Editor’s Note: Yes, that Jay Adams. We’d like to extend a warm welcome to one of our favorite writers in his first piece for The Falcoholic.
As I think back to seven years ago and the start of my first few years following the Falcons, I recall many fond and enjoyable memories of watching a successful team make push after push into the postseason. Well, mostly enjoyable anyway, as things didn’t seem to end the way any of us had hoped for those highly touted teams.
If you’re not just hopping on the Falcons bandwagon these days, you probably recall much of the 2010-12 playoff experience in your own way: excitement, jubilation, high expectation, confidence... then sad, crippling, horrifying anger, agony, and the desire to find a dark corner somewhere and weep gently until July.
Well, that’s how it was for me, anyway.
In joining The Falcoholic crew, I couldn’t help but take the opportunity to laud the present version of the Falcons, who are providing a nostalgic trip back into the good parts of the 2010-2012 playoff era.
I’ve thought long and hard in the past few days about what that experience was like then from nothing more than a position of gut instinct — my gut instinct. If you watched any of my Falcons shows or podcasts, you know that I had a formidable gut in those days. There’s less gut these days, but still enough to rely on when I want to avoid boring readers with a slew of statistics that will only mean and show what I want them to.
At the conclusion of those playoff games from those seasons, fans either heard or said all of the following:
“ATLANTA IS CURSED!”
“Worst sports city ever!”
“I don’t even know why I’m a fan!”
“How did the TV get broken?”
“Where can I get a Cam Newton jersey?” (A 2015 season favorite).
One thing that stands out about those teams and those games — again, according to my gut — is that nothing really felt different year-to-year. Sure, we can use some statistics to show this (and they do), but save the big trade to get Julio Jones during the 2011 NFL Draft, the acquisition of Asante Samuel that provided more entertainment than production, and an interesting experiment with Ray Edwards, there wasn’t much that made the teams of those three years feel any different from each other.
Let’s remember what the issues were then, shall we?
This team felt like it overachieved. Yes, the Falcons that year finished 12-4 and earned the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs, including homefield advantage and a bye. But let’s remember how different things could have been. One example: Week 4 at the Georgia Dome, the Falcons need a game-winning drive in the final moments against San Francisco. Nate Clements picks off Matt Ryan and somehow, someway Roddy White comes from absolutely nowhere to strip the ball from Clements and, in perhaps the best example of big-man hustle there has ever been, Harvey Dahl comes up with the recovery, giving the Falcons another shot at a win that they would make good on.
Without droning on about the details, games against New Orleans (Week 3), Cincinnati (Week 7), Tampa Bay (Week 9), Baltimore (Week 10) and Green Bay (Week 12) could easily have been added to the loss column, which would have put the Falcons at 7-9 to end the year. Nine games that year were decided by one score either way. When it came to individual players: Michael Turner flashed brilliance, but didn’t get much help from others in the run game; White and Tony Gonzalez were the passing game; John Abraham was the pass rush; Brent Grimes, Curtis Lofton and William Moore were the defense. Beyond those players, there wasn’t a whole lot to hang your hat on for a playoff push.
Things evened out a bit during this season with the team finishing 10-6 in the regular season. The roller coaster that year consisted of big, fun wins (Philadelphia in Week 2 against Michael Vick; Julio Jones’ breakout in Week 9 vs. Indianapolis; John Abraham becoming the reason Blaine Gabbert is probably still in therapy during a Week 15 win over Jacksonville) and tough, head-scratching losses (Tampa Bay in Week 3; New Orleans twice, including one where Drew Brees thoroughly did Drew Brees things to the Falcons’ detriment; Whatever that was in Week 14 against Carolina). Expectations were lower heading into the postseason with the No. 5 seed, but they had a chance to cool off the fourth-seeded Giants in the Meadowlands. That didn’t exactly happen as we had to endure tweets of simply “2 points” for an entire offseason. Thankfully, Ryan has redeemed that number these days.
This was a year of destiny. Everything was working. The team got off to an 8-0 start before hitting a wall in New Orleans. Still, they rallied to finish an impressive 13-3, earning the No. 1 seed again and homefield advantage for the postseason. There were some issues beneath the surface, however, that one could argue might have been the difference between a Super Bowl win and what eventually happened with an ousting during the NFC Championship Game at the hands of Colin Kaepernick. This was a time when the question of killer instinct, or a potential lack thereof, took root when the Falcons seemed to squander big leads. For weeks, I said the worst thing that could happen to the Falcons in any game that year was halftime. A friend of mine would jokingly ask me if we were feeding players pancakes and NyQuil during the break. Sources could not confirm nor deny the allegation.
The third quarter was routinely an uphill battle and a handful of games finished closer than they probably should have. That trend continued into the postseason. The Divisional Round win over Seattle is, no doubt, one of my favorite Falcons memories in recent years, but let’s remember that it didn’t have to be that way with the Falcons up 27-7 with just more than two minutes left in the third quarter. We saw a replay of that same issue the following week in the NFC title game loss to San Francisco with the Falcons out to a 17-0 lead by early in the second quarter. Other issues took root that year: Turner didn’t have the magic he once did, finishing with 800 yards for a rushing attack that didn’t feature much else; cracks began to form in the offensive line as Ryan got little help from the run and had to all but sacrifice kittens to Egyptian deity Horus to stay upright in the pocket at times; missed tackles, so many missed tackles; underachieving at key positions where big money was spent. Still, even with all that, this team finished 10 yards and one uncalled pass interference penalty (or a turf monster assist on Harry Douglas — whichever way you want to think about it) from a Super Bowl trip many think the team could have emerged victorious from.
Now that we’ve had that history lesson and dredged up the painful, soul-crushing memories that come from it, let’s move on to the Falcons team about to embark on what will hopefully be a finish that surpasses those of the aforementioned playoff appearances.
The big question we have to ask here is this: What’s different?
Well, a lot
For starters, Dan Quinn at the helm along with a completely different attitude from teams of the past, Ryan having the season of his career that could (and SHOULD) end by being named the league’s MVP, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman turning into the one-two rushing punch the Falcons envisioned, Jones doing what Jones does (including missing games due to injuries suffered on parts of his body that are not yet bionic).
Those reasons complement one of the more underrated keys to me, however, as I look at this Falcons team and compare and contrast it to those of just a handful of years ago: the contributions of youth.
I could get into a rant about millennials and their free-wheeling, new-fangled technological and irresponsible ways, but I’ll spare you. There’s something to be said for the age of some of Atlanta’s biggest contributors to its success this year and the impact those players have made.
Quinn’s outlook on youth is not unique. You’d be hard-pressed to find a coaching staff in the NFL that doesn’t have some kind of program set up for the development of young players in the hopes that they turn into contributing stars. The difference in Atlanta seems to be the type of young player that has been acquired.
To me, it’s the biggest reason you can throw out the history books right now. The previous three seasons were clouded by talks of general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s picks in the draft, but to perpetuate the idea that it’s been all bad would be a complete misrepresentation of what has occurred since even before Quinn arrived.
I’m a big believer in that you can learn more from failure than you can from success. Learning what not to do is a valuable way to learn what to do. It would seem the ideal player in the eyes of Dimitroff and his scouting staff, from an on-field and off-field standpoint, has evolved significantly since some of the misses in earlier drafts.
Point to whatever you like — the introduction of Scott Pioli to the staff, the addition of other ex-GMs to the scouting staff, the relationship between Quinn and Dimitroff — and you’ll find whatever you come up with can be argued as a credit to the current state of the Falcons.
When you hit on the selection of Keanu Neal — a consensus “reach” pick in the first round by everyone who purports to know anything on Football Twitter — and follow that up with a smart pick of Deion Jones — a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate, for sure — and the taking of rising stars Austin Hooper and De’Vondre Campbell, the bright, shiny new objects may distract you from the underlying theme that has contributed to the difference in this Falcons team.
I’ll break it down for you. It comes down to a combination of talent and attitude, with the latter perhaps being the most important part of the equation.
Here’s evidence of that claim — excluding players who had a good combo of both but unfortunately proved themselves to be injury-prone:
- Peria Jerry: A devastating knee injury to start his career didn’t help, but Jerry famously retired early during an episode of HBO’s Hard Knocks. It’s safe to say his heart just wasn’t in it.
- Lawrence Sidbury: Sid always had a great work ethic from my vantage point, but was part of the roster when defensive ends were basically asked to do different things from year to year and may have failed to reach his potential because of it.
- Akeem Dent: Another great work ethic, but had a tough time turning his soft-spoken personality into a leadership role to pick up where the Falcons lost experienced linebackers.
- Curtis Lofton: There’s no doubt Lofton was the Falcons’ star linebacker during his time in Atlanta, but his quotes upon leaving show that he perhaps held some ill-will toward his former organization.
- Peter Konz: Konz is a great guy, so don’t get me wrong here. Coaching turnover on the offensive line and switching positions may have been the downfall of his career. It seemed once he lost confidence in himself, it was never regained.
- Lamar Holmes: A small-school reach pick the pundits were correct on, Holmes may have simply had trouble with the transition to life in the NFL and the high expectations that come with it.
- Jonathan Massaquoi: Off the field, Mass was as nice as they come, but he did himself few favors when he became frustrated with his role in Mike Nolan’s system. The potential for him becoming a defensive force just never was realized.
That covers 2009-2012. What happened after that? Well, let’s see:
- Desmond Trufant: Right talent, right attitude.
- Robert Alford: Right talent, right attitude (and while he’s as polarizing a player as there is on the roster right now, I could see him developing into the corner the Falcons want him to be. Your anger on my opinion here will sustain me.).
- Kemal Ishmael: Right attitude, right talent base to work with.
- Jake Matthews: Duh.
- Devonta Freeman: Duh.
- Ricardo Allen: Perhaps the rightest attitude ever, good talent that has been honed and will continue to be perfected.
- Vic Beasley Jr.: Right talent, right attitude.
- Jalen Collins: Right talent with an attitude that is enthusiastic, but requires discipline, which it looks like he’s getting and, boy, is that paying off.
- Tevin Coleman: Right talent, right attitude.
- Justin Hardy: Right talent, right attitude that should be a model for mid-round picks.
- Grady Jarrett: Right talent, right attitude.
- The entire 2017 draft class: Right talent, right attitude.
“But Jay, you’re ignoring clear violations of the ‘right attitude, right talent’ model you just created out of think air!”
I hear you. Ra’Shede Hageman has faced challenges, Dezmen Southward is toiling on Carolina’s practice squad, Prince Shembo — yikes, Marquis Spruill and Yawin Smallwood — OK, OK, I get it.
But those are picks mostly from 2013 and 2014, and the case can clearly be made that things have vastly improved in the area of young talent, attitude and impact since then, and it’s one of the biggest reasons we’re talking about the Falcons as a Super Bowl contender today. Heck, I didn’t even touch on the undrafted players since 2013 who have developed into reliable on-field and off-field contributors, or the free-agent moves on relative unknowns like Taylor Gabriel and Aldrick Robinson that look genius today.
See, the page has turned from those bitter memories of 2010-12 and the ones we’d prefer to block out from 2013-15. This is a different team, and while I hear you that no team is perfect, this is a Falcons unit that is talented in superior ways across the board and the contribution of youth to that overall improvement cannot and should not be ignored.
So, while it’s easy to read the Atlanta sports history books and have that nagging feeling in the pit of your stomach that everything could go disastrously wrong, I urge you to stifle that, for this is a Falcons team that doesn’t — at least in my gut — adhere to previously-written Atlanta sports lore.
It’s hard to do, I know — but this mix of superstar, experienced talent with superstar (and rising star), inexperienced talent is optimal in my eyes, and again, the biggest reason I’m optimistic that this Falcons team has the best chance of any in recent memory of living up to the lofty, hungry expectations of a fanbase that for too long has had to shamefully avert its eyes when speaking of its history.
Past: be damned. New chapters: be damned.
This is a Falcons team that could — this year and in years to come — write a whole new history book to be proud of.