Citing the reasons for the success of the Atlanta Falcons in the past couple of seasons has become easy. You credit Thomas Dimitroff and his savvy talent evaluation, Mike Smith and his merry band of intelligent coaches, the emergence of players like Roddy White and Curtis Lofton. Those are the most common, and I suspect you nodded ever so slightly while reading them.
I'm here today to talk about a different reason, one that sprang into my head while reading this article from the great Joe Posnanski. For those of you who can't be bothered to click on the link, Posnanski argues that the perennial cellar dwelling Kansas City Royals have consistently taken an approach that focuses on winning now, at the cost of the development of long-term talent and subsequently the team's future.
How do I plan to draw a parallel to the Falcons, you ask? Read on.
For all the Falcons' success over the last two seasons—a combined 20-12 regular season record and a playoff appearance—the team has largely avoided the minefield that a win-now attitude comes pre-packaged with. Teams that truly believe they are immediate contenders go out and sign expensive free agents, trade draft picks for established guys and play the steady veterans at the expense of the uncertain promise of young players. It's an approach the Washington Redskins in particular have specialized in, and they've been rewarded with a series of truly shitty seasons and a rapidly thinning roster.
Give the Comrade and Smitty a lot of credit for this, if nothing else: They never came in expecting to win a Super Bowl in year one. They came in to create a long-term winning culture in the city of Atlanta, where one has never existed before. They've done so by playing the 23-year-old guys with considerable upside, even as they've scuffled. They've limited themselves to one free agent splash an off-season. They endured the quizzical expressions of the national and local media as they played guys those pundits honestly believed didn't belong on a football field, at least not at this stage of their careers.
Let's take on Brent Grimes, again. In some ways, he's not the best example because he's been jerked up and down the depth chart under Smitty's baleful eyes. In other ways, he's perfect. Grimes was an undrafted free agent from a tiny college who was barely a blip on most teams' radars. A guy like that doesn't stick around long as anything other than organizational depth in better than 80% of the rosters in the league. But the Falcons saw something in Grimes and trotted him out there, even as fans scratched their heads and pundits continued to rail against the young team's secondary.
But then something wonderful happened. Brent Grimes became a good football player. We can argue whether he should start or belongs in the nickel, but he's a freakish athlete, a blossoming ballhawk and a guy who you can feel reasonably confident lining up against quality wide receivers. Guys like are hard to find in the NFL Draft, much less in the waves of flotsam and jetsam left behind afterwards. They didn't find this out because he sat on the bench for four years and was pressed into action due to injury, where he excelled. They found this out because through thick and thin, the Falcons found playing time for Grimes all over the field. They put up with blown coverage and questionable decision making at time and watched him learn.
Kroy Biermann was allowed to win a job and keep it, and he rewarded the team with a nice sack total in 2009. The team dealt with injuries to Chris Houston and Brian Williams not by making a panic signing of a veteran, but by letting Chris Owens prove he's got a future in this league. And going back further, they continued one of the few positive aspects of Bobby Petrino's reign by giving a long leash to guys like Harvey Dahl, who has proven to be a perfectly competent offensive lineman. This is not an accident, or a sign of a team that simply doesn't have any better options. It's an intelligent, long-term strategy to build a roster from the ground up that can excel for years.
As a Falcon fan, I can't really articulate how much I appreciate that approach. As a fan of the NFL, where re-treads are awarded long contracts simply because they've managed to hang around forever, I can say that the Falcons are a team building the way I believe every team should be built.
And I firmly believe that in the years ahead, we will finally be rewarded for years of suffering through the Kansas City Royals approach when the Atlanta Falcons turn out to be one of the best teams in the NFL.