The Atlanta Falcons start their regular season Sunday with Super Bowl-sized expectations.
“That’s putting a lot on a team, but certainly that has been discussed a good bit,” says Charles Odum, an Atlanta-based sportswriter for the Associated Press. “This is a team that came so close to the Super Bowl last season, and it returns most of its big-name players.”
The optimism around the Falcons is just another part of what seems to be a championship kind of year in Georgia professional sports. The Atlanta Braves already are headed to the post-season with what is right now baseball’s best record.
Odum said the Falcons’ 0-4 record in the preseason might signal more good news.
“That’s the way things have gone in the Mike Smith regime,” he said. “The Falcons did not win a game in the preseason two years ago. Last year, they only won one preseason game. Of course, two years ago they won 11 games. Last year, they won 13 games.”
The Falcons do face some hurdles to making the NFL’s championship game in February, including a very young offensive line, Odum said.
“Their long-time center Todd McClure retired. They let another guy go in a cost-cutting measure. The guy who was expected to come in as their new starter [at right tackle] was hurt in the preseason,” Odum said. “That leaves a guy, Lamar Holmes, a second-year player. He only played one game last year.
“They’ve just invested a lot of money in [quarterback] Matt Ryan and their ability to keep him standing up is going to be a big key to the season.”
Several other big keys for success this season will be the offensive weapons returning, Odum said. That includes tight end Tony Gonzalez, who was talked out of retiring in the offseason, and two star wide receivers in Roddy White and Julio Jones. And then there is the team’s new running back.
“Steven Jackson adds a different kind of dimension,” Odum said. “Michael Turner was a powerful running back, although his yards per carry declined last year. But he wasn’t very effective as a receiver. Now with Steven Jackson, he can be a dual threat. He’s done a lot of that in his career.”
Jackson is old for a running back – 30 – but Odum said he does seem to be in decline yet.
The Falcons also added defensive end Osi Umenyiora to replace John Abraham, who led the team in quarterback sacks almost every year. Odum said that puts some pressure on Umenyiora.
“He can be effective, but they need to find some help for him,” Odum said. “In recent years, they’ve not been able to develop a good complement to Abraham, and now once again, they’ve got to see if they can get some depth in there in their pass rush.”
Odum said that will be particularly important because two rookies will get significant playing time in the secondary behind the defensive line and the linebackers.
“At times they’re going to be very young back there, and the best way to protect your defensive backs is to have a good pass rush,” he said.
So, is it Super Bowl or bust for the Falcons?
Odum said just asking the question illustrates how things have changed for the Falcons.
“Expectations have changed greatly,” he said. “Before Thomas Dimitroff was hired as [general manager], before Mike Smith came in as coach, and before they drafted Matt Ryan, this was a team that had never had back-to-back winning seasons. Suddenly, now they’ve rolled off five straight.”