I've recently started coaching my three sons in flag football again - my third straight year. Every year, I've used football as the groundwork for larger lessons about life. Whether it's dealing with adversity or the value of hard work, I've always believed that no sport mirrored life better than good ole American Football.
As I pondered this recently, I came to realize that the Falcons of the Dimitroff/Smith/Ryan era really embody some amazing life lessons that we can all learn from. I believe it is in these lessons that many of us fans find our deep passion for our team. It's these themes that make us feel closer not only to the players, but to the franchise as a whole. These are my thoughts on just a few of the lessons we've learned over the last several years.
Always Strive Towards Your Expectations, Not Those of Others
In some ways, this is the lesson that started them all. Coming off of the disaster of a 2007 season that saw our franchise QB jailed and our head coach leave us midseason, few in the media thought the Falcons would do much in 2008. With a rookie head coach, rookie quarterback and unproven running back, many thought the Falcons were - at best - a 5 to 6 win team. Expectations outside the organization were incredibly low.
But within, the expectations were different.
Over time, we came to learn that the 2008 Falcons didn't view themselves the way the media did. They always viewed themselves as capable of winning. They believed in the mantra that Coach Smith put before them. They believed in themselves, naysayers be damned.
A team that was forecast to finish as low as 1-15 finished the season 11-5, and with a playoff berth.
Had that team let the expectations of others influence them - had they believed that they were no better than a 6 win team - they would not have finished the season with 11 wins. They may not have finished with even 6.
But they didn't let others set expectations for them - they had their own, no matter how fool-hearty they may have seemed. And though it doesn't always happen in life, this team surpassed the expectations of everyone - except maybe, for the ones they set for themselves.
Character Does Matter
It never fails. Every year - whether it's in the draft or free agency - Falcons fans question why Dimitroff and Smith didn't take a chance on XYZ player, who has some character issues. And every year - with the possible exception of Ray "Epic Underwear Model" Edwards - the Falcons don't sign those players. Some fans bemoan the fact that Dimitroff and Smitty are always looking for players who were team captains and have nearly spotless character records.
But here's the thing: character DOES matter.
I'm not saying that they're looking for people who don't make mistakes because we all make them. What I'm talking about are the players who just seem to find ways to repeatedly make bad decisions. Guys like Tyrann Mathieu, who made so many mistakes he was kicked off of the LSU team.
Many Falcons fans were hoping we'd get him with a later round pick. But it was never going to happen. Never.
Maybe Mathieu goes on to be a hall of famer. Maybe he's nothing more than a rotational piece. Maybe he flames out. The problem is that he really is a wild card. Drug addiction is very powerful, and one slip-up could mean a complete regression. And when you depend on your players to win, losing them to outside influences can be devastating to a team.
Just ask the Patriots if they think Aaron Hernandez was worth that pick now.
Again, many players may go on and redeem themselves - but many of them go on to show that the troubles never really went away, they were just under the surface.
By investing in people of high character, you largely dodge the majority of those issues. Team captains tend to be leaders, and leaders tend to be hard workers - guys who positively impact the entire locker room and even inspire other players to be better. And ultimately, hard work will always triumph over mere talent.
Never Give Up
What lesson could be greater than this - and what lesson isn't more exemplified by our Falcons? There's something to be said for the record number of comebacks this team has pulled off over the past five years.
Never. Give. Up.
It sounds cliche, but God help me if this isn't one of the most important lessons you will learn in your life. No matter how dark things seem - no matter how beaten you appear to be - just don't give up. There's always hope.
How many people turned off the TV after Kyle Orton and the Bears went up on the Falcons 20-19 with 11 seconds left back in 2008? Those people missed the embodiment of this cliche when the Falcons miraculously won the game 22-20 with no time left on the clock.
How many people shook their heads in disgust when the Falcons went down 21-20 to the Ravens with a little over a minute left in 2010? Those people missed the Falcons driving down the field and winning the game 26-21.
And on and on it goes with Ryan and these Falcons. In fact, their comebacks are almost cliched themselves. So much so, that even when Seattle took the lead in the playoffs in 2012 - many fans looked at the clock, looked at Ryan, and patiently waited for the comeback to happen. And they did that because this team has that never say die attitude.
So, as we head into the 2013 season - I wonder what other lessons we will take away? Will it be that of the tireless workers who finally see the ultimate payoff? Will it be about triumphing even when others are betting against you?
What life lessons do you think we'll see from our Falcons in 2013?