I find the Atlanta Falcons offensive.
Why wouldn't you? While Falcons fans hunker down for another season of uncertain defensive fortune, the other side of the ball is ready to make some noise in a talented NFC South. Back from injuries, shaking off rust and hurling monkeys off their collective backs, the quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends and linemen of Atlanta are going to be the driving force behind the team's 2010 playoff push. Believe it.
With any offense, you start with the quarterback, and the Falcons have a good one. Matt Ryan scuffled in his second tour of the league last season, no doubt. But even in scuffling—and dancing around in the pocket so much he got a scholarship from Juilliard—Ryan was still an effective quarterback in 2009. He missed two games, but still threw for nearly 3,000 yards, 22 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Hey, it's better than David Garrard.
This year, Matt Ryan should be poised to take a step forward. He's got another year of familiarity with the offense working in his favor and coach Mike Smith's insistence that the team will use the no-huddle offense that Matty Ice loves so dearly on a much more regular basis. He's got a healthy Michael Turner to take pressure off of him, and it doesn't hurt that he's got two of the best weapons in the league in Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. Speedster Harry Douglas should command his share of targets, too.
The only major obstacle to Ryan's continued success is his ability to plant his feet in the face of pressure and make accurate throws. Too often, Falcons fans have seen an outbreak of twinkletoes from him in the past, leading to balls soaring high into the air or simply out of bounds thanks to nerves. If he can control that, there's no reason to believe he can't complete 60 percent of his passes, flirt with 3,000 yards again and toss 25-30 touchdowns.
Oh, hey, did I already mention Michael Turner? Because he's awesome.
Despite some preseason lip service given to Turner catching more passes, he can't and he won't. He's not a receiver, Jim! He's just a bruising back who's a serious threat to rumble 10 yards downfield every time he touches the ball. Healthy and looking a little like a svelte tank, Turner will be the focal point of the offense again and should get an easy 300 carries, 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns. Take that to the bank, yo!
Right behind him is Jerious Norwood. Here's a guy who was breaking 30-yard gains in the womb. Norwood jukes out linemen on his way to the grocery store. And so on. The question with Norwood isn't whether he can be an effective change of pace back for Turner, offering the kind of dangerous speed that teams have to account for. The question is whether he can shake the nagging health issues that have plagued him over the course of the preseason and last season. The early returns are promising, so expect Norwood to have a prominent role in 2010.
One strata lower, you'll find Jason Snelling. The chink in his armor is his reluctance to just punch it in to the endzone from a few yards out, so he probably won't be used much in short-yardage situations unless Turner's sucking wind. To borrow a phrase, he's the poor man's Turner, a big back with the ability to bulldoze, but enough agility and speed to surprise you. He can also catch passes, which is a plus. He'll only get 100 touches all season unless Turner is hurt, though.
Last and probably least in 2010 is Antone Smith. If Snelling is the dusty backup CD for Turner, Smith is the same for Norwood. He's elusive in open space and he runs hard, but the former undrafted free agent is still an unknown quantity. Smith will only be a factor if injury strikes.
I wish Roddy White would stop dropping so many passes. Then I realize Roddy White is awesome, and I tell myself to shut the hell up.
White's an elite receiver who struggles with consistency. If he can keep himself from flinging the ball downfield once a game, he'll truly be great. For now, he's probably a top-15 wide receiver in the NFL and Ryan's preferred target. He'll easily haul in 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns if he stays healthy, and that would be a great thing for the Falcons.
Michael Jenkins defines average. As a starting wide receiver, his inconsistent hands, middling blocking and lapses in route running are the stuff of nightmares. He'd be a reserve on a deeper team, but he's not on a deeper team. Jenkins will putt his way to 500 yards and three touchdowns, making the occasional nice block and whiffing on the occasional perfectly thrown pass. He's the weakest link in this starting offense, but he's certainly not terrible.
Harry Douglas may end up doing a lot more with his catches. Small and fast, Douglas will line up in the slot in most sets, and will match up against linebackers and safeties he should be able to juke so hard they start playing The Turtles. He's not going to get a lot of targets in this overloaded offense, but he's got the ability to break long ones every time he touches the ball. Watch him closely.
Brian Finneran is a great guy and an intelligent wide receiver, but intelligence isn't a saving grace when you're old, injury-prone and slow. His steady hands remain his best asset and he's still a weapon on third downs, but that's all Finn can offer at this point in his career. If the Falcons are lucky, he won't get on the field much.
Eric Weems has a long way to go as a wide receiver, but he's a capable returner. We're not discussing special teams, though, so meh. He's OK.
If Gonzalez doesn't haul in 60-plus catches, 800 yards and at least six touchdowns, I will eat a bowl of cereal with some milk. I really would rather not eat my hat.
Gonzo's one of the all-time greats, and thanks to a diet of nothing but wheat germ, protein shakes and unicorn steak, he's still in awesome shape. He'll function as a high-end security blanket for Ryan all season long, and teams simply can't afford to take him lightly. He and White will be giving defenses nightmares all season long.
Justin Peelle is well-rounded. In two tight end sets he's a threat to get open and haul a pass in, particularly in the red zone. With Gonzo in front of him, he'll be used only situationally. Sorry, Peelle fans.
Undrafted free agent Michael Palmer is a guy I'm fond of. You'd be hard-pressed to find a lot of rookies who can come in and look as impressive as Palmer did this pre-season, when he made catches in traffic and threw a few nice blocks. He'll do very little, of course, but Palmer's a mighty fine insurance policy.
This is the part of the preview where you all fall asleep, so I'll be quick.
Sam Baker has tiny arms, but he's a quality blocker outside. Tyson Clabo is a road-grading type who struggles a little bit in pass protection on the other side. Inside, Todd McClure is a rock at center, Justin Blalock keeps starting despite a lack of evidence that he can do anything except look like he's blocking well, and Harvey Dahl will eat your face if you look at him cross-eyed. There's some quality depth here, too, but you stopped reading a while ago. Oh well.
Expect, if not greatness, something very close to it. These Falcons are simply too talented to muddle along and put up six points a game, even if notoriously neoconservative playcaller Mike Mularkey thinks that's just what they should do. If they're going to reach my predicted record of 10-6, they'll need to dose defenses with a little Ryan-Turner Overdrive, and I'd stake a lot of money that they'll do just that.
They'll reach new heights in 2010, is what I'm saying.