The Atlanta Falcons Are A Much Improved Team in 2014


The Atlanta Falcons are in a state of flux. A team that was a fumbled snap and/or a completed pass away from a Super Bowl appearance two years ago was quickly dismissed as irrelevant by pundits after a failed 2013 campaign. The explanation for this cynicism is debatable. My opinion is that football is by nature a sport predicated upon dominance. Teams whose notable skills are precision and consistency are diminished via arcane logic such as lack of toughness. It’s a lazy type of criticism that is as vague as it is irrefutable.

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No casual onlooker can quantify the metrics needed to determine toughness. All they know is that if a team consistently fails on 4th and 1, they must be weak.

The legitimate explanation is too dry for most to appreciate. Consider a player whose primary purpose is ostensibly to block, at least by the conventional definition of his position. If I told you that Pro Football Focus graded his last four seasons of run blocking as -1.3, -3.0, -9.2, and -7.0, your logical inference would be that we should cut that scrub. If I add the name Tony Gonzalez to the data, your opinion would change.

The Falcons as constructed in prior seasons were not a finesse team per se. No team with a concentrated rushing attack ever is. The problem the team faced in short yardage was that Atlanta’s personnel were better equipped for passing formations since the ONLY thing Tony Gonzalez struggled to do late in his career was block. An entire team

Dec 29, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez (88) waves to the fans after the game against the Carolina Panthers at the Georgia Dome. The Panthers won 21-20. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

reputation was cemented, and that opinion was predicated upon the formational weakness caused by the presence of one of the greatest players of all time.

Tony Gonzalez is no longer with the Falcons. Perhaps you’ve heard. Entering 2014, the new roster has a different style. Gone is a likely first ballot Hall of Famer who averaged 82 receptions for 837 yards and seven TDs as a Falcon. More important to the team, nobody in football converted more third downs over the past two seasons than Gonzalez. His absence is theoretically felt every time the team needs to move the chains in order to avoid punting.

There is a hidden aspect to this void, something I must confess I had missed until I watched the Falcons play for the first time on Sunday. During his Atlanta career, Tony Gonzalez averaged 10.2 yards per reception. Last season, he was targeted 121 times out of quarterback Matt Ryan’s 651 passing attempts, which is 18.6% of the time. Gonzalez caught 83 of those passes for 859 yards. In layman’s terms, if Tony Gonzalez were a button, Matt Ryan gained an average of 7.1 yards every time he pushed said button.

What does this mean for Ryan in 2014? He is less predictable, and the passing game is thereby more dangerous. Let’s examine this premise for a moment. Explosive offense is a sloppy (but fun) term that gets thrown around far too often. The underlying meaning is that a team is potent enough to score anywhere at any time. Has this been true of the Falcons during their extended playoff run? Ignoring 2013, the team scored at least 400 points each of the previous three seasons. During that time frame, the team’s regular season record was 36-12, a dazzling .750 winning percentage.

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We can and will discuss the cliché that defense wins championships in future columns, but we should ignore the pink elephant in the living room for the moment. The basic premise of the sport is to outscore the opponent. The Atlanta Falcons have excelled since they drafted Matt Ryan, because he has demonstrated an unerring ability to put points on the board. The underlying question has been whether he could do that without his Hall of Fame security blanket on the field. In the Ringling Bros. vernacular, he is now flying without a safety net.

Game One of the season provided the first glimpse of the post-Gonzalez era for Matt Ryan. And if that is the team’s future, they are inTimbuk 3 territory, as the future is so bright that they need the requisite shades. What happened on Sunday? The answer is simple. The Falcons only executed only one of the meticulous, slogging 14+ play drives for which they have become notorious. The Falcons scored four touchdowns in 39 plays, and they were on play eight of another potential touchdown drive when Julio Jones fumbled into the end zone. Those scoring drives comprised 334 yards of total offense at a clip of 8.6 yards per play. The team will not need Tony Gonzalez to convert on third down if they never reach third down in the first place.

Contrast the game one statistics to last year’s first game when the team also played New Orleans. Atlanta managed only 17 points in that contest, and their total yardage for the entire game was only 367. In the five drives mentioned above, the Falcons gashed the Saints for 413 yards in 22:58 of game time, an average of 4:36 per touchdown. That’s warp speed, Mr. Sulu. What is the difference here? Matt Ryan no longer had the Tony Gonzalez button to push.

Tony Gonzalez was a damned near perfect football player. In years past, the first thing I would do every time I tore open my new copy of Madden (and my gameplay goes all the way back to the Sega Genesis) was trade for Gonzalez. His performance was light years beyond any other tight end in football for the body of a decade. Historically, the only other players at the position who could be mentioned in the same breath as him were Wesley Walls, Antonio Gates, and Jason Witten.

“There is no doubt that (Tony Gonzalez) is the best tight end to ever play the game and will have a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Tony was the consummate professional that led by example. He was one of the hardest working players I have ever been around and has left a lasting impact on this team,” Thomas Dimitroff

In recent years, the Tight End position has evolved such that players like Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski have become seminal cogs in the offense, and the primary reason why is that clever personnel people have finally quantified the value of Gonzalez. In past seasons, the Falcons did nothing wrong in prioritizing Tony Gonzalez on offense. To the contrary, doing anything else would have been foolish. Somehow, his absence on the playing field has fundamentally changed the dynamic of the team now.

The new look Falcons highlight Harry Douglas in the slot and Devin Hester on the wing. In doing so, the team has refreshed their look and playing style. No longer does Ryan cede to the temptation of the Tony Gonzalez Button. Instead, he is forced to be a more aggressive player who attacks vertically out of need more than want. A fairly conservative player has spent the offseason redefining his style of play, and the early results have been glowing.

Nine Atlanta players had receptions in week one. Four of them caught at least five passes, an almost unprecedented distribution for a Falcons team in recent years. Whereas Gonzalez had been targeted an average of 7.6 times per game, those passes were spread out on Sunday. In the process, the hapless Saints secondary was utterly befuddled in how to defend their opponent. The Matt Ryan they have been scheming against twice a year since 2008 no longer matched their scouting report, and their performance reflected this change. To bastardize a quote from Cinderella Man, every New Orleans player was left telling their coach, “He ain’t the same guy.”

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The man Matt Ryan was on Sunday is the type of player who can win Super Bowls. Was that player a mirage, a good player having a lucky day, or the early warning signal of someone who has leveled up? My immediate reaction was that he was especially accurate on a day when the Saints were pathetic. Upon reflection, however, I’ve come to realize that in taking Tony Gonzalez off the board, the Falcons may have found the best way to improve the offense. Matt Ryan no longer settles for the safe, easy play, and the Falcons are night and day better for it.

"Author bio: David Mumpower is the founder of and His work has been cited in many major publications such as CNN, USA, and Slate. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidmumpower, but please keep in mind that he views tweeting the same way that most people see spiders."