Think back to the 2011 season - specifically, the game against the Detroit Lions. Many Falcons fans will recall a terrifying sequence when Matt Ryan dropped back, only to have his ankle stepped on by left tackle Will Svitek. It appeared that the ankle bent 35 different ways and Ryan got up wincing. Amazingly, after a quick trip to the sidelines, Ryan only missed a few snaps and finished the game. There was no lingering injury.
Why do I bring this up? That play could have gone a very different way. If Ryan were "stiff", it's quite possible he would have suffered a far more serious injury. As it was, his flexibility allowed him to bounce back quickly and continue to play. As fans, it's something we take for granted, but the Falcons organization has been intentional about this for a while now.
The Falcons are one of the few teams in the NFL that employs a Director of Athletic Performance. Jeff Fish has been with the Falcons for 4 years and his main responsibility is overseeing the "complete" health of the players. There's a difference between what Jeff does and what a normal "athletic director" oversees. Jeff is a proponent of the Functional Movement Screen - which in short, is a system that determines how flexible a player is. This is critical, and often over looked in the brutish training methods typical to hardened football minds. This system focuses on reducing injuries by getting players to be more flexible - which, amazingly, also produces better power output.
Once an athlete makes it to the NFL, they are likely as "big" as they are going to be. They may put on some weight in their first few years, but overall, you have a good idea of how big that person's frame will allow them to get. What is key, however, is integrating strength into the support systems of the body. Many injuries in football are sustained due to poor flexibility, which results in poor strength in the ligaments and support muscles. While many NFL clubs still focus on traditional weight training and bulk, the Falcons have taken to the FMS - one of the few clubs to do so.
Why bring this up now? Look across the NFL - how many teams had loaded rosters and had great "off seasons" that were offset by injuries that took out key starters. While depth is important, keeping your starters healthy should be even more so. And the Falcons have been one of the healthiest in the NFL since 2008. If you look at our starting 22 this year, there are only a few players who have missed significant time - and at this point - only two that have gone onto IR (Garrett Reynolds, Brent Grimes).
In my mind, it's one of the reasons the Falcons have stayed competitive. The ability to keep a consistent set of starters on the field is critical. Our QB has only missed 2 games in his 5 years in the league, and that has certainly contributed to his development. Having a consistent 22 on the field helps all players with team chemistry, on-field experience and valuable muscle-memory training.
So as you watch the playoffs, look at each club and listen for the number of original starters they're missing due to injuries. Then compare it to the Falcons roster. And be thankful we have a club that is progressive in the way they approach the sport - both on and off the field.