With the 2013 NFL season rapidly approaching, we’re taking a spin around the league for a closer look at all 32 teams. Track all of our Snapshots here.
What is the definition of success? When Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith took their current positions in 2008, they immediately took serious steps to reverse the fortunes of a franchise that was reeling from Michael Vick's dogfighting convictions and Bobby Petrino's utter lack of conviction. In the five years since, the Falcons have amassed a 56-24 regular-season record (the New England Patriots by comparison have a 60-20 record in that same amount of time). Smith is considered to be one of the better head coaches in the NFL, few personnel executives are more respected than Dimitroff and the Falcons are stacked with talent on both sides of the ball.
Atlanta's postseason record (one win and four losses) in that same five-year span, however, speaks to the fact that the Falcons faithful are still very much waiting for this franchise to get over the hump.
In Atlanta, coming up short is getting to be the Falcons' specialty. After the Falcons were trounced, 24-2, by the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants in the wild-card round of the 2011 playoffs SI's Don Banks wrote: "Whether it's 4th-and-1 or another playoff appearance prematurely done, the Falcons can't quite get there, can they?"
After nearly blowing a 20-0 halftime lead against the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round last season, and losing to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, that question still remains. The team assembled by Smith and Dimitroff is at an interesting crossroads -- consistently good enough to invite success, but too good for anything but a Super Bowl appearance to be considered an appropriate marker. At this point, nothing else will do.
• Biggest storyline: Can Matt Ryan get outside the box?
2012 was Ryan's most impressive and prolific season -- he threw for 4,719 yards, 32 touchdowns and just 14 interceptions in the regular season and finished fifth overall in Football Outsiders' efficiency metrics for qualifying quarterbacks. He was slightly less efficient in the playoffs, throwing six touchdowns to three picks, but there's no question that Ryan has everything it takes to be ranked among the league's best at his position. He's got estimable targets in Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez, and he's got the arm to make just about every NFL throw. But there is a general sense -- and this will continue, right or wrong, until he unpacks a signature playoff performance -- than Ryan is an "in the box" quarterback who can't transcend his surroundings like the greats do. Having signed a five-year, $103.75 million extension in July, Ryan is now paid like the best NFL quarterbacks. He looks like a member of that fraternity most of the time, but as it is with his team, ascension over the norm is now required.
• Most intriguing positional battle: Right tackle.
The Falcons expected Mike Johnson to replace Tyson Clabo at right tackle after Clabo headed off to Miami on a one-year deal. But Johnson, who started just one game last season, suffered a gruesome injury in early August -- a dislocated ankle/fractured fibula combination -- and this leaves Lamar Holmes and Ryan Schraeder fighting for that spot. Holmes was a third-round pick out of Southern Miss in 2012, and he didn't see game action until December of his rookie year after breaking his foot in the preseason. Schraeder is an undrafted rookie out of Valdosta State.
"It will be a competition," Mike Smith recently said. "Of course, Lamar has been there a lot longer, but there is going to be competition. We may look at moving someone and cross-training them because when you get to game day, you've got to have seven guys [activated], and you've got to have guys that can play multiple positions."
Either way, Ryan may have to pay special attention to pass rushers in his face from that side.
• New face, new place: Running back Steven Jackson.
Jackson spent nine years toiling in St. Louis for a Rams team that couldn't find a winning season with a map, and he gained over 10,000 yards in that span. Now, he's in what seems to be a perfect position -- a winning team that tends to pass more than it runs, does so very effectively and leaves defenses focusing too much on White, Jones and Gonzalez so that they can't stack the box for whoever's in the backfield. The Falcons are planning to line Jackson up all over the place, and he may still have the versatility to do so, but he'll have to look a lot better than he did against the Cincinnati Bengals in Atlanta's preseason opener. Jackson was slow to and through the hole on runs up the middle, and he struggled to hit the edge in time when he ran outside.
• Impact rookie: Robert Alford, cornerback.
Peter King first beat the national drum for Alford in his MMQB column two weeks ago, calling the second-round pick out of Southeast Louisiana "one of the fastest risers around the league in the first week or so" of training camp. Dimitroff said he was shocked to see that the FCS Defensive Player of the Year was not taken in the first round, and though the Falcons selected a cornerback in the first round in Washington's Desmond Trufant, they went right back to the positional well with Alford. The rookie backed up the hype against the Bengals, looking very solid against the run and the pass, and it's not a lock that Trufant will start over Alford when the regular season begins.
• Looking at the schedule: According to Football Outsiders' Projected Average Opponent metrics, the Falcons have the toughest projected schedule in the NFL in 2013.
This speaks in part to the overall strength of the NFC South, but there are some brutal out-of-division matchups, as well. They start their season at New Orleans, welcome the Rams to the Georgia Dome in Week 2, then travel to Miami and host the Patriots at the end of the season's first quarter. There's what should be a pretty easy test against the Jets on Monday Night Football in Week 5, followed by a bye. Then ... it gets interesting. In the five weeks after the bye, the Falcons take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers twice, travel to play the Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers and have the Seattle Seahawks in a home game. The season ends with games against the Saints, Bills, Packers, Redskins, 49ers and Panthers. Even the relatively easy teams (Cardinals, Bills, Dolphins) look to be improved in 2013. If the Falcons are able to take a Super Bowl title out of the 2013 season, they'll have earned it as few other teams ever have.