 matchup against the Carolina Panthers, Cam Newton simply refused to throw his way. Alford has proven to be a very good corner back as well: in the week 1 matchup against the Saints this year, he allowed only one reception in 43 snaps against a prolific passing attack. Robert Mcclain is also very reliable nickel corner, he picked off Drew Brees in what was the game’s turning point week 1. William Moore had the other big defensive play in that game, stripping Marques Colston in overtime to set up a game winning field goal. This secondary full of playmakers has the ability to make a game changing play in an instant, and they’ll be a key component for the Falcons in the turnover battle this season.

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  • The roster looks very good for the Falcons this season, and so does the schedule to start the year. When said schedule was initially released, it was immediately noted that the two toughest games Atlanta had before the week 9 bye was the opening game against the Saints, and a week 2 matchup against the Bengals in Cincinnati. The Saints have already been taken care of, now if the Falcons win their week 2 game against the Bengals, an 8-0 start before the bye will be within reach. The other teams on the schedule before the bye are: the Buccaneers (home), Vikings (away), Giants (away), Bears (home), Ravens (away), and Lions (in London), in that order. Atlanta will be the favorite in most of these games, and could repeat the 2012 feat of playing half the season (or longer) before suffering their first lost. The second half of the season, which features games such at Green Bay, at New Orleans, and two meetings against the Carolina Panthers, will prove to be a tough test for the Falcons; this makes getting off to a good start before the bye more important than ever.

    The stars seem to be in alignment for the Falcons to get back to their winning ways. With the roster revamped and finally healthy, and the schedule favorable enough to generate some early season momentum, the Atlanta Falcons have a great opportunity to prove Jay Gatsby right.