You might never know that changes were afoot for the Atlanta Falcons this spring. There were no coaching changes, general manager Thomas Dimitroff is still there, and Matt Ryan is entering his fifth season as the team's franchise quarterback. But change is coming for the Falcons.
Since the Falcons drafted Matt Ryan in 2008, the design of the offense revolved around a strong running game. That started to change last season when the Falcons drafted traded up to draft Alabama receiver Julio Jones. Michael Turner's decline will force them into the 21st century offensive philosophy this season, leaning more and more on the passing game and a more modern approach to running the ball with speedster Jacquizz Rodgers doing more work on the outside and as a receiver.
Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey left to coach the Jaguars. Mularkey probably passed former Jacksonville offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter in the bus station, as Koetter headed north to take his place. Koetter never had much to work with in Jacksonville beyond Maurice Jones-Drew, and the Jaguars' offense was never very productive after 2007, Koetter's first season. His past is steeped in a balanced attack, which should help Mike Smith come to grips with life as something more than a ground-and-pound offense.
A yeoman approach to defense has served the Falcons well enough in recent years. They played the run well. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's group never produced much pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and the lack of a viable corner to pair with Brent Grimes made the unit most susceptible to the pass. They added cornerback Asante Samuel and kept John Abraham from leaving. VanGorder is gone, and Mike Nolan is replacing him. Nolan's biggest question heading into the season is just how much the defense will miss middle linebacker Curtis Lofton. The addition of Lofa Tatupu helps some, but another big season from Sean Weatherspoon on the weakside matters most.
A cursory glance at the Falcons' record and schedule last season tells you all you need to know. Four of their six losses came against Green Bay, Houston and twice to New Orleans, all superior teams to Atlanta last season. A pair of early season losses to Chicago and Tampa Bay added another layer of disappointment; winning those games would have probably done little to change their fortunes in the playoffs.
You can bet that the team's leadership did not imagine those results when they traded away a heaping helping of draft picks to move up in the first round of Jones. He was supposed to be a player that put them over the edge, a second receiver that would put them on par with the Packers, who they lost to the year before in the playoffs. Jones was very good, even as a rookie, and it helped Matt Ryan reach career highs in both yards and touchdowns. The decline of Michael Turner and weaknesses on the offensive line compromised those gains.
Grimes solidified his place on the list of the league's top cornerbacks. Unfortunately, he lacked much help in the secondary beyond safety William Moore. Unfortunately, Moore missed four starts in his third season, a year in which the 2009 second-round pick was really starting to break through.
Defensive end Ray Edwards signed a five-year, $30 million deal, and produced just three and a half sacks opposite Abraham, after accumulating eight the year before in Minnesota.
Best Free Agent Pickup
Keeping your own free agents is often the best move a team can make, and the Falcons held on to both Grimes, via the franchise tag, and Abraham.
As for moves from the outside, they stole Samuel from the Eagles for a nominal late-round draft pick. It makes for a very strong pairing in the secondary. Samuel's knack for the ball adds another element to the defense.
2012 NFL Draft
Atlanta traded its first-round pick the year before in the Jones deal. They managed to get a player with first-round talent when Wisconsin center Peter Konz slipped into the second round. Eventually, Konz will take over for Todd McClure. In the meantime, the former Badger figures to be the Falcons starting right guard.
Troy defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi, a fifth-round pick, could contribute right away as a situation pass rusher, something the Falcons could really use. His hands give him an ability to wiggle through blockers. He will need some seasoning before he can be a full time player.
Over the years the Falcons have done a solid job of finding starters and key role players in the later rounds of the draft, and this year's draft class could have a few of those waiting in the wings. Offensive tackle Lamar Holmes, a third-round pick out of Southern Mississippi, has the kind of raw skills that project well on the left side, where Sam Baker has been a disappointment. Fullback Bradie Ewing should see plenty of playing time this season as a lead blocker and working in pass protection.
This was a team that was not built to bomb the ball downfield and make up huge deficits, and it was not a defense equipped to deal with strong pockets and multiple receiving options. The Falcons won plenty during the regular season because they had talent and they stuck to a style that has worked exceptionally well for teams for the better part of 40 years.
2012 stands to be the epitaph for that style. Offensively, the team installed a new offensive coordinator who seems to believe in more creative passing plays and is more willing to use the no-huddle and strikes downfield. Defensively, they've added a coordinator known for his ability to squeeze a pass rush out of multiple players and brought aboard one of the finest ball-hawking cornerbacks of this generation to help out the secondary. Everything they've done this off-season right down to the draft has been about catching up to the rest of the league.
This is not an indictment of the Falcons brain trust. They did what they thought was best and brought this franchise a ton of success, and while we can certainly debate whether it took them too long to do so, they've realized that changes were necessary.
Given its strong receiving options, (hopefully) improved line, better schemes and upgraded secondary, this Falcons team should be built to hang with the league's elite passing teams. It may not happen overnight and we're sure to experience unpleasant growing pains, but the talent is there. The Falcons have changed with the NFL, and they may just wreak havoc on the league because of it.
They Make The Playoffs If ...
Whatever sentient being made Atlanta's schedule did not do them any favors. They drew the AFC West, NFC East and the Detroit Lions, and all of those opponents will be a crucial test for an offense determined to rely more and more on the passing game, and the defense will have to keep things close.
With the Saints in free fall, there really is no time like the present for the Falcons. Had they managed to beat New Orleans at least once last season, the NFC South would have been a far more competitive place. With Carolina and Tampa Bay ready to compete, Atlanta will have to sweep New Orleans and hold off both of the other teams.