The Atlanta Falcons just had a great season. It fell short of every fan and player's ultimate ambitions, true, but it was indisputably one of the better seasons in the team's long and mostly tortured history.
The disappointment was palpable, but the anger has been surprisingly muted following the loss. That hasn't stopped the rumor mill from kicking up in earnest, as much inside the fanbase as out in the larger world of media. Where we're disappointed but eager for next season, many analysts view this as a team of chokers that surely must be looking to make some major changes. In many cases, their assumptions will be wildly inaccurate.
I'm not a reporter. I'm not living in the walls of Flowery Branch, scrabbling through air ducts to hear conversations between team executives. But I can use the power of common sense and my existing knowledge of my favorite football team to declare the following:
- Mike Smith will not be fired. He will not be replaced by Jon Gruden. If Smith's Falcons stumble badly a year from now, he could find himself on the outs with Arthur Blank, and I'm sure the job is desirable for a host of high-profile coaches. After guiding the team to a 13-3 record and an NFC Conference Championship berth, there's absolutely no way he's getting canned short of Bill Cowher being possessed by the spirit of Vince Lombardi and demanding the job. Blank wanted improvement from a year ago, and he got it.
- Matt Ryan is not going anywhere. In fact, he's getting a nice fat contract extension. Ryan put up top five or so numbers this season, played a brilliant 2013 NFC Conference Championship Game and showed an amazing rapport with his talented receiving corps. No one the Falcons could get this year would be anything but a downgrade on Ryan, and for all the noise about him being a choker, he's widely viewed in the NFL as being a Top 10 player at his position He's the franchise quarterback.
- Michael Turner is not coming back at his current salary, which means he's probably not coming back at all. This team isn't paying $5.5 million for a guy who is a limited asset at this stage of his career. Jacquizz Rodgers probably will not be the full-time starter, though, so another back is coming in.
- Mike Nolan isn't going to turn this into a full-scale 3-4 team in 2013. It may even be a 3-4 in name, but the Falcons simply can't get all the personnel in place to run Nolan's preferred two gap scheme this off-season. Do expect to see increased 3-4 looks, and don't forget that the Falcons already rolled out changes like Jonathan Babineaux at defensive end this year with no complaining from the players involved and better results than the year before. A shift, in other words, but perhaps a more subtle one than we'd expect.
- Cap space dictates the Falcons aren't making more than one splash in free agency, and even that will likely be relatively small compared to years past. Sam Baker is probably coming back. William Moore is probably coming back. Even if you assume the Falcons trim close to $10 million by jettisoning players like Michael Turner, there's not going to be a ton of cap left over for a guy like Cliff Avril.
There's more here to drill down into, but we've got a long off-season ahead, so I'll stick with this list for now. Your thoughts?