Every year, the promises of training camp are filtered through the reality of the preseason and the transition into the regular season. And every year, every club - even the previous year's Super Bowl winners - face questions that only the regular season can answer.
However, for the first time in a long time, this Falcons fan believes the questions we're facing are some of the best we've ever encountered. These questions convey a sense of optimism and promise - a sense that we are about to cross a new, amazing threshold.1) Will Julio Jones be the missing piece for the offense?
To be certain, the front office of the Falcons all believe that Julio is that missing piece. You don't give up that many draft picks if you don't believe it. The problem, though, is that receivers typically don't make a splash in their first year. The last receiver to win rookie of the year was Anquan Boldin, and before him, Randy Moss. So, you have to ask the question - is Julio the next Moss? Most people who have seen him have echoed the same sentiments - that this kid is special. We all know the stats - 6'3", 4.4 40 speed, 38 inch vertical. All impressive, but all meaningless unless converted into catches and touchdowns.
Thankfully, we have a QB that works harder than anyone in the NFL. Hearing that Ryan personally had Jones stay at his house during the off-season to walk him through the playbook is not surprising, but is still encouraging. Knowing that Jones played in a similar offense at Alabama also gives a sense of comfort. And hearing veterans like Tony Gonzalez say that Julio is one of the best rookies he's ever seen provides some relief. But all of this disappears when the first pass is made.
2) Can Matt Ryan win a playoff game?
I'll be honest, I hate this question, but it's inevitable. It haunted Peyton Manning for 6 years. In that time, you'd hear Indianapolis fans comment on the fact that Manning can't play defense and he can't throw the ball to himself. And all of that is true, and all of it is just as true with Ryan.
But here's the reality: You never hear the media ask if a head coach can win a playoff game. You never wonder if the middle linebacker can win a playoff game. Or a cornerback, or a receiver, or a tight-end or a lineman. The reality is this: the pressure of the entire team and its hopes falls squarely on the shoulders of the quarterback, fair or not.
Ryan has had three brilliant regular reasons - tying Dan Marino for most wins in his first 3 seasons. And I would argue, accomplishing more, by helping to save a franchise in the midst of complete ruin. He has become the unquestioned leader of this team and his work ethic stands out as unmatched. But Ryan's two playoff appearances have left a lot to be desired. The Arizona game, though not terrible, was not all that he was capable of. The Green Bay game was a heart-breaker, and in particular, the pick-6 to Tramon Williams probably shifted the momentum too far in that fateful game.
Will the fourth year QB finally transfer his regular season excellence into the post-season? I'm betting yes, but that's also why they play the game.
3) Has the defense improved enough to stop, or even just slow down, the premier teams?
It's hard to imagine that a defense could improve dramatically with the addition of just one player, unless it was Troy Polamalu. As good as he may be, Ray Edwards is not a game changer. However, the promise of this defense rests more on what has been built in the past 3 years than what has been attained in the off-season. Key players that have been injured the past couple of seasons are all finally healthy. First round picks Peria Jerry and Sean Weatherspoon are showing incredible promise. Jerry in particular has been looking like a beast in camp. Dominique Franks and Christopher Owens are having an epic battle for the nickel spot. Stephen Nicholas is poised to take the other OLB spot from veteran Mike Peterson. Add onto that the emergence last year of William Moore and Brent Grimes, and another year of experience in zone coverage for Dunta Robinson, and you can see that this defense has the potential to be a top 10 D.
But, it has to be proven, and many of these camp battles need to turn into regular season realities. When compared to the threat of the offenses of the Eagles, Saints and Packers, it is critical for this vast amount of promise to be fulfilled if our team is going to take another step.
4) Can the Falcons surpass the Saints and Bucs yet again?
Few people will disagree with the assessment that the NFC South is the toughest division in the league. Given that, did the Falcons do enough to stay on top of the division? As much as I despise the team, the Saints made many moves in the off-season and in the draft to sure-up their weaknesses. The Bucs have the extremely promising Freeman at QB, and they did steal away our incredibly epic punter.
In all seriousness, the Saints will be our primary competition, and no matter what the records have been - games between these two teams are always incredibly close and hard-fought. The pickup of Ingram and Sproles may finally show the Saints doing something other than passing 50 times a game. The Bucaneers picked up some very promising rookies in the draft, but still have some glaring holes - in particular at linebacker - that make you wonder if they did quite enough (Koenen not withstanding).
If the Falcons are going to make a run in the playoffs, it starts with making a run within their division. Even if they don't win the NFC South, they are going to have to face the Bucs and Saints twice each .
5) Is this a Super Bowl caliber team?
The question for this team, ultimately, is whether they are a Super Bowl caliber team. What a great question to be able to ask! We all know the Falcons can beat the teams they're supposed to beat. We also know they can at least stay competitive against any team in the league. But that is not enough. To be a Super Bowl caliber team, they have to be more than competitive. They have to be able to dominate on both sides of the ball. They have to be able to score quickly, and nearly at will. They have to get inside the minds of opposing quarterbacks and make them nervous in the pocket. They have to snag interceptions and pull down sacks. They need 5 yards per carry and 30 to 40 yard passes. They need to be a team that others mark on their schedule weeks in advance, because of the planning they have to do.
Are the Falcons that team? Is Matt Ryan the QB to take this team all the way? Is this defense ready to dominate and intimidate? I, for one, know what I believe about all of these questions - and I don't hesitate to say that I'm incredibly excited. And this promise, this team, is the reason I passionately watch this game.