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The Years They Were Great: The 2010 Atlanta Falcons

FLOWERY BRANCH GA - JULY 30:  Helmets sit on the ground during the Atlanta Falcons workout on opening day of training camp on July 30 2010 at the Falcons Training Complex in Flowery Branch Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
FLOWERY BRANCH GA - JULY 30: Helmets sit on the ground during the Atlanta Falcons workout on opening day of training camp on July 30 2010 at the Falcons Training Complex in Flowery Branch Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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A series of posts taking abbreviated looks at some of the best teams in Falcons history. Since I was born in '84, I'll be soliciting your collective help for any seasons before the mid-80's which deserve to be on this list.

Falling short is nothing new for the Atlanta Falcons, unfortunately. It's as ingrained in the fan consciousness every bit as much as the Dirty Bird and Tommy Nobis crushing hapless human beings.The 2010 season ended bitterly when the Falcons lost to the Green Bay Packers, who would go on to win the Super Bowl.

Yet 2010 was still one of the greatest seasons in team history. The Falcons played a ton of thrilling, close games, finishing the regular season 13-3 and as the NFC's top seed for one of the few times in team history. Along the way, they drafted some promising rookies, lost a couple of key veterans to injury and made winning ugly an art form.

A team that lost its first game won 13 of its next 15 before being turned over by one of the hottest six seeds in playoff history. This is the story of the 2010 Atlanta Falcons.

The Narrative

After a disappointing 9-7 season in 2009, the Falcons were determined to get back on the horse in 2010. In the minds of Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith, that meant shoring up a middling defense.

The Falcons struck early in the off-season by signing cornerback Dunta Robinson away from the Houston Texans, a decision that many fans rue to this day. The team was determined to significantly improve the secondary, though, and saw Robinson as an upgrade opposite Brent Grimes.

Then came the draft. The Falcons invested their first round pick in fast-talking, fast-walking linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. Their third round pick went to defensive tackle Corey Peters, which was considered a reach at the time. They also further shored up the secondary by drafting promising cornerback Dominique Franks and picking up hard-hitting safety Shann Schillinger.

The offensive side of the ball got comparatively little attention, a decision that would lead to criticism after the playoff disaster. The Falcons snapped up center Joe Hawley, who wound up having a more prominent role in 2011 than 2010, and wide receiver Kerry Meier, who was lost for the year thanks to a devastating training camp injury.

This was still a team built around a strong offensive identity, a nasty offensive line and a defense that would bend but not break. That didn't seem like a winning formula for Week 1, when the Falcons lost a brutal defensive slugfest with the Pittsburgh Steelers, 15-9.

There was a lot of angst in the week following that game, which foreshadowed the fan anxiety that would persist throughout the season. The Falcons reeled off quality wins against the Cardinals (41-7), Saints (27-24), 49ers (16-14), and Browns (20-10), but it took gave-saving plays from Roddy White and Kroy Biermann to pull off wins against San Fran and Cleveland. There was reason to believe the Falcons were gutting out those wins.

The proof came in Week 6, when the team had its bell rung by the Philadelphia Eagles, 31-17. In retrospect, it's a microcosm of all the things that would eventually kill the 2010 Falcons: The defense allowed too many big plays and the offense sputtered, with Ryan whiffing on passes and Michael Turner managing an anemic three yards per carry. It was, however, the last time the Falcons would lose for a long time.

Atlanta made a habit of close, highly entertaining wins in the weeks to come. They beat the Bengals (39-32), the Buccaneers twice (27-21, 28-24), the Ravens (26-21), and the Packers (20-17). They did manage to blow out some bad teams, namely the Panthers twice (31-10 both times), the Seahawks (34-18) and the Rams (34-17). Their sole loss through the last ten weeks of the season came at the hands of the Saints, who won a 17-14 battle on Monday night in the Georgia Dome.

When the dust settled, the Falcons were 13-3. They had shown a knack for crushing terrible teams, playing patient clock-control football against average-to-good teams and falling just short against other good teams.

Looking back, it's clear that the Falcons' biggest advantage was also their biggest weakness. Relying heavily on Michael Turner and fast-developing routes to Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, this was a team that could eat an entire bowl of clock and come back for seconds. It was a team that could control the tempo of the game and bludgeon other teams to death, exhausting them and hanging on for the win. It was decidedly old-school football, and when it worked, it worked exceptionally well.

We all know what happened when it didn't work well. After a bye week, the Falcons hosted the red-hot Packers in the Georgia Dome. The Falcons built an early 7-0 lead, holding the Packers in check and playing that patient football. But thanks to a deadly combination of turnovers, defensive miscues and offensive ineptitude, the Packers scored 28 points in the second quarter, opening up a 28-14 halftime lead. Faced with a deficit against a high-powered offense, the Falcons were suddenly doomed by their trademark brand of football. They wound up losing by a humiliating 27 points, with the final score at 48-21. A magical run ended that day.

Were the 2010 Falcons a great football team? In their way, they were. In today's NFL, it's rare to see a team achieve as much success as those Falcons by playing football that owed a lot to the 70's and 80's. There were fantastic individual performances, one of the best marks in franchise history and a first round-bye, and on their best days no team in the NFL looked forward to having to tackle Mike Smith's squad.

The ending of the season will forever mar these legitimate accomplishments, but these Falcons were one of the best teams in franchise history.

The Best And Brightest

  • The Falcons sent nine players to the Pro Bowl, including Matt Ryan, ace special teamer Eric Weems and John Abraham, who had one of the best seasons of his storied career.
  • Ryan had the best season of his young career, completing 62.5% of his passes, throwing for 3,700+ yards and compiling 28 touchdowns against just 9 interceptions. It was a big year helped by...
  • Roddy White, who caught a career high 115 passes for 1,389 yards and 10 touchdowns. It wasn't a big play year for Roddy, but he was as reliable as any receiver in the NFL.
  • The offensive line was remarkable. Given the vitriol we spewed in its direction in 2011—justified vitriol, I might add—the 2010 version deserves recognition. They kept Matt Ryan squeaky clean all season long.
  • John Abraham single-handedly paced the pass rush, accounting for 13 sacks and terrorizing opposing quarterbacks throughout the season.
  • Brent Grimes, who was a force of nature at cornerback. He picked five passes, accounted for 70 tackles and became a borderline shutdown corner, which drew notice from across the NFL.
  • Matt Bryant went from struggling veteran kicker to automatic in the span of one season. He drilled over 90% of his kicks in 2010.
  • Eric Weems had the finest season of his career. He had two touchdown returns on a punt and kick, respectively, and showed a ton of fire as a gunner on special teams. His Pro Bowl berth was well-deserved.

The Worst And Dimmest

  • This was the year fans began to turn on Mike Mularkey and Brian Van Gorder. Despite the hugely successful season, their deeply conservative scheming was the team's undoing in the playoff game against Green Bay.
  • The Falcons were weak, weak, weak at wide receiver outside of Roddy White. Michael Jenkins was hurt and his usual ho-hum self, Meier was gone for the year and Harry Douglas was still coming back from injury. It's absolutely crazy to have to rely on a wide receiver to that degree.
  • The secondary had real issues from the start that culminated with Chris Owens' disastrous outing against Green Bay. Dunta Robinson was far from the fix he was supposed to be.
  • Sean Weatherspoon had a poor rookie season, hampered as he was by injuries and a steep learning curve. We all know now that he's become one hell of a player, but he basically had a lost year in 2010.

Game Of The Year

Without a doubt, the win over the Saints. The Falcons showed a remarkable streak of tenacity in that game, and it was a microcosm of many of their wins: Tough, ugly, and awesome.

Lasting Legacy

The 2010 season will be remembered as one of the team's finest seasons, and the point at which fans began to clamor for change in the coaching staff. It was also the year that Matt Ryan truly began to come into his own, perhaps the last truly superlative season of John Abraham's career and the year when the Falcons seemingly put it all together.

It's important as both a triumph and a cautionary tale, as so many Falcons seasons have been. It's a triumph because it really put the Falcons on the map as a perennial contender and a damn tough football team, and it had the effect of thrusting deserving players into the spotlight.

It ultimately also exposed the Falcons' fatal flaws, which brought the team down in the 2011 post-season and led to the coaching staff changes we're seeing today, however indirectly.

In the end, that can't fully scrub away how awesome this season was. When I think back on the 2010 Falcons five years from now, I hope I'll be able to see a future Super Bowl team just finding its way. At the very least, it was a hell of a fun one to watch.