By Matthew Asher
With the Falcons coming withing just a handful of plays to play in the Super Bowl, it’s kind of tough to properly gauge how the season as a whole went. Because while Atlanta did make it to the NFC title game, they weren’t blown out of the game. Just the opposite, they were the ones blowing out the 49ers and couldn’t hold onto the lead. That being said, you really have to treat the regular season and the post season differently.
Regarding the regular season, the Falcons certainly had a successful year. Thanks to the new offensive and defensive coordinators of Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan, respectively, Atlanta’s 13-3 record tied the franchise record for the second best win-loss season. Only the 14-2 1998 squad had a better record.
Koetter’s new take on the offense, by focusing on the aerial attack, certainly paid off in spades. Matt Ryan had a career year, setting new personal bests in passing yards (4,719), passing touchdowns (32), completion percentage (68.6) and quarterback rating (99.1). Ryan’s favorite targets: Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez all had marvelous seasons with Ryan, Jones and Gonzalez selected to this years Pro Bowl. Gonzalez also became the first tight end in NFL history to record 100+ touchdown receptions. Whenever he retires, Canton, Ohio will be calling his name as soon as he’s eligible for the Hall of Fame.
With such an emphasis on passing, the running game didn’t fare as well. Michael Turner did not have a good year as far as rushing yards and yards per attempt are concerned. He also didn’t display the best judgement off the field as he was arrested for DUI following a Monday Night Football game. However, second-year running back Jacquizz Rodgers showed promise both running the ball as well as catching it. Next season when Atlanta needs a speedy back to pick up some yards, they know who’s number to call.
The defensive side of the ball is a little tougher to analyze. The big free agent signing was cornerback Asante Samuel. It was a good move as Samuel finished the season accounting for a quarter of the teams interceptions (he had five) and even returned one for a touchdown.
But Atlanta’s other starting cornerback, Brent Grimes, was injured in the first game against Kansas City and placed on IR shortly after. However, backups like Robert McClain stepped up. Alone with Dunta Robinson and Thomas DeCoud in the secondary, Atlanta definitely had a defensive squad that quarterbacks didn’t want to face.
While Atlanta’s defense wasn’t impressive as far as yardage allowed goes, they were near impossible to score on. Allowing fewer than 19 points a game, Atlanta had the fifth stingiest defense, which allowed them to stay in almost every game until the final whistle was blown.
Now onto the postseason. At the start of the season, it appeared that the Atlanta Falcons had one goal in mind: win at least one playoff game. Atlanta piled up eight straight wins (a franchise record) to start the season and was the first team to secure a playoff spot as well as win its respective division and lock up the number one seed in the NFC. But even with all that, there were many who doubted success in the regular season would carry over or translate into the postseason.
It was fair criticism, Atlanta hadn’t won a postseason game since Michael Vick was the quarterback and Ryan and Mike Smith were both 0-3 in the playoffs. If nothing else, the team desperately wanted to win one playoff game for Gonzalez who had never won a single post season game in his 16-year career. The good news is that Atlanta was able to deliver their first victory of the Matt Ryan/Mike Smith era. The bad news is that they were very close to losing, giving up the lead in the final minute before being able to kick a game-winning field goal with second left on the clock.
For the first time in franchise history, the Falcons were able to host the NFC championship game. Much like the Divisional game, Atlanta built up a nice lead and then gave it away in the second half. The difference was they couldn’t pull of another comeback win to advance to the Super Bowl. With all of that taken into consideration, did the Atlanta Falcons have a successful season? In my opinion, they certainly did and should look to improve upon it next year.
Now that the Falcons have cleared their lockers in Flowery Branch, GA, the big question is what do they need to do in order to make it to next year’s Super Bowl? Are they missing a player? Do they need to change or add different plays? Or do they simply need to keep their foot on the gas when they’ve got the lead over their opponents? Whatever the answer, you can be sure the coaching staff, along with the players, will spend time this off season hoping to answer these very questions.
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Matthew Asher is a freelance writer covering all things Atlanta sports related. His work can be found on Examiner.com.