Normally, I'd take this time to put together one of my "keeping it in perspective" write-ups, but where 2013 is concerned, I'm just all burned out. Here's what we know about this season: it will be the first non-winning season in the Mike Smith era, it is one of the worst seasons in Falcons history (if not THE worst), and there is very little to celebrate - unless you enjoy becoming a raging alcoholic, in which case - congratulations!
That said, though, I'm still a Falcons fan and my focus on this season is shifting. I started 2013 with Super Bowl hopes, which eroded to "just make the playoffs" and has now firmly landed in the "is it January yet?" mindset. But part of what bring us back to the game every single year (for me, since 1980), is hope. Just as we entered 2013 with hope for the season, I'm now shifting my focus to hope for the 2014 season.
For some of you, the idea of hoping anything positive about this team will feel like a swift kick to the family jewels, and I can't blame you. Watching games like the one against Tampa was a lot like slamming your head into a brick wall repeatedly. It's hard to see the positives in the midst of disaster, but I also feel it's important to hold onto that hope, lest we lose our passion for this great game.
With that said, here are the things that give me hope for a far better 2014 season.
Franchise QB and Elite Receiver
Let's be clear: Matt Ryan is having a rough year after starting red-hot. The fact that it pretty much coincides with the loss of Julio Jones is no coincidence. Julio is a rare type of receiver that demands double-teams, but still manages to get the ball. Of course, having your #2 (arguably #1A) receiver in Roddy White go down doesn't help either. Neither does getting crushed by defensive linemen on 50% of your offensive snaps.
But none of that changes the fact that Matt Ryan is a franchise QB. Ask the Jaguars, Browns or Vikings if they'd like to have Matt Ryan under center. Is Matty on par with Aaron Rodgers? No - but few QBs in NFL history are, and that's not the point. The question is whether you can win consistently with your QB and whether he can help you win the big one. Ryan has won consistently and as for the Super Bowl, if you can win it with Joe Flacco or Trent Dilfer, Matt is certainly capable.
But a QB is ultimately made better by the weapons around him. As good as Tom Brady is, just look at his 2013 numbers for the proof. And Julio Jones is about as good as they come. His ability to stay healthy is a question mark for some, but it's also the nature of this type of receiver. When he does play, the entire defense adjusts for it. He is a game changer and is mentioned in the same breath as guys like Calvin Johnson and AJ Green for a reason.
The fact that he'll return in 2014 is reason to be encouraged. He was already off to a monstrous 2013 campaign, and I don't see that being any different next year. That he has a QB like Matt throwing to him is all the better.
Of the few bright spots in the 2013 campaign, few can argue that the play of both Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow shouldn't make the list. The two un-drafted rookies went from fan-fodder in training camp, to pre-season stars, to regular season starters in short order. While they may not have gotten the opportunities if it weren't for the injuries to Biermann and Spoon and the rapid regression of Nicholas, they've taken advantage of the opportunities.
In Worrilow, the Falcons may have finally found a legitimate Mike who can play all three downs and who knows how to freaking tackle. He's posted 3 straight games of at least 16 tackles, which is stunning - especially for a rookie who no one knew coming into this season. Mike Smith has raved about his football smarts and the tape on Worrilow shows a player who has great instincts and is fundamentally sound. And he's just getting started. As he adjusts to the speed of the NFL game, he'll only get better.
While Bartu hasn't amassed the same numbers as Worrilow, he's been a pleasant surprise as well. He's had the struggles you'd expect out of any rookie starting for the first time, but his tape shows immense potential. Having played safety, defensive end and linebacker in college, Bartu is a flexible player - something coaches love. He's also shown incredible closing speed, amassing 20 stops (tackles that result in a failed offensive play) and also has 5 sacks on the year. Having reviewed tape on a couple of those sacks, they aren't flukes either. Bartu has an explosive step that could make him a legitimate pass rusher working as a 3-4 OLB.
Alongside Weatherspoon, this is a far more competent group of linebackers than what the Falcons fielded consistently throughout 2012. While they still have some growing pains ahead of them, the potential in this unit is still untapped.
A Stout Secondary
The 2013 draft was an interesting one. Many fans - including yours truly - were upset that Dimitroff traded away his 3rd and 6th round picks to move up and grab Desmond Trufant. Even more surprising was when he grabbed another cornerback in the second round in Robert Alford. If their first year is any indication, Dimitroff may end up with the last laugh here.
Of all the first round cornerbacks taken, none is playing better than Trufant right now. He's one of the few rookie corners in the entire NFL with a positive grade from PFF. He's got amazing speed and has shown that he can keep up with even the fastest receivers in the NFL. He's not a physical corner, but he is incredibly hard to shake in coverage. Given the struggles that almost all rookie corners have in their first year - including guys like Patrick Peterson - the fact that Trufant is playing so well is reason to be excited for his potential in the 2014 season.
His draft mate Robert Alford is no slouch either. In fact, he and Trufant may be two of the fastest players on the Falcons roster right now. However, whereas Trufant is more of a cover corner, Alford is a play maker in the mold of Asante Samuel, but with more physicality. Alford has great raw potential, but is still susceptible to good route running. However, he's continued to make progress and when given opportunities, he's shown why he was a steal in the late 2nd round.
Along with hard-hitter and conductor of receiver nightmares William Moore, the Falcons have the foundations of a very good secondary going into 2014.
Returning Injured Players
Lest we forget how this season has gotten to this low point, we need to remember that a good portion of our roster - quality starters - have spent significant time on the bench or on season ending IR. Guys like Julio Jones, Kroy Biermann, Sam Baker, Mike Johnson, Bradie Ewing, Roddy White, Steven Jackson, Akeem Dent and Sean Weatherspoon. Reading off that list is a stark reminder that this Falcons team has been absolutely ravaged by injuries this year.
Getting guys like Julio Jones and Kroy Biermann will provide an instant boost to both sides of the ball. A fully healthy Roddy White will resume his amazing chemistry with Matt Ryan. And while there's no guarantee that some of these guys won't get injured again, the optimist in me says it couldn't possibly go down this way next year (knock on wood).
With all of this said, don't think that I don't see the flaws on this team - I clearly do. We still have issues generating a consistent pass rush and the interior of our offensive line has been a near disaster this year. What we see out of some of our young guys in the remaining six games will tell us a lot about where we need to use our draft picks in 2014. It's clear that we need help on both lines, though, but with our current record we may finally have the draft picks to get the big impact players that we've been unable to draft since 2008. Guys like Clowney or Barr may be in reach for our D, while a Jake Matthews could be a long-term answer at one of our tackle positions. There are also some free agents that could provide instant upgrades on both lines as well. There's still a ton of work to be done, and the off-season will be critical to the level of success we have in 2014.
But there are also reasons to have hope - to look forward to the season to come. While this one has served as a wake-up call that games are ultimately won on the field, we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. This team still has some tremendous talent that will be back in 2014. And it's a future I'm looking forward to.