The Atlanta Falcons hosted their annual State of the Franchise event yesterday evening at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center and invited season ticket holders to attend. From photos with Freddie Falcon immediately upon arrival, to free food, to discounted merchandise, it was clear that the Falcons, as usual, took great care to provide a great experience for fans.
Wes Durham, the "Voice of the Falcons" on the radio, served as the master of ceremonies for the event, and Falcons president and C.E.O. Rich McKay, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith all spoke at the event.
McKay spoke a great deal about the new stadium, and the thought process behind it--so much so, in fact, that it deserves its own post. Here, I'll recap primarily just what the brain trust said about the direction of the team, their personnel moves this offseason, and their focus on the coming season. Fans had some really excellent questions for McKay, Dimitroff and Smith as well, which I will also cover in a separate post.
Rich McKay talked about the previous season, and what a great year it was, and acknowledged that, while the team did get to that next level in 2012, they have a couple more levels to go. He commented on fan energy in the Georgia Dome in 2012 being significantly better, saying that fans are succeeding in making the Dome uncomfortable for opposing fans. He thanked fans for "rising back up," following the loss in in the NFC Championship Game.
McKay also brought Dimitroff and Smith on stage for applause after listing their accomplishments over the past five seasons--five consecutive winning seasons, four playoff appearances, three consecutive playoff appearances. Remember, McKay was in Atlanta--and was the GM--during the catastrophe that was 2007, and everything that led to it. McKay said that Dimitroff and Smith took at team that had no credibility and turned them into a team that is second in the league for total number of wins over the past five years (McKay apologized for not being first) and is first in the NFC for total number of wins in that five-year period.
Thomas Dimitroff took the stage to a standing ovation. Dimitroff spoke about their focus on retaining their own players, emphasizing that, if they draft well, retaining their players should be a priority. Dimitroff mentioned the four starters who were cut--Dunta Robinson, Michael Turner, John Abraham and Tyson Clabo--and said that the Falcons made those moves partially for salary cap reasons, but also to get better as a football team.
On Tony Gonzalez, Dimitroff said that when he initially brokered a deal with Gonzalez in 2009, he was holding his breath that the Falcons would get one season out of him. Looking back, that's hilarious. Needless to say, Dimitroff, like everyone else, is delighted to have Gonzalez back for his fifth season with the Falcons.
Dimitroff showed some film of free agent acquisitions Steven Jackson and Osi Umenyiora, to give the fans a glimpse into their thought process for the signings. He also reiterated what we already know--these are guys that fans can be proud of on and off the field.
For Steven Jackson, the Falcons like the power he runs with--Dimitroff said he has one of the best, if not the best, motors in football. They also like his versatility as a receiver.
On Umenyiora, Dimitroff said, and showed on film, how Osi has good instincts and a nose for the ball. He emphasized that Umenyiora knows what it takes to win championships. The film on Osi had one play that the crowd loved, featuring Umenyiora absolutely destroying Drew Brees, and Dimitroff played that one again, much to the crowd's delight.
As far as the draft, Dimitroff said that they knew for certain that they would not be able to get Desmond Trufant--a player they were very focused on--anywhere from the mid-twenties to 30, which is why they partnered with an ally, Les Snead in St. Louis, to move up to get him. Trufant, per Dimitroff, is a good sized corner who consistently gets his hands on the ball. He is expected to start outside at right cornerback, opposite Asante Samuel. Trufant has potential to contribute on special teams as well.
The Falcons actually considered taking Robert Alford at 30, as a contingency plan if they were unable to make moves to draft Trufant, so Alford was a steal for the team. Alford is incredibly fast, with a 40 time in the mid-4.3s. Dimitroff's key word in describing Alford is, he plays with urgency.
On defensive end Malliciah Goodman, Dimitroff emphasized his size. He has 37" arms and 11" hands. That's ridiculous. Goodman was projected as second round talent, and the Falcons believe he is currently prepared to start at left defensive end, opposite Umenyiora, so to grab a starting-caliber player in the fourth round is pretty phenomenal.
Dimitroff said that he and Mike Smith went back and forth on whether to draft tight end or Levine Toilolo with their first fourth round pick. Toilolo's height, 6'8", is an asset, but he's also very aggressive. The film showed him stiff-arming a defender without hesitation. They did bring him in to learn under Gonzalez, and it is their hope that he will be Tony's heir apparent long-term.
The team's fifth round pick, Stansly Maponga, was brought in as a right defensive end, and he was projected as second round talent by some analysts. He's very athletic, and he has what Dimitroff called a "nasty, ornery streak" that the team loves. He plays with the urgency they're looking for on the field.
On their seventh round picks, specifically safeties Kemal Ishmael and Zeke Motta, Dimitroff said that you can never have enough safeties on your roster who tackle well. He called Ishmael one of the best tacklers in the NCAA, and said that he wraps up "respectfully and properly, not illegally," for the sake of the NFL Competition Committee Chairman on stage with him. They expect Ishmael to contribute on special teams right away.
Dimitroff said that Motta dropped in the draft due to a slow 40 time, but that Motta's very talented against the run, and that he will be able to contribute on special teams while he develops as a player.
On quarterback Sean Renfree, Dimitroff said that they expect him to come in and compete for the third string quarterback spot. That tells us that Dominique Davis will be established as the backup, unless Dimitroff misspoke and intended to say second string. I only point this out because it seems unusual to draft a player and not give him the opportunity to compete for the backup spot.
Dimitroff said that he feels like they've had some solid drafts over the years, but he has never been this excited about a group heading into the season.
Mike Smith took the stage, also to a standing ovation, and rightfully so for the three-time Sporting News Coach of the Year. Smitty can't wait for the season, and assured the fans that there is no NFL offseason for the coaching staff. They're working around the clock to get ready for the new season.
Smitty told a fun story about losing his temper on the sidelines during a game in New Orleans. It was an unjustified pass interference call against Brent Grimes that negated an interception, and Smitty broke his headset, and after the game he returned to the locker room to a text message on his phone from his 70-something year old mother, who didn't really send text messages in general, expressing his family's disappointment in his behavior. The Falcons won that game in New Orleans, and Smitty escaped the situation without a $15,000 fine from the NFL, but he did not evade scolding from his mother.
Smitty also talked about the different "abilities" that lead to success in the National Football League. He said that the reason they re-calibrated their roster was for "sustainability." "Accountability," to oneself and to their teammates, is a big factor, as is "reliability." Everyone at every level of the organization must be reliable. The last, but not least, that he mentioned was "flexibility," saying it was necessary to success in the NFL, and any other business. With those "abilities" in mind, Smitty stressed his well-known philosophy that teams win in the locker room first.
On the offensive line, Smitty said that he expects to see some pretty good competitions for those positions. Left tackle Sam Baker and left guard Justin Blalock are pretty set, but with Todd McClure retired and Tyson Clabo cut for salary cap reasons, the other positions are pretty wide open, and they are looking for their young players, who have had an opportunity to learn from an excellent offensive line coach in Pat Hill, as well as the veteran players along the line, to step up at this point.
The Falcons focused on the secondary as an area of need in the 2013 NFL Draft, and while starters in the secondary seem pretty established, Smitty emphasized that you earn what you get in the NFL, and we can expect to see some competitions for starting spots, or just more playing time, in the secondary as well.
Smith feels like the team has struck a productive balance of solid veteran leadership and young talent.
As far as preparation, the CBA is pretty strict on when the team can work with the players, and what they're allowed to do. April 22 was the first day that the team was allowed to implement some classroom time with players, but a significant number of players have been working out at the facility together since March 15th, led, of course, by Matt Ryan. Smitty said that you can't win a Super Bowl in March, April or June, but you sure can hinder your own efforts to win a Super Bowl by what you do, or fail to do, in the offseason.
On the Falcons schedule for the coming season, Smitty said that he would prefer that every game be scheduled for 1:00 p.m. on Sunday afternoons--and what coach wouldn't?--but the team's success means they'll have primetime games.
An aside--as Smitty went through the schedule game by game, some dummy in front of me yelled, "Who Dat!" about the Saints, and not in a sarcastic way. I exercised a great deal of restraint, because I wanted to verbally assault him, but I settled for giving him hateful looks.
It was interesting to hear from Smitty that after the NFC Championship Game, he didn't sleep well for a week, and he did not watch the Super Bowl. He said that once he started watching the NFL talking heads again, he kept hearing people say that the Falcons were just 10 yards from the Super Bowl. He made it clear that the team's focus is in the right place by saying that they aren't 10 yards from the Super Bowl now, they're 261 (now 260) days from the Super Bowl, and there's a lot of work to be done to get there.
A few things stood out from what Rich McKay, Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith said about their personnel moves and the coming season. The team is proud of what they accomplished last season, but not even remotely satisfied. That NFC Championship loss hurt them much more than it hurt us. The front office worked strategically this offseason--with some very difficult decisions along the way--to put the team in a better position to win. The coaching staff and the players are already hard at work to put themselves in the best position to win in 2013. And, they're all just as excited about the 2013 season as we are.