ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 15: Julio Jones #11 of the Atlanta Falcons catches a 29-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars at the Georgia Dome on December 15, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
The Falcons enter the 2012 season looking to break free from the stigma of being a "one and done" team. But will the coaching and personnel changes made in the offseason be enough?
The new Atlanta Falcons preach consistency, but it has become something of a running joke: every year they top .500 in the regular season, and every year they are a one-and-done team in the playoffs.
Since 2008, the year that Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith took over and rescued this team from mediocrity, the Falcons have been an organization that prides itself on continuity.
For four years: the same offensive and defensive coordinators, offensive line coach, fullback, middle linebacker, and backup quarterback. Those players and/or coaches are now all gone.
And while those changes fall short of the wholesale overhaul we witnessed after the infamous 2007 campaign, hiring new play-callers on both sides of the ball and losing two Pro Bowl-caliber players in Ovie Mughelli and Curtis Lofton are not minor changes at all.
They were necessary changes, too. It's asinine to think you can run you offense like it's 1972.
Archaic offense, or "Run-Run-Pass"
In five of six losses last season, the Falcons were held to 16 points or less. Mike Mularkey's offense had become predictable, bland, stale, and something of a dinosaur in today's NFL.
And of course, there's also the 24-2 postseason loss to the Giants. Atlanta was shut out by the same defense that gave up 28 points to the Redskins, 27 points to the 49ers, and 49 points to the Saints. What's wrong with that picture?
So Thomas Dimitroff elected to invest in new offensive play caller Dirk Koetter, who brings the "vertical passing attack" to the Falcons offense. But that is not what a team that finished No. 8 in passing yards and finished twelfth in passing plays of 40 or more yards needs.
The Falcons need variety, innovation, and a fresh set of eyes to mold an offense that consists of a franchise quarterback, a workhorse running back, two star receivers and the best tight end to ever play the game.
The preseason usually doesn't tell us much about a team. But if the early returns we saw from both Matt Ryan and Julio Jones mean anything, it's that this offense could be in for a huge season. Jones, despite his lack of dreads, is an absolute monster ready to bust out of his cage.
The team is moving away from a one-back system, with Jacquizz Rodgers seeing more touches and utilization in the passing game. Even the elusive screen play has showed up from time to time!
Scapegoats: those five guys up front
Ah, yes. The bane of Matt Ryan's existence, these guys.
You'll notice that the week one starters on the offensive line are the exact same as last year's. Sam Baker remains the starter at left tackle, and Peter Konz failed to overtake incumbent Garrett Reynolds- who was benched halfway through last season- for the right guard spot.
Will they hold up? New offensive line coach Pat Hill may make a positive impact on the struggling Reynold's technique, and Baker wasn't healthy, but this line could still be a disaster in-waiting. The loss of Will Svitek could really hurt down the road if things go awry.
Despite their inexperience, I'd say it is inevitable that both Konz and rookie left tackle Lamar Holmes eventually take over as starters this season. I think that is the best-case scenario for this group.
The two rookies bring much more potential and probably even a better opportunity to win now than either Baker or Reynolds if they can continue developing into the season. But until they're ready to, Ryan and Michael Turner will have to grit their teeth and bear it.
Still, whether we like to admit it or not, those five guys got us through half of 2011 above .500. If Koetter can manage to work around their weaknesses until Konz and Holmes can start, the Falcons should be a-okay.
I'm not sure if that speaks more about Polite's skill or Cox's lack thereof (he did play at Tech GODAWGS), but I do know that Polite was considered one of the top blocking fullbacks in the league about three years ago. There's a chance he'll return to that form.
A Suave New D-Coordinator
Mike Nolan is classy as hell. He won't be wearing suits in that booth, but he is bringing the tools for success he displayed in Miami for the past two seasons.
Nolan's guided two top-ten rushing defenses and one top-ten passing defense since 2010, and brings what has been called a much more "complex" defensive scheme to Atlanta.
It's a hybrid defense that mixes up its fronts (three and four linemen), one that is more varied in blitzing its linebackers (think Robert James), and one that can send out three great corners in Grimes, Samuel, and Robinson.
Nolan might also be relying on rookie defensive tackle Travian Robertson, a seventh-round pick of the Falcons, much more than we think. Why?
Because unlike Babineaux or Peria Jerry, Robertson is the only one amongst this thin D-tackle corps that can effectively line up as a nose tackle and take on the double team when Nolan switches to a 3-4 front, which he's already done in the preseason.
Risky? Yes, throwing a seventh-round pick into an elevated role like that could work against the Falcons. But it's also gutsy, and it's not any crazier than Brian Van Gorder's fondness for dropping defensive ends into coverage.
Oh wowee, three cornerbacks
You also can't forget the three starting-caliber cornerbacks on this roster, nor the double standard that comes with being the Falcons. Consider these two "analyses" from the same news source (ESPN):
2011: "The Eagles have three cornerbacks! Sure, there linebacking corps lacks any and all experience, as does their defensive coordinator (an offensive line coach), but shoot, they're the Dream Team! They'll win it all!"
2012: "And in other news, the Falcons traded for Asante Samuel. They have a more talented linebacking corps, one of the top defensive coordinators in the league... but they lost Curtis Lofton!! This defense is pathetic. Saints win the NFC South!"
At least, that's the vibe that seems to come across nowadays. It's overlooked that the secondary should take a step forward, and with an upgrade in coaching the entire defense should follow suit.
The difference is in the playcalling
Why are Sean Payton and Gregg Williams (or in Williams' case, was) considered some of the best minds in the game? Their playcalling is phenomenal. They know how to use all of their weapons, from Marques Colston down to backup tight end David Thomas.
For years, this team suffered from vanilla football on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Falcons fans should see firsthand this year just how much of a difference a coordinator can make. In the case of the Saints, they will underachieve despite the plethora of talent they possess.
As for the Falcons, while it may not be a 13-win repeat of 2010, they have the coaching and pieces in place to win the division and finally make that postseason run we've been waiting for.
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