I would like to discuss the common condemnation about how our Falcons lack "depth" and offer you a slightly different perspective on the subject. It's clear that the 2013 Falcons did not have second string elements, or in several cases - third string, that were ready to compete at a winning level of NFL football. Many fans and talking heads have pointed at this lack of "depth" and drawn cross hairs on Dimitroff and coach Smith for not building a "deep" team. This discussion is shored up through the "evidence" of the draft picks sacrificed to acquire Julio Jones, the poor play of several backup players and recent draft picks, and the relative success of other teams that have suffered similar injury related losses in 2013. Perhaps this criticism holds water if you limit your view to only the last 12 months of Falcons history but this ignores several important elements that have contributed to the overall state of Falcons affairs since Arthur Blank assumed ownership of the team. I believe it's inaccurate to point at the 2013 Falcons and say they have a "lack of depth".
Since we all tend to have really short memories, let's take a quick look at how we arrived where we are today so we can have a balanced perspective. Historically speaking, since joining the NFL in 1965 the Atlanta Falcons haven't exactly been very good football franchise. There were a few short periods of sustained success that were usually associated with the introduction of a talented coaching staff and a few key players but it never lasted that long. Before Arthur Blank bought this team in 2002 the Falcons had rarely been to the playoffs and you can almost count the playoff instances over nearly 5 decades with the fingers on one hand. Arthur Blank inherited a freshly acquired dynamic new quarterback in Michael Vick and things were already improving. Vick was capable of magic in the backfield and they started to build a team around him and his abilities. Meanwhile, the team struggled between winning games by allowing Vick to run wildly all over the field and nearly getting killed in the process to keeping him in the pocket, healthy, but losing. The team was still searching for some answers but they were winning more games than usual and the team (well, Vick anyway) was fun to watch. It wasn't long before it all fell apart when Vick goes to jail for taking part in dog fighting. While trying to recover from the loss of their star player and the black eye that his crime brought to the team a one year ride in a coaching carousel of disaster ensued and the team was in serious shambles. In 2008 Blank effectively presses the "reset button" and goes into a rebuilding mode to move on from the team he inherited to the team HE envisions.
Talent assessment is a bitch. There are very few "knowns" when it comes to looking at a kid just north of 20 years old and determining his future in the NFL. Although we have several physical and performance measurements that we can use to form some sort of idea about a player's potential, there are countless variables related to character, perspective, playing environment, and motivation that combine to make a great player when they're all aligned properly. The correct formula for this is never the same for any two teams or any two players. If you want to look at one thing to surmise how good the NFL and collegiate management is at their ability to grade player talent just look at the significant number of undrafted free agents that evolve into great players. Some recent names in that category are Wes Welker, Kurt Warner, Arian Foster, London Fletcher, and James Harrison. With only a few exceptions in a very minor percentage of the top tier athletes players have to go through some time on the field before their true potential (or lack thereof) becomes clear. However, regardless of what category a player falls in, nobody knows with complete assuredness that any one of these guys will experience success quickly or at all. The point is that it is practically impossible to assess any one player's ultimate potential until you put that person on the field, at game time, with the pressure to excel in an environment in which they can grow.
Back to the "reset button"... In 2008, Blank hires new GM Thomas Dimitroff, they hire coach Smith, and that group drafts Matt Ryan and signs Michael Turner. The 2008 season ensues with several new faces and a new attitude with a plan to establish a respectable running game so Ryan can be afforded the time to develop. Personally, I believe that if I was able to sit down with the trio of Falcons football management in straight-truth mode we would probably learn that they had a warm and fuzzy three to five year plan build this team where anything approaching an 8-8 record in 2008 would have been considered an outstanding success. Conceptually, they would slowly develop the roster and build the team toward Blank's goal of a perennial winner in the model of the teams that he frequently references to this day (Patriots, Packers, etc). I would also wager that all three would admit to being completely surprised with the immediate success this team generated with an 11-5 2008 season that was capped off with a playoff berth. Starting with the immediate success in 2008, the Falcons have been teetering on the verge of becoming both a good and very consistent franchise and I believe that this fact is primary issue that is responsible for the disappointing season that was 2013.
If you drill down into the Falcon's successful years under Smith/Dimitroff the win/loss record alone won't show the larger percentage of games that have come down to the last drive where our talented QB and his band of clutch players won in the final minutes. As a result of this team tendency Matt Ryan has become known for his final game winning drives and is already one of the best quarterbacks in the entire history of the NFL in this category. Given the situation around our wins in the last several years I would like you to consider the perspective of a coach or team manager in these games. It's the fourth quarter, the score is close, and you'll have one or two possessions before the clock expires. Who are you going to send out on that field? I can tell you that you are NOT going choose that undrafted third string linebacker "Peter" Worrilow from somewhere in Delaware. What if it was the second quarter and you're behind by two touchdowns? Huh? Probably not then either? When games are close alternate players get relatively little playing time so you can make sure you have the best shot at the win. While these close games make for exciting games and almost got us to the Superbowl in 2012, it has become a complete distraction from any long term goals that Blank/Smith/Dimitroff had established in 2008.
If you'll keep your feet in the shoes of Falcons management and coaching for just another moment, imagine the illuminating feeling of that unexpected and immediate 2008 season of success. You would likely be excused for feeling like you are four years ahead of schedule on your three year growth plan and start to look for that one piece of talent that will throw you over the top. Maybe you might be tempted to trade a bunch of draft picks to give Matt Ryan what should be an ultimate weapon with Julio Jones. By the time you got two thirds of the way through the 2011 season, you probably forgot you even HAD a plan to build this team while you bask in the media glow about how the Atlanta Falcons were the only remaining undefeated team in the NFL. It almost worked.
The Atlanta Falcons aren't suffering from a lack of depth. They're suffering from the fact that the success with the new team in 2008 was a surprise and that we've been winning with a razor thin margin for an extended period. Our b-list players haven't been getting play time and we haven't been able to see what we really had. While the injuries did get a little overboard last year, it only took a few key injuries to expose our soft underbelly that resulted from the lack of player development afforded by our nail biting habit of winning games. Once we coupled starting position pressure on our list of inexperienced b-list players with a little too much confidence in the young evolution of the offensive and defensive lines, we transformed a team that was usually "barely winning" to a team that usually "barely loses".
In reality, the situation is really good and you should be happy about the current state of the Atlanta Falcons. We have an owner who is focused on the making this team a success and is investing madly into it and we're just starting to see his vision. We have a GM and coach that have demonstrated the ability to make an incredible turn around once already with a much less talented team. If you just judge them from the turnaround this trio made in 2008 alone you should afford them some faith that they can put together a very substantial franchise in the future. They have built a team comprised of great attitudes, a history of leadership, and a lot of potential along with some of the best talent the NFL has to offer. Couple these facts with the cold reality that we just crammed three years worth of player development into a single year and we should find ourselves seriously back on track toward Arthur Blanks vision that he started with in 2008. I'm betting that 2014 will be remembered as the year the Atlanta Falcons solidified as an NFL powerhouse.