To understand it from the media, the Falcons are an unproven team - a challenge to believe in, and not worth covering until they prove themselves in the playoffs. Falcons fans are quick to remind you that even the best QBs in the league - Manning, Brees, Rodgers - didn't win in their first playoff games. The fact is, if you're watching mainstream sports media hoping to get a full and complete picture of the Falcons, it's not going to happen. All you're likely to hear is 0-3. But the reality is that this team has a deeper, more interesting story than what you're likely to hear on ESPN or NFL Network.
What happened prior to 2008 is well documented and not worth rehashing here, so we'll just pick up with the story of a rookie head coach, a rookie starting QB and an unproven running back on a team that seemed destined for a miserable season. As we all know - that didn't happen. The Falcons inexplicably finished at 11-5 and with a playoff berth. Ryan won rookie of the year, while Smith and Dimitroff were given adulation for an amazing turn-around. However, it's quite likely that the rapid success was not entirely expected - and rather than suffering through a rough season and attaining another high draft pick, the Falcons were - in some ways - set back by choosing in the later rounds of the 2009 draft.
As for the offense, it was most definitely a ground and pound team. The emphasis on running the ball took a lot of pressure off of Ryan and allowed him to mature on the field, while Michael Turner carried the offense. And for this season, it worked very well. The loss in the playoffs wasn't as painful, as most fans didn't expect this team to even get this far.
After the season, many players were jettisoned in favor of building a roster that the new coaching staff wanted. The pickup of Tony Gonzalez was a major coup, and the hopes for a big second season for the franchise QB abounded.
To be certain, expectations of the Falcons were higher, although some still thought them to be potential frauds. And while the team had ups and downs, they did begin putting more on the plate of the franchise QB - though it should be noted, this second year QB was running the no-huddle offense in his rookie year. The season was a rough one, with injuries to Turner and Ryan keeping them from reaching the playoffs. However, this team did finish with a winning record at 9-7: an accomplishment never before done in franchise history. And while Ryan's statistics regressed, it was obvious he was forming a very strong chemistry with the hall-of-fame caliber TE.
After the season, in an effort to shore up the secondary, the Falcons snagged one of the best free agent cornerbacks available - Dunta Robinson. It was hoped that he would come in and help solidify the secondary, which had not lived up to expectations.
This season was the culmination of the experiences that Ryan and the team had gone through. Ryan had a breakout season - throwing for 28TDs and only 9INTs, while Turner turned in another 1000+ yard season. While the offense remained run-first with a heavy emphasis on controlling the clock, Ryan took on more responsibility and his clutch nature really came through repeatedly this season - with several fourth quarter comebacks on the way to a 13-3 season and the #1 seed in the playoffs. This was a flawed team, but still a good one.
Then the playoffs happened. Green Bay came into Atlanta - which was considered a very difficult place to land a road victory - and promptly wiped the floor with the Falcons. The philosophy of ground and pound and control the clock was quickly stomped by what would be the new buzz word for the offseason: "explosive."
After the season, the Falcons made a tremendous amount of noise during the draft, when they traded up to the #6 spot to draft Julio Jones. Giving up a bevy of picks - including two first round picks - seemed a king's randsom and was questioned league wide. The Falcons also signed Ray Edwards in the hopes that he would be a nice complement to an aging John Abraham.
Expectations in 2011 were high coming into the season after finishing 13-3. Those were quickly brought down to earth after an ugly loss against the Bears. The offense seemed out of rhythm and unable to protect Ryan for long enough to let him throw to his new explosive receiver. However, by the mid-point of the season, the team had settled down and Ryan began a stretch of several games with 100+ passer ratings. The team seemed to come together, though some frustrations remained. Long time Falcons fans wondered why the offense looked stagnant and why Ryan - who was incredibly successful in the no-huddle - was not allowed to run it more. The sight of Michael Turner running up the middle for no yards was frustrating as it seemed that Mike Mularkey just didn't know what to do with the new weapons at his disposal. When asked about the lack of screens, the former OC dismissed it claiming that this roster wouldn't be good at it.
As the team entered the playoffs, there was hope that it would all come together - especially against a limping Giants team that had barely made it in. Instead, the offense seemed disjointed and lost and while the defense played well - they ultimately broke and let the Giants run away with the game in the second half.
After the season, a frustrated and angry Arthur Blank ensured that the necessary changes would be made to ensure success going forward. And while Mike Mularkey and Brian Van Gorder left for other positions, it was clear that they probably would not have had positions with the Falcons had they chosen to stay. The Falcons were applauded when they signed Miami DC Mike Nolan and many questioned the hiring of Dirk Koetter from Jacksonville, one of the worst offenses in the league.
The pre-season showed us what we could expect from our new OC - a truly pass oriented offense that featured - GASP - a legitimate screen game and downfield passing. Smitty and Koetter repeatedly emphasized that Turner would no longer be getting 300+ carries and that the offense would be Ryan's to run. And it showed. Throughout the season, Ryan truly took a huge step forward as he engineered some brilliant offensive performances. It hasn't all been roses, but it's been clear that the team is learning and progressing. And Ryan is it's clear leader.
This season has been the culmination of lessons learned in the previous four. The team has helped to mature a young QB into a leader and a 4000+ yard passer with dynamic weapons at his disposal. The defense is quick and relentless and plays a style that confuses QBs and swarms to the ball. The transition from ground and pound to pass-first has taken some time, but that time has yielded one of the top QBs in the league, and an offense that can beat you with the long ball or beat the hell out of you for 10 minutes, the culmination of which happened to the New York Giants last week.
The only question now is how this season will end. It's hard to imagine that this team isn't ready to take the next step - and I, for one, am ready for the narrative of the Falcons to take an incredible step forward.