By David Choate, The Falcoholic
The Atlanta Falcons are a team on the rise.
While that's still a strange sentence to write for a long-suffering Falcons fan, everything points to a brighter tomorrow for the Dirty Birds. For the first time in recent memory, the team has a long-term plan, effective players in the here and now and the coaching staff to pull it all together. It's a great thing.
As nice as a plan for the future is, the Falcons still have to go out and make a name for themselves in 2010. I predict they'll do it. Let me tell you why.
Significant Offseason Additions/Subtractions
The Falcons did a little addition by subtraction early on by jettisoning Tye Hill, he of the first round bust pedigree. From there, it was all uphill.
The big splash this off-season was the signing of Dunta Robinson, the former Houston Texans cornerback. The Falcons will be gambling that he can be effective as the undisputed top cornerback on the team. While his interception numbers took a nosedive after his rookie season, he's clearly a coverage upgrade for the young secondary and should make a difference immediately.
Other than that, the Falcons chiefly built through the draft. Sean Weatherspoon is an extremely talented young linebacker who really only needs a coat of polish before he has an impact. Mike Johnson and Joe Hawley are future starters along the offensive line. The biggest loss so far has been promising rookie receiver Kerry Meier, who was slated for a reserve and special teams role because of his versatility and sure hands, but will now miss the season after tearing ligaments in his knees.
Overall, it's a low key kind of off-season, one aimed at bolstering our existing strengths. Speaking of which....
Don't let last year fool you. The Falcons are a very strong team offensively, but it starts and ends with Michael Turner. A workhorse back like Turner, who missed significant time last year with ankle injuries, sets up everything else the team does on offense. He looks lean, mean and healthy for 2010, which means the team should catapult into the Top 10 offenses.
Offensive Coordinator Mike Mularkey is an unusually conservative guy at times, but there's no denying the short passing game is difficult to stop with Gonzalez in the mix. White and newly healthy slot receiver Harry Douglas form a dangerous deep duo. The team should offer an extremely balanced attack, one that's going to give opposing defenses fits all year long.
Of course, the offensive line doesn't appear as strong as we'd like. There's a lot of hope that what we've seen in the pre-season thus far-poor blocking, lack of mobility, bad decision-making- is a fluke.
The real question mark for this team coming into this season remains the defense. It's a unit that has been improved, and a lot of holdovers have another year of experience under their belt and should play better. The Falcons still aren't a defensive juggernaut.
Up front, there's a lot of promise. Kroy Biermann is turning heads in the pre-season with his ability to get into the backfield and blow up the quarterback, and he seems poised to start opposite perennial sackster John Abraham. Our depth at defensive tackle is very good.
Linebacker is another potential strength. As mentioned, Weatherspoon seems to have the skillset necessary to be a very good outside linebacker in the Falcons' system, and middle linebacker Curtis Lofton is a perennial Pro Bowl candidate up the middle.
The secondary is obviously the weak link, even with the addition of Robinson. Opposing offenses found it way too easy to rack up yardage on the Falcons in 2009, and while I think the youthful depth chart has a ton of promise, I don't expect them to become a lockdown unit overnight. Look for Chris Owens to do very well opposite Robinson, however, and look for safety Thomas DeCoud to flirt with a Pro Bowl berth.
Eric Weems is the likely kick and punt returner. He's speedy and agile, but sometimes makes poor decisions. He should be effective enough.
Our kicker is Matt Bryant, who is just a tick above average as long as you're not approaching 50 yards. Nobody's thrilled that he's won the job after such a short competition with young Steve Hauschka, but he's much more effective than Jason Elam, who fell apart for the Falcons last year. He'll have plenty of opportunities to kick with this high-powered offense.
Last but definitely not least is Michael Koenen. He's a Jekyll and Hyde type who booms kickoffs effectively but will have games where he looks like a bad punter. Generally speaking, when he's on, there are few better punters in the NFL. He can pin an opposing team's returner deep in their own territory frequently.
Simply put, the coaching has been effective, if at times frustrating.
Mike Smith is a terrific head coach. He motivates his players well, he rarely makes dumb mistakes and he's hilariously easy to fire up.
Mike Mularkey makes Falcons fans angry with his play calling at times, but for the most part he does a good job drawing out the strengths of the offense. Another season of dink and dunk with no ambition will change my tune.
Brian Van Gorder is a guy who needs to get more out of the defense. We now have the personnel to mount an effective pass rush, so he'll need to put the Falcons in a position to succeed. That hasn't always been the case in the past.
Conclusion/Prediction for 2010
Legitimate concerns about the defense and play calling aside, this is a very good football team. I'm sticking with my prediction of 10-6 with a Wild Card berth and some playoff success, though I don't think the Falcons will be winning a Super Bowl this season. There's a lot to be excited about here, and I expect this to be the first playoff season of many to come.