When most people think of the Atlanta Falcons, what do you suppose first comes to mind? The team that drafted Brett Favre, only to trade him away after one year? The team that championed Michael Vick, a convicted animal killer, as its hero? Or perhaps simply the home of the "Dirty Bird" and all those touchdown runs by "Neon Deion"?
Any one of those images could qualify, but for almost the entire existence of the franchise, "winning" has never been one. During the Rankin Smith years, the team was one step above a joke. Multiple talented players would put on a Falcons jersey at some point in their careers, sure, but the team was always inconsistent and in a state of flux. Jessie Tuggle reminiscing about a home game in Fulton County Stadium featuring all of 5,000 fans says it all. But what about now?
Building A Winner
We all know the story: 4-12 Falcons go from a disaster-filled season under potential devil incarnate Bobby Petrino to a surprise (and I mean surprise) 11-5 that made the playoffs as a wild card. The Falcons experienced a top-to-bottom cleansing not often seen in the sports world.
In one offseason, the Falcons parted ways with longtime veterans Warrick Dunn, Alge Crumpler, and Rod Coleman, and soon after shipped DeAngelo Hall off to Oakland for draft picks. They signed career backup Michael Turner, drafted Matt Ryan and Curtis Lofton (among several others), and also retained two then-unknown practice squad players in Tyson Clabo and Brent Grimes.
But it takes more than talented players to really characterize this completely renewed football team. What Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith have brought to Atlanta is a much-needed culture change. Smitty was hired as the new head coach, preaching fundamental, mistake-free football as his philosophy (something the Jim Mora Falcons sorely lacked). Dimitroff then supplied him with players who fit his system, and who bought into "the process."
The rest is history. The "three-year plan," though it didn't bring a championship to Atlanta, did result in a 13-3 record and a No. 1 seed in the playoffs, along with populating the roster with young, talented players. Understandably, Falcons fans of old may be a little shocked.
The "New" Atlanta Falcons
With Thursday night's 41-14 romp of the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Falcons have secured their fourth consecutive winning season after going over 40 years without consecutive over-.500 seasons. Atlanta has had the same GM, head coach, offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, quarterback and middle linebacker since 2008. Up until this season, the offensive line also had the same starting five players since Thomas Dimitroff's arrival.
Right before our very eyes, the Falcons have become the very definition of consistency and stability. Crafted in a manner very much similar to Bill Belichick's Patriots, Dimitroff has put together a locker room that is full of high-effort team players. Perhaps most importantly, this team has been built through smart drafting, so much so that they're poised to remain a dominant team for at least the next few years
Gone are the days of Primetime's politically incorrect (although entertaining) quotes embodying the Falcons. Dimitroff and Mike Smith have brought in guys like Matt Ryan, Curtis Lofton, Tony Gonzalez, Brent Grimes, Sean Weatherspoon, Corey Peters, Julio Jones... the list goes on and on. They're talented, sure, but at their core these players are all business, 100% professional.
Heck, they've even managed to become one of the most fan-friendly, accessible teams in sports while maintaining that atmosphere of "we're here to fill our role on the team." The new "D-Block" segment on the team website featuring the Falcons linebacking corps speaks volumes about the type of team Dimitroff has constructed. No longer a laughing stock, the Falcons have become a model of success in today's NFL.
This is all so much... Can we handle this?
At some point after posting a 13-3 record last season, even after being trampled by the Packers at home in the playoffs, people finally began realizing: the Atlanta Falcons are good.
Maybe it was the offseason additions of Julio Jones and Ray Edwards to an already good football team that made them seem so daunting on paper. Maybe it was the continued presence of stars like Turner, White, Gonzalez, Grimes and John Abraham. Some writers had even dubbed the Falcons "Super Bowl favorites" (of course, Green Bay supporters far outnumbered Atlanta's).
But after struggling in the early folds of the 2011- tough losses to team like Chicago, Green Bay, and New Orleans combined with a painfully inconsistent offense- people began abandoning the ship. "They're just not a good team" could easily have been the general consensus.
What so many people don't realize, however, is that the Falcons' turnaround is a truly remarkable feat. Four winning seasons under one regime is nothing to scoff at, nor is making the playoffs as a wild card. You only have to look around the league to see how many times an attempt to rebuild fails miserably.
Kansas City GM Scott Pioli, another disciple of Belichick, has built a Chiefs team that likewise has several talented, young players. But a few devastating injuries combined with an inability to coexist with head coach Todd Haley has resulted in a five-win season and a vacant head coaching seat.
The Browns (GM'd by Mike Holmgren) and the Dolphins (briefly led by Bill Parcels) are perhaps even worse. Neither has had any sort of consistency in either personnel or performance. Guys like Matt Moore and Colt McCoy at quarterback leave lingering questions in the media over the future state of both franchises.
While Miami may never be a sports town, Browns fans may literally commit crimes just to see their team post one winning season, let alone four. Cleveland hasn't even experienced a playoff berth in who-knows-how-long. Falcons fans: appreciate these winning seasons while you can, because sustained success in the NFL can be fleeting.
What's next for this team?
The obvious answer here is "Super Bowl! Duh!" Easier said than done, however. The Colts tried and failed for about seven seasons under Peyton Manning before finally clearing the hurdle into championship land. Though the Falcons are created in their image, not every team can be the New England Patriots and win three Lombardis in four years.
With the Falcons may be losing some assistant coaches in the offseason offers made by other teams, Dimitroff and Smitty will want to keep promoting guys that give the players a sense of consistency as well. Player-wise, a long-term solution at left tackle and replacements for guys like Tony Gonzalez, John Abraham and Todd McClure are also high on the GM to-do list.
But at this very moment, all we can do is cherish this success. Several Falcons franchise records stand poised to be broken between now and the end of next season. Budding stars like Sean Weatherspoon and Julio Jones will continue to develop. Matty Ice will keep doing his whole "fourth quarter comeback" thing, too.
This team has come along way from its forgettable origins. The success on the field has finally fruition, and it's only a matter of time before the bigger accomplishments are won. Given the past failures and disappointments this team has brought myself and even more so for the long-time Falcons fans, I'm just fine with that.
For more on the Falcons, check out The Falcoholic.