Falcons fans rejoice: our franchise is in good hands with Blank, Dimitroff, Smith
remember the 3-13 seasons. I remember when we drafted Marcus Cotton, Aundray Bruce and Michael Booker. I remember coaches like Marion Campbell, June Jones and, of course, Bobby Petrino. Most importantly, I remember a franchise that never won consistently. I am here to tell you that those days are gone, fellow fans of the feathered ones. The Falcons are one of the best organizations in the NFL, from top to bottom. Not only is the team coming off back-toback winning seasons for the first time ever, they also look to be one of the best teams in the league on paper. Match that talent with a solid coaching staff, front office and owner, and you have a franchise that looks like it can win consistently for years to come.
GREAT EXPECTATIONS …
After a season that saw a 9-7 finish, the Falcons did not seem too pleased with their performance. While many fans rejoiced in the glow of a second consecutive winning season, the leadership of the Falcons was not pleased. “I felt disappointed that we didn’t make the playoffs,” said owner Arthur Blank about the 2009 season. “Well, I think for the fans it was very, very important,” said head coach Mike Smith. “Myself, and our team, we did not meet the goals that we had set out for ourselves in 2009.” How refreshing. It’s obvious the franchise is committed to winning and winning all the time. A lot of excuses could have been made about the 2009 season. Quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Michael Turner, wide receiver Harry Douglas, defensive tackle Peria Jerry and safety William Moore all sustained injuries during the season, and each missed multiple games. However, the team still was in the playoff hunt towards the end of the season and won their last three games to finish above .500. The Falcons battled eventual Super Bowl champion New Orleans in both meetings,
nearly beating the rival Saints in the Georgia Dome with backup Chris Redman playing quarterback. Despite all of the injuries and three close losses, the Birds finished second in the NFC South. Which leads us to this year: How good can the Falcons be?
SKY’S THE LIMIT …
Mike Smith’s club will return many players from the 2008 team that surprised the NFL and finished with an 11-5 record. Also, the team has signed all of its draft picks and did so prior to training camp, which is no easy task in this day and age. That kind of success in signing players shows the genius of the front office in drafting talented players who won’t take the team for a ride when it comes to getting into camp. Add the seven new draftees to an already solid roster, and you’ve got a chance to be successful. The offense is led by Ryan and Turner, who form one of the best backfield tandems
in football. Jerious Norwood and Chris Snelling are more than capable backups for Turner while Redman showed that he can be a solid NFL QB last season. With Ovie Mughelli flattening defenders on running plays, the Falcons’ backfield is as strong and deep as ever. Yes, even as strong as the groups in the 80’s that featured William Andrews, Steve Bartkowski and Gerald Riggs. With Roddy White at wide receiver and Tony Gonzalez at tight end, the Falcons have a star at every skill position.
In the trenches, the big uglies are now a deep and talented unit. Bolstered by three draft picks in the past two drafts, the offensive line now boasts depth in addition to its veteran-laden starting unit. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder will also have some new toys to play with this season, as Dunta Robinson and Sean Weatherspoon come aboard. Robinson comes from Houston where he shut down one side of the field for six years. One saying can describe Dunta’s ability: Land covers one-fourth of the earth’s surface, Dunta Robinson covers the rest. He is the lockdown corner the Falcons have lacked since the days of “Neon” Deion Sanders. Weatherspoon, Atlanta’s 2010 first-round pick, can come into the linebacking corps and help immediately. He joins veteran Mike Peterson and All-Pro candidate Curtis Lofton in what is a very solid group of ’backers. On the defensive line, Jerry, a former first-round pick, returns from injury to help anchor the front four. John Abraham, Jonathan Babineaux and another former firstrounder, Jamaal Anderson form a group that will terrorize offenses throughout the league.
UNDER THE RADAR …
Despite not having the hype that Dallas and Minnesota (if Brett Favre returns) are getting, the Falcons have a very respectable chance to win the NFC title. As a lifelong Falcons backer, I can honestly say that this is an exciting time to be a fan. Perhaps the most exciting time ever. The Birds are entering a season full of promise, but are as still as hungry as Tom Hanks’ character in the movie “Castaway.” So, fellow longtime (and short-time) Falcons fans- forget the false promises of Petrino and the wasted potential of Michael Vick. A new era is upon us. And this time, we will “rise up” to new heights. Black can be reached at email@example.com.
Michael “the Burner” Turner rebounding nicely from last season’s ankle injury
ise Up” is the theme for the Falcons’ “R 2010 season. And if there is one player that is taking that slogan to heart, it is Michael Turner. The Falcons’ star running back is trying to bounce back from a difficult 2009 season when he injured his ankle and missed five games. Partially due to his injury, the Falcons lost three of those games and missed the playoffs. But this injury is nothing new to Turner, as he has battled it throughout his college career. “It’s a tough injury to overcome, especially if you reinjure it,” said Turner, who suffered a similar injury at Northern Illinois. “I’m past that now and looking forward to being out there this year.”
LEAN AND MEAN …
When minicamp took place in May, there was much talk about Turner losing close to 25 pounds. But Turner was quick to say that he weighs the same; he just took better care of his body this offseason. “It was mostly body fat,” said Turner af-
ter the third practice of training camp. “(I’m) just getting leaner. I’m still the same weight.” The ankle injury that Turner suffered could be looked at as a good thing, because it gave him more time to work out and get his body in better shape for the 2010 season. “I got started a little bit earlier this year because I missed the last couple of games,” said Turner. “My body felt fresh to really get out there and start working out a little bit earlier than the rest of the guys on the team because I wasn’t able to finish the rest of the season.” Another reason Turner was able to look lean and fit is eating healthier than he has in the past. “In the offseason, that is when you tend to eat more junk food,” said Turner during minicamp in May when he was cleared to practice. “I just made the habit of eating healthy and getting the conditioning part out of the way so I won’t have to worry about it later on.” At the beginning of the 2009 season, Turner struggled out of the gate, averaging 3.3 yards per carry in the first six games. But he had a coming out party in Week 8 against the New Orleans Saints when he had 20 carries
for 151 yards. The following week, he totaled a season-high 166 yards against the Washington Redskins and was on his way to a similar performance against the Carolina Panthers in Week 10 with nine carries and 111 yards, but went down with the ankle injury and missed the next five of seven games. Some could argue that Turner was not in his best shape and that’s the reason he went down. But could it have been the fact he had a huge workload in 2008 when he carried the ball a league-high 376 times? “I didn’t feel it was too much,” said Turner during minicamp back in May. “I enjoy being out there playing football. I’m a running back. I think it’s the best position on the field. I just love to do it.”
IMPROVING HIS GAME …
We all know what Turner has done when it comes to running the ball. Despite an injuryshortened season, Turner was able to collect 10 rushing touchdowns, which was ninth best in the NFL last year. Over the last two seasons, he has 27 rushing touchdowns, which trails only Min-
nesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson, who has 28. But there is one aspect of his game that Turner is determined to get better at, and if he does, he will be tough to stop. Turner, who has only 22 career receptions, is looking forward to an opportunity this season to be a backfield threat when it comes to catching passes. “You have to work all year round to improve all facets of your game,” said Turner. “It’s not like I went out and caught 100 balls a day or anything.” Head coach Mike Smith has been impressed already. “I thought he had a couple of really nice catches yesterday in practice,” said Smith after Day 2 of training camp. “He’s been working on his hands and working on his entire game.” Turner has lost body fat, become more explosive, and improved his receiving during the offseason. If all this translates to the regular season, then Turner and the rest of the Falcons will like where they are at the end of the 2010 season. Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eight reasons why Falcons fans shou The wait is over. Another offseason has come and gone, training camp has arrived, preseason football is one week away, and the Atlanta Falcons’ 2010 opener will be here in one month. While this time of year is always bristling with excitement, Falcons fans have several reasons to eagerly anticipate the upcoming campaign. Here are eight of them... BACK-TO-BACK WINNERS … SMITH’S THIRD YEAR … For the first time in franchise history, Atlanta is coming off back-to-back winning seasons. After going 11-5 in 2008, a cruel injury bug and a brutal schedule did all they could to prevent the team from backing up its success. Instead, the Falcons battled admirably to a 9-7 record, thus achieving a feat never-before accomplished in the club’s previous 44 years.
Not coincidentally, head coach Mike Smith is entering his third season having engineered the Falcons to a combined 20-13 record (including a playoff loss at Arizona in January of 2009) during his first two efforts. Bolstered by an increasing familiarity with the players and an ideal coaching staff behind him, Smith—the NFL Coach of the Year in 2008—aims to win a Super Bowl and follow in the footsteps of Hall of Famers Vince Lombardi and Bill Walsh. Both Lombardi and Walsh won their first Super Bowls in their third years with the Packers and 49ers, respectively.
THE RYAN EXPRESS …
Like Smith, quarterback Matt Ryan is also heading into his third season in Atlanta. Although it can be argued Ryan endured a “sophomore slump” that is so common in sports, it was only a “slump” by relative— and lofty—standards. Following a breakout season in which he led the Falcons to the playoffs as a rookie, Ryan—despite a toe injury that sidelined him for two games and hampered him for many more—tossed 22 touchdowns against 14 interceptions. “The biggest thing is that we’ve laid the foundation for two years now, with Mike Smith and (general manager) Thomas Dimitroff,” Ryan said last weekend at the beginning of camp. “Now it’s time to take that to another level.”
MR. SHUTDOWN …
The Falcons are not only retooling with the return of injured contributors, but they have also strengthened the roster via free agency and the draft. Cornerback Dunta Robinson was the team’s major offseason acquisition, as he signed a six-year deal in March. Robinson, an Athens native who starred at Clarke Central High School and the University of South Carolina, spent his first six seasons in the NFL as a member of the Houston Texans. He has 13 career interceptions, including six in 2004 and one returned for a touchdown in 2006.
uld be excited about the 2010 season
By Ricky Dimon HERE’S TO GOOD HEALTH …
The Falcons and their fans have every reason to be confident that the time to take that next step up to the NFL’s elite is now. Atlanta had no shortage of injuries last season, but the wounded are back and—quite possibly—better than ever. Running back Michael Turner exploded for 1699 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2008, his first year with the team. A severe ankle sprain limited the bruising rusher to just 11 games last season, but he is in the best shape of his life right now at camp and weighs in at 244 pounds. Turner, who “basically lived at team facilities this offseason” according to the AJC, plans to play this season at 235 or 240, well below his 2009 weight. Turner’s 2009 campaign was derailed by the injury nine games in, but for rising stars Harry Douglas and Peria Jerry, their seasons never even got off the ground. Douglas exceeded all expectations in 2008 with a spectacular rookie performance in which he caught 23 passes for 320 yards and scored touchdowns three different ways (rushing, receiving and on a punt return). The former University of Louisville speedster missed all of last season with a torn ACL, but he is back at practice and contending for spots as the No. 3 receiver and primary return specialist. Jerry, Atlanta’s first-round pick in 2009, suffered a major knee injury in the second game of his rookie year and never returned. Jerry, a 294-pound defensive tackle who is expected to start on the line alongside Jonathan Babineaux, is back on the field after being medically cleared by Dr. James Andrews a few days before training camp. According to the former Ole Miss standout, when trainer Marty Lauzon asked him how he was doing at camp last Friday, Jerry responded, “You just don’t know how exciting it is just to be back out amongst the group.”
Atlanta selected University of Missouri linebacker Sean Weatherspoon with its first pick (No. 19 overall) of this year’s draft. Having signed a five-year contract late last month, Weatherspoon is on the practice field and progressing under the guidance of veteran ‘backers Mike Peterson, Curtis Lofton and Stephen Nicholas. Fifth-round pick Kerry Meier, a receiver out of Kansas, has been drawing rave reviews in practice for catching every ball thrown in his vicinity. Dominique Franks, also a fifth-round selection, will provide depth at cornerback and is also expected to be an electric contributor on special teams, as he was at Oklahoma.
“CHEER” UP …
While the show between the sidelines and endzones will pique fans’ interest, there will be more to the Falcons’ 2010 story. This year’s cheerleading squad, put together after an extensive tryout in April, is poised to take its act to new heights. According to the team, as reported by the AJC, the cheerleaders are “taking it to a whole new level with a new look, new uniforms, new logo and a brand new approach. The new look consists of searching for ladies who epitomize the New South—young, hip, glamorous, attractive and intelligent.”
CROWN JULES …
If it seems like everyone is jumping on the Falcons’ bandwagon right now, well, they are ... even superstar Samuel L. Jackson. The Oscarnominated actor stars in a video advertisement in which he says, “This is our time, Atlanta. We’ve been knocking on the door….” Accompanied by a gospel choir, Jackson urges Falcons’ fans to “Rise Up!” With a talented roster and momentum from a two-year winning streak, these Falcons should have no trouble getting an energized community to follow Jackson’s lead.
NFC PREVIEW arizona cardinals Matt Leinart steps under center to try and finally assert himself after a disappointing career thus far. The decorated former USC quarterback has thus far fallen short of expectations on and off the field. Beanie Wells was reliable in the second half of last year, and we all know what Larry Fitzgerald brings to the table. The defense must account for the loss of Rolle, but there is plenty of young talent here.
After an injury-plagued 2009, the Falcons look to take their game to the next level in 2010. The team is coming off their first back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history and return a roster full of talented veterans. G.M. Thomas Dimitroff had a fortuitous offseason, wooing cover corner Dunta Robinson to Flowery Branch and signing all seven draft picks prior to camp. Atlanta will be tested right away with games at Pittsburgh and New Orleans in the first three weeks.
new orleans saints Last year’s Super Bowl champions are back for more this year and might be better than ever. Sean Payton’s offense is a perfect fit for an accurate gunslinger like Drew Brees and an array of weapons on the outside. Don’t forget about the run game, one of 2009’s best. The defense could be a question mark. Their ability to force turnovers saved them plenty of times after giving up lots of yards.
new york giants The addition of Antrel Rolle from Arizona gives them a bruiser at safety that could change last year’s defensive debacle. They also added former Titan LB Keith Bulluck to the mix. The offense should be steady again, as it is virtually the same group as last year with Brandon Jacobs in the running game, Eli Manning under center, and a young receiving core in Steve Smith, Hakeem Nicks and Domenik Hixon.
The Jimmy Clausen Era may start this season, as the rookie will battle with Matt Moore for the starting job under center. With inconsistency looming at QB, the success of Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams in the ground game is a must. LB Na’il Diggs and DE Julius Peppers are gone as the team got younger on the front seven. The pass defense will be fine with the solid tandem of Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall at corner.
Donovan McNabb is gone. But is Kevin Kolb the man to fill his shoes? The fourth-year QB has very little playing experience. Brian Westbrook is also gone, but LeSean McCoy showed plenty of potential last season while Mike Bell’s addition helps give them depth. Corner Asante Samuel is the big dog defensively, but the team struggled in that area. They’re hoping that linebacker Ernie Sims can play to his potential after dealing for him with Detroit.
The Lovie Smith Regime is on thin ice in Chicago. The team made several big splashes in the offseason by adding pass rushing monster Julius Peppers and veteran RB Chester Taylor. But so much depends on Brian Urlacher. The defensive captain missed almost all of last season with a wrist injury. He must find his old self for the defense to be dominant again. The offense should get better if Jay Cutler takes better care of the football.
Is this the year things finally go from average to good in San Fran? They’ll have to solve the quarterback issue first. Former No. 1 pick Alex Smith has made some strides, but he’s a far cry from a consistent quarterback. Frank Gore gives them a solid running back, and everyone is excited about young Michael Crabtree. The defense, led by stud LB Patrick Willis, is solid. But the secondary must improve.
san francisco 49ers
tampa bay buccaneers
With an always strong offense and a defense that finally figured things out this year, Dallas could be very dangerous. It all starts with Tony Romo in the passing game, and Jerry Jones added yet another toy by nabbing Dez Bryant in the draft. Marion Barber is still a threat at running back, and the big-play ability of Felix Jones will frighten any defense. But the biggest improvement came defensively last year, where the team gave up just 15.6 points-per-game.
The maturation of 2009 first-round pick Josh Freeman will be key after he experienced mixed results last year. But wideout Antonio Bryant won’t be around. The team traded for Reggie Brown and drafted speedy Arrelious Benn to try and soften the blow. The run defense was atrocious last year and finished dead last in the league. There will have to be some serious maturation on that side of the ball if they want to compete.
The Lions do think they’re onto something at QB with 2008 No. 1 pick Matt Stafford showing flashes last year, and they already have a top notch wideout in Calvin Johnson on the outside. Draft pick Jahvid Best gives the team another young piece in the backfield. But the defense and offensive line were still terrible, and they are relying on a host of young players. No matter how you slice it, the Lions are a bad team.
Pete Carroll is in at head coach as Seattle will try to turn things around after the team was destroyed by injuries last season. Matt Hasslebeck didn’t look the same last year and was banged up. If that is a trend rather than an isolated bad season, there will be problems. Also, Walter Jones is gone up front after retiring. LenDale White will help at RB, but he is suspended for the first four games.
green bay packers The Pack made huge strides last season. Aaron Rodgers has blossomed into the quarterback everyone was hoping for and Ryan Grant had a resurgence at running back. Then there’s elite deep threat Greg Jennings and veteran Donald Driver at wideout. The defense made huge strides last year, too, although their final performance of the year in a high-scoring loss to Arizona in the playoffs was disappointing to the Cheesehead Nation.
minnesota vikings The Brett Favre Saga continued into training camp per usual. But, at press time, he has decided to retire. This, of course, could change at any moment. If he does leave the Vikings, Minnesota could struggle despite the great Adrian Peterson and emerging WR Sidney Rice. The defense was in the top 10 in all major categories last year. Jared Allen leads a terrifying front seven that can stop the pass and run equally well.
st. louis rams Things have been bad for a long time in St. Louis. Last year was no different. They’re hoping that quarterback Sam Bradford, the No. 1 overall pick, is going to be the first step in turning things around. Steven Jackson is still a great player buried on a bad team, but showed signs of wearing down last year. Meanwhile, there is no proven threat at wideout. And did we mention the defense is a mess, too?
washington redskins Perhaps no one was as active as Washington this offseason, as they brought in head coach Mike Shanahan and paired him with veteran quarterback Donovan McNabb. New signings Larry Johnson and Willie Parker hope to find their old form in the running game. Unfortunately, the offensive line has been a joke in years past, and now are without Skins legend Chris Samuels, who recently retired.
AFC PREVIEW Baltimore Ravens The Ravens have been known as one of the NFL’s best defenses for most of the decade with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed taking opponents’ heads off. Now, it’s the offense that’s getting the pub. Joe Flacco is heading into his third year and welcomes in Anquan Boldin at wideout. Ray Rice had a breakout year last season and has established himself as one of the game’s elite running backs.
buffalo bills Last decade was not a good decade for the Bills, as they never made the playoffs and are now tied for the longest playoff drought in the NFL (with the Lions). Unfortunately, there are no indications that the next decade will be any better. The QB situation is very shaky, with either Ryan Fitzpatrick or Trent Edwards getting the start. The Bills hope first-round pick C.J. Spiller will add a playmaker to their offense.
cincinnati bengals The Bengals made one of the most talked about moves of the offseason in adding WR Terrell Owens, and they now boast not one, but two receivers with VH1 reality shows. In addition, the Bengals added Antonio Bryant and drafted TE Jermaine Gresham and WR Jordan Shipley, so there will be no shortage of weapons in Carson Palmer’s arsenal. Expect the Bengals to improve on their 26th-ranked passing offense from a year ago.
The Browns are still looking for their first playoff appearance since returning to Cleveland, and to do so, team president Mike Holmgren gave the team a facelift this offseason. QB Brady Quinn is gone and in comes Jake Delhomme. Colt McCoy was drafted to be the quarterback of the future. Joe Haden and T.J. Ward could start as rookies in the secondary. This team will probably struggle again in a tough AFC North, but things are looking up.
The Broncos made one of the biggest splashes in the NFL Draft, electing to take Florida legend Tim Tebow in the first round. Tebow’s role on the 2010 team remains to be seen. Kyle Orton will likely be the starter in Week 1, though Brady Quinn and Tebow could push for playing time if the Broncos struggle. Losing Brandon Marshall means Denver is without a big time receiver.
houston texans The Texans had a good year in 2009, posting their first winning record in franchise history. Now, they hope to make their first playoff appearance. Last season, Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson led an aerial assault on the rest of the NFL, as no team racked up as much yardage via passing as did the Texans. Houston’s ground game must improve, as they were 30th in the league in rushing in ’09.
indianapolis colts It was another great regular season for the Colts, who won 12 or more games for the seventh straight year, a phenomenal feat. But they came up short in the playoffs, losing to New Orleans in the Super Bowl. Peyton Manning and company are back to make another run at a championship in 2010. Not much changed in the offseason, so expect another 12-win season, but their success will be measured by what happens in the playoffs.
jacksonville jaguars After a 7-5 start, the Jaguars lost four straight for a sour end to their 2009 season. Maurice Jones-Drew is one of the best backs in the NFL, but David Garrard and company must provide more of a threat through the air. Defensively, the Jags’ secondary must improve in a division that features Peyton Manning and Matt Schaub. Number 10 overall pick Tyson Alualu should help bolster the defensive front.
kansas city chiefs After a poor season in 2009, the Chiefs were rewarded with the fifth overall pick and wisely took Tennessee playmaker and YouTube sensation Eric Berry. He is about as sure a thing as there was in the NFL Draft, and of anyone picked in the Draft, he’s likely the one to be successful early and down the road. Isn’t there more to the Chiefs than Berry, though? No, they were bad last season and won’t be much better this year.
miami dolphins The Dolphins hope they can regain their 2008 form, when they went 11-5 and won the AFC East. Chad Henne returns at QB and Miami added playmaking wideout Brandon Marshall as a target. Ronnie Brown returns from injury and, with Ricky Williams, will make up a great tandem. The defense loses Joey Porter and must find a way to get better in 2010. It’s not going to be easy in a division with the Patriots and Jets.
new england patriots The Patriots have a chip on their shoulder. They were embarrassed on their own turf in last year’s playoffs. Everyone currently has Drew Brees and Peyton Manning as better QBs than Tom Brady. The Jets are the sexy pick as the new AFC East favorites. But the Patriots are out to prove they’re still the top dog and a serious contender for a Super Bowl title. Wes Welker returning from injury is huge.
new york jets
The Jets are undoubtedly the 2010 NFL “Offseason Champions”. Now, new acquisitions Santonio Holmes, LaDanian Tomlinson, Jason Taylor, Antonio Cromartie and Brodney Poole will have to mesh with the current J-E-T-S if the team hopes to get back to the AFC Championship game. QB Mark Sanchez looks to improve on his rookie season while Braylon Edwards will get his first full year in New York. Darrelle Revis has established himself as perhaps the league’s best corner.
oakland raiders The JaMarcus Russell experiment was a severe failure, so a new era in Oakland begins, as QB Jason Campbell comes in from Washington. Campbell is no world-beater, but he should provide more stability at the position. Darious Heyward-Bey and Louis Murphy showed promise as rookie wideouts last year. Adding first rounder Rolando McClain should help bolster a defense that was 29th against the run in ’09.
pittsburgh steelers Coming off a Super Bowl championship season, the 2009 Steelers disappointed in posting a 9-7 record and missing the playoffs. Things went downhill in the offseason when Ben Roethlisberger harnessed his inner frat boy and decided to flirt (and more) with a college girl in Milledgeville, Ga. His actions cost him a six-game suspension, in which Byron Leftwich will likely take over as the starter. Leading receiver Santonio Holmes is gone and is now with the Jets.
Consensus No. 1 fantasy pick Chris Johnson rushed for over 2,000 yards last season and vows to break Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards in 2010. But, if the Titans are to improve from a year ago, they’ll need improved play from Vince Young and the passing attack. Rookie DE Derrick Morgan should help a pass rush that was poor a year ago.
san diego chargers The Chargers ran away with the AFC West last year, tying Indianapolis for the biggest lead over the second-place team. A new era of sorts begins as LaDanian Tomlinson is out and rookie Ryan Matthews is in and is expected to carry the bulk of the rushing load. Phillip Rivers had a great year last year and is poised to lead this team deep into the playoffs. TE Antonio Gates is a happy camper after signing a new contract.
Atlanta Falcons All-Access Guide for their annual All-Access weekend in Flowery Branch in front of their fans.