Dave shared this article from ESPN's NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas on the site yesterday. I wanted to take a closer look at what Yasinskas had to say about the Falcons, because, frankly, I hassle Yasinskas quite a bit for things like his "Same Old Falcons" article after the NFC Championship loss to the 49ers, and what he wrote about the Falcons yesterday was very insightful, and should be acknowledged.
As we all remember--and painfully so--it wasn't long ago that the Falcons were coming off of a 13-3 2010 season, and despite the painful letdown of that playoff loss to Green Bay, it was easy to think that the Falcons would waltz into the 2011 season and take care of business. Seriously, who could have anticipated starting the 2011 season 2-3? I vividly remember the panic in the comments on The Falcoholic and on Twitter. Who could have anticipated that the team that finished the season 13-3 the year before could fail in an epic manner in the playoffs, scoring only a safety against the Giants?
So, the Falcons definitely took a step back in 2011, following an exemplary 2010. And they certainly took a step forward in 2012. And, Yasinskas doesn't think that they will take a step back in 2013.
First of all, Yasinkas doesn't think the Falcons are satisfied with where they ended up last season, and there's a lot of evidence to support his theory. For example, remember the press conference following the 24-2 playoff loss to the Giants? Arthur Blank was livid. He made it clear that there were no sacred cows, and that the team was willing to make difficult decisions for the benefit of the team. If a player--or a coach, for that matter--didn't pull their weight, if they weren't contributing, their spot on the roster wasn't secure.
Shortly after that press conference, coordinators Mike Mularkey and Brian Van Gorder were gone. Ray Edwards was cut during the season, amid myriad shirtless Instagram photos and rumors of attitude issues and a lack of a "team-first" mentality. Veterans John Abraham, Dunta Robinson, Michael Turner and Tyson Clabo were all released by the team, some for cap reasons, some for performance reasons. When you're building a team for long-term success, you have to be willing to make tough decisions, and the Falcons have put the "no sacred cows" philosophy into practice.
The Falcons have learned through experience that their 2012 13-3 record, home field advantage throughout the playoffs, and even that divisional round playoff win against Seattle, mean nothing heading into the 2013 season. They had to earn that record in 2012, and they're starting over, just like everybody else, in 2013.
Yasinskas also mentioned the methodical nature of the Falcons' 2013 offseason moves. They did sign two key free agents in Steven Jackson and Osi Umenyiora, but because of their respective ages, neither signing was considered a "blockbuster" move, and neither mortgaged the team's future by tying up cap space long term. The Falcons did move up to draft Desmond Trufant, but it wasn't a terribly dramatic move, like the trade to acquire Julio Jones. The Falcons made extremely strategic moves this offseason. Dimitroff and company did not approach the 2013 offseason from the perspective of being ten yards away from a Super Bowl in 2012, so it's "all or nothing" in 2013. The personnel decisions that the front office has made addressed needs for the 2013 season, without limiting the team's options in 2014 and beyond.
While the Falcons will have some less experienced players filling key roles on both sides of the ball--Peter Konz will start at center after filling in at right guard last season, young players will see some rotation at defensive end and have the chance to lock up roster spots at linebacker, and Desmond Trufant will start opposite Asante Samuel at cornerback--many key players are more experienced, and that experience can elevate the team. With Matt Ryan under center, the team has seen the playoffs four out of the past five seasons. Osi Umenyiora and Asante Samuel both have Super Bowl rings. Julio Jones is entering his third season. You don't get much more experienced than Tony Gonzalez.
In Yasinskas' words, "self-awareness" is a hallmark of this Falcons team, and that's perhaps the best quality one can have, in football, and in life in general. This is a team that, through experience, has learned what it takes to win the big games. They know how to emphasize their strengths, and overcome their weaknesses. Every level of the organization is focused on winning a Super Bowl. They have the talent to do it--and their self-awareness, knowing what it will take to get there, may be the difference between last year's finish and a Super Bowl win.