21
Dec
10

2010 Atlanta Falcons: Not Your Father’s Dirty Birds

The most overlooked team in the NFL this season has to be the currently 12-2 Atlanta Falcons.  In the NFC, everyone’s focus seems to be on former Falcon Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles.  Without a doubt, the Eagles are a good team and Vick is a strong candidate for league MVP.  The struggles of the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins are getting more press than the leaders of the NFC South division.  And that’s just the way the Falcons want it.

The 2010 Falcons are not a fluke.  Since 2003, this was was a team whose identity and fortunes rested on the shoulders of one player, Michael Vick.  He was a quarterback like no one had every seen before.  His legs helped him excel in the position more than his arm did.  However, it was his extreme error in judgment off the field that would ultimately change the entire Falcons make-up and propel them to being a current Superbowl favorite.  During the 2007, Vick was convicted of running a dog fighting ring.  Their head coach, Bobby Petrino, a college coaching demigod, abruptly quit after only one season.  Falcons owner, Arthur Blank, decided a wholesale change was needed.  He was left with no choice but to release Vick.  The entire episode may have been a public relations nightmare for the Atlanta organization which has struggled for credibility for almost it’s entire existence, but it was Blank’s next decision that would truly set the wheels in motion for their current success.

Blank looked to the league’s most successful franchise and hired the New England Patriots Head of College Scouting, Thomas Dimitroff, to be his next General Manager.  Who?  Exactly!  Dimitroff was charged with cleaning house.  He applied his skill at evaluating player talent and selected Mike Smith to be the team’s next head coach.  Smith, the defensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars, had not been at the top of very many team’s coaching prospects list, but Dimitroff recognized that the Jags had had a very strong defense since Smith was in charge on that side of the ball.  From his time in New England, Dimitroff also knew that ultimately, defense wins championships.  However, with the exception of the ’85 Bears and the ’00 Ravens, it takes more than defense.

Dimitroff and Smith went into their first draft knowing they needed to find someone to handle the ball under center.  The 2008 NFL was utterly devoid of any recognizable quarterback talent.  With the third pick overall, they selected Matt Ryan out of Boston College.  Who?  Exactly!  Ryan was the first QB picked and only one of two quarterbacks picked in the entire first round (Joe Flacco picked #13 by the Baltimore Ravens).  Ryan had an average career at BC, not known as a college quarterback factory, but he did throw for over 4500 yards with 31 TD’s and 19 picks in his senior year.  Dimitroff and Smith had one more move to make.  Their first crack at free agency, they took a gamble on the seldom used back-up to NFL MVP LaDainian Thomlinson, Michael Turner.  Now all they needed was a little time for the chemistry to develop.

It didn’t take very long.  The on-field triumvirate of Smith, Ryan and Turner meshed immediately and the Falcons finished the 2008 season with an 11-5 record and their first playoff appearance in four years.  The playoff party ended early when they lost a heart-breaker in the first round to the eventual NFC Champion Arizona Cardinals.  Dimitroff was named by Sporting News as the NFL Executive of the Year.  First year head coach Mike Smith won NFL Coach of the Year while Matt Ryan won Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.  Michael Turner proved he was a sleeping giant while in San Diego as he rushed for one yard shy of 1700 in his first chance as a team’s starting running back.  2009 was a bit of a set-back year for the Falcons.  Ryan struggled a bit with the sophomore jinx.  Turner missed 5 games due to a sprained knee.  The entire team had to deal with the 2009 team of destiny, the New Orleans Saints.  The Georgia birds finished with a respectable 9-7 record.  The year wasn’t a total loss.  Dimitroff took another gamble.  This time, pulling the trigger on a trade that got them aging future Hall of Fame tight end Anthony Gonzales.

This year, everyone is healthy.  After an opening day road loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Falcons go 12-1 and after 15 weeks, the team sits atop the NFC Conference and is poised to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.  Matt Ryan has thrown for over 3300 yards and a mind-numbing 25 TD’s with only 9 picks.  Turner has rushed for 1256 yards and is sporting impressive 4.2 yrds/att.  Gonzales has shown that he still has some gas in the tank.  You would think that with a 12-2 record, the Falcons would be in the upper echelon of league offensive and defensive team stats.  However, Atlanta sits at 12th on overall team offense and 15th in overall team defense.  This tells me two things.  They’re a balanced team.  The other thing this tell me is that they haven’t played very many good teams.  Their 12 wins have come against teams with a combined record of 67-87.  They have a huge game at home against the Saints and a home final against the lowly Panthers.  I think the Falcons will finish with a 14-2 record, tying their franchise best, and a first round bye in the playoffs.  I believe Atlanta is the favorite to go to their second Superbowl appearance with only their old friend Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles standing in their way.  If Coach Smith can tighten up his defense and Ryan and Turner can continue to play at a Pro Bowl caliber level, the birds should be flying high.

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