The final record was only 11-5, not the best mark in franchise history. They lost in the first round of the playoffs. That, in and of itself, would not suggest anything particularly remarkable about the 2008 Atlanta Falcons.
The circumstances make this one of the most impressive teams in Falcons history, nonetheless. With a rookie quarterback, rookie coach, rookie general manager, makeshift offensive line and chronically underachieving defense, the 2008 team still managed to go to the playoffs. They also fought their way out of the long shadow cast by Michael Vick, an achievement in and of itself.
This is the story of how a team that had three starting quarterbacks and a coach who quit partway through the season in 2007 managed to win 10 games and take the NFL by storm just a year later. This is the story of a team that laid the groundwork for one of the most successful runs in team history.
This is the story of the 2008 Atlanta Falcons.
Reeling from 2007, the Falcons found themselves sans a head coach, with a desire to go for a new general manager to replace Rich McKay and with no in-house answer at quarterback. Joey Harrington and Byron Leftwich each suffered injuries and bombed, while Chris Redman played quite well but was not viewed as a true starting option.
Arthur Blank's first choice for GM was Bill Parcells. There's no telling how that would have turned out for the franchise, but when Parcells turned him down, Blank went for the opposite of a splash. By hiring Thomas Dimitroff, a well-respected personnel guru with the Patriots, Blank altered the course of the franchise. At the time, I thought it was a good hire, but my expectations for 2008 were pretty low.
That's doubly true for Mike Smith. The Jaguars' defensive coordinator when he was hired, Smith was another well-regarded guy with little name recognition outside of Jacksonville. The Falcons were desperate to bring a calm, strait-laced face to the franchise, and Smith was basically the perfect fit, especially at the time.
So with the front office in place and with Mike Smith hiring Mike Mularkey and Brian Van Gorder, the Falcons had a staff. Now they needed to upgrade the team itself.
That started by cutting Rod Coleman, Byron Leftwich, Alge Crumpler and Wayne Gandy, purging the team of players who were either aging rapidly or weren't fits for what the team hoped to do going forward. They also signed Michael Turner away from San Diego, which turned out to be a brilliant move. Then they turned toward the draft.
For better or for worse, the 2008 draft will define Dimitroff's legacy in Atlanta. He picked Matt Ryan with the third overall pick over the strenuous objections of portions of the fanbase and analysts, and then traded back up into the first round to get Sam Baker as his protection. He then landed Curtis Lofton, Harry Douglas, Thomas DeCoud, and Kroy Biermann, all of whom would have significant roles in the years ahead. His misses in this particular draft were mostly later on, though whiffing on Chevis Jackson in the third doesn't look so great today.
But we're not talking down the line, anyways. We're talking about 2008, and in 2008, these signings would prove to be the kind that alter the face of the franchise.
The proof arrived early. In their first game of the season against the Detroit Lions, Matt Ryan hooked up on his first NFL pass for a long bomb to Michael Jenkins, impressing the hell out of everyone immediately. For a doubter like me, it was a public shaming. The Falcons went on to win that game 34-21.
The team followed that up with an anemic loss to the Buccaneers, who handled their business and won 24-9. It was a reminder that no magical season can be complete without a few setbacks, and the three field goals in four quarters would foreshadow some of the offensive difficulties this team would have in the future.
But not the next week, when the Falcons beat the Kansas City Chiefs 38-14. That was a bloodbath. Unfortunately, the Falcons continued the roller coaster ride with a 24-9 loss to the Carolina Panthers, and seemed destined to drop a lot of games in the NFC South.
The Falcons reeled off two wins in a row against the Green Bay Packers and a heart-stopper against the Bears, one of the best games I've ever seen the Falcons play. A shaky game from Matt Ryan contributed to a loss against the Eagles, but the Falcons bounced back from that with a 24-0 thrashing of the Raiders.
Now the Falcons were rolling...except they weren't. They beat the Saints (34-20) the next week, lost to the Broncos (24-20) the next, beat the crap out of the Panthers (45-18) and edged the Chargers (22-16) and then lost to the Saints (29-25).
It'd been a hell of a ride up to this point, but the Falcons turned it on in the last three weeks. They beat the Vikings, Buccaneers and Rams over that span, propelling the team to a Wild Card berth and a game against the Arizona Cardinals.
At this point I'd like to pause for a moment and note how incredibly unlikely this was. The Falcons should have been a bad football team finding their way in the world, not one that succeeded beyond everyone's wildest expectations and made the playoffs. That's a credit to the entire organization, and it's worth remembering the days when we were all out of our minds with excitement over an 11-5 season.
Unfortunately, the pixie dust wore off in the playoffs. The eventually Super Bowl-bound Arizona Cardinals played them incredibly tough, and miscues from guys like Keith Brooking made the difference in a 30-24 loss. The Falcons headed home, deflated but heads held high, having done what seemed impossible even in August of 2008.
Because it introduced us to the team we're still following today, and because it gave us hope after the soul-sucking abyss of the late Mora years/Petrino year, it's one of my favorite teams of all-time.
The Best And Brightest
- Matt Ryan blew away my expectations. I was vocally against the team drafting him in the first place, deeming his intangibles better than his arm and decision-making. Given the ramshackle team around him and his own rookie status, it's a minor miracle he did as well as he did. While the season introduced us to his occasional happy feet, errant long throws and other foibles that we've come to know and not love, it also showed us why he would go on to become one of the best ten quarterbacks in the NFL. A huge year.
- Michael Turner's first year with the Falcons remains his best. He ran for a crazy numbers of yards on fresh legs, making Ryan's job much easier and absolutely terrorizing defenses across the NFL. It was truly a virtuoso year, and it cemented Turner's Falcons' legacy for life.
- Consider that in 2008, Ryan had no Tony Gonzalez, no Julio Jones, and the rookie version of Harry Douglas. He needed an option to lean on, and he found one in Roddy White, who developed a great rapport with the young signal-caller. Roddy's season was a difference maker, and he's never looked back.
- Curtis Lofton burst on the scene like the Kool-Aid Man. Oh yeah.
- The coaching staff did a superb job of putting these guys in a position to succeed. I'd say this was the only year you could legitimately argue that the coaching staff was responsible for more of the success than the players were, simply by making the right play-calls and catering to each player's strengths. Arguably Mike Mularkey's finest year in the NFL.
The Worst And Dimmest
- The defense was ultimately the letdown here, prompting Thomas Dimitroff's multi-year crusade to overhaul that unit. Between Keith Brooking failing late, the secondary looking like a disaster and a middling pass rush, the Falcons simply didn't get as much out of the D as they should have. The result was a playoff loss, and that still stings.
- Jamaal Anderson continued to be the worst thing since sliced farts, providing no pass rush. I had forgotten how inept he was, somehow.
Game Of The Year
The Bears game, without question. The Falcons were brilliant, played hard the whole game and won on a thrilling last second heave. It's impossible not to love that.
Everything we've loved and hated about the Falcons over the last four years originated here.
The Falcons made enormous strides and turned themselves into a team worth taking seriously in 2008, something that continues to this day despite the playoff losses they've endured. It established Matt Ryan as a bright young star and gave Michael Turner and Roddy White household name status. It also was the year that Brent Grimes finally got a shot to play, and he parlayed that into a starting job.
In short, it was a year that put these Falcons on the map, and it was a team that was impossible not to love. Those were simpler times.