Atlanta Falcons  

 

Atlanta Falcons sure don't seem prone to Super Bowl hangover

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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Until the Atlanta Falcons close out their next big game, the "Super Bowl hangover" questions are going to be there.

Until Matt Ryan shows his MVP surge last season wasn't an anomaly, and Steve Sarkisian fills the sizeable shoes of departed offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, and a young defense plays for a full season like it did for 2 1/2 playoff games (hopefully better), there's really nothing the Falcons can do to squash that storyline outside the building. And they get it.

That's why coach Dan Quinn tried to tackle the issue head-on in the offseason. He spread messaging weeks after their 34-28 loss to the New England Patriots about prizefighters learning to counterpunch. He opened a vent session at the first team meeting in April for anyone who wanted to get something off his chest about how a 25-point lead infamously slipped away. It's no coincidence players answered those questions from the media in the spring. Quinn didn't want anyone to run from this, even if Super Bowl LI is generally referred to here as "the last game" -- i.e., the one everyone in football uses each week to make corrections, improve and then move on.

"Look, I'm extremely confident in how Dan Quinn is approaching this as a head coach, how his staff is feeding off of him and how the players are feeding off of Dan and his staff," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff told me on reporting day. "It is like this really interesting energy that, we faced it, we talked about it and we are completely focused on '17. We all know the line: 'You win, you win. You lose, you learn.' And of course, that's where our head was and we've learned a lot from the process and that's where we are moving forward."

Said Quinn: "I'm real proud of the way the team stepped up. We took ownership of the things and the lessons that we learned from last [season] and through the Super Bowl, through the offseason, and now we get to go apply that. So, it's not a matter of redemption or any of that. This is, how good can we get? And we think we can get a lot better."

Here's the thing about hangovers: They're easier to get over when you're young.

Yeah, these are human beings, and it hurts when emotions and pride take a hit. I vividly remember Falcons safety Ricardo Allen at a podium back in February, despondent over what had just transpired, saying he was broken inside and the collapse will "always be haunting." So much has to fall right just to have the opportunity to win a title. You might never get that shot again.

But Atlanta's window isn't closing. Truth be told, it probably opened a year early. And after a couple days around the team, you begin to understand how the Falcons' leadership can sell the idea they're just getting started ...

» Every key player is back from a historically great 2016 offense -- one of five in NFL history to average over 33 points and 415 yards per game. Only fullback and right guard will have new starters. Almost all the skill players are still ascending. And the two most important players, Ryan and star receiver Julio Jones, are in their prime at ages 32 and 28, respectively.

» Sarkisian isn't Shanahan, who might be the NFL's best at scheming people open (gripes about his play-calling late in the Super Bowl notwithstanding). After a rocky first year together, Ryan was automatic last season, knowing Shanahan's system enough to anticipate that open man and get the ball there quickly. His numbers (69.9 percent completions, 9.3 yards per attempt, 117.1 passer rating) soared past any from his previous eight seasons. Shanahan's now head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, but the Falcons aren't scrapping the system -- holdovers on the coaching staff taught it to Sarkisian. And so far, word is Sarkisian's personality has fit well in the building and with his QB. "Their relationship has been a good one," Quinn said. "Matt was real specific on things that he really likes, and Sark also did a good job of knowing these are some things [he likes]."

» There isn't a projected starter on defense older than 28. Seven are in Years 1, 2 or 3 (eight if you include nickel corner Brian Poole). Built in the mold of Quinn's prior defense in Seattle, Deion Jones is the Falcons' Bobby Wagner, Keanu Neal is their Kam Chancellor and De'Vondre Campbell is their K.J. Wright. Vic Beasley just led the NFL with 15 1/2 sacks in his second pro season. Jones and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, among others, made a ton of plays down the stretch as a defense that finished last season 25th in yards allowed and 27th in points yielded showed signs of coming together -- against the likes of Seattle's Russell Wilson and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, no less. The Falcons hope to get instant impact from their top two draft picks, defensive end Takk McKinley and linebacker Duke Riley. They also signed nose tackle Dontari Poe and get back top cornerback Desmond Trufant, who missed 10 games last season with a torn pec. (Think Trufant could've made a play or two as Tom Brady carved up his young replacements during the comeback?)

» That young defense improved after essentially going through a midseason coordinator change in 2016 when Richard Smith got benched (but not fired until after the season). Quinn called plays the rest of the way, but then-secondary coach Marquand Manuel helped before getting promoted. The energy Manuel, 38, brings was obvious in Thursday's competition-oriented opening practice. Who knows how it'll work out, but not having another awkward play-calling swap can't hurt.

» From his early days as an NFL defensive line coach, Quinn had a reputation for being able to relate to anybody in the locker room: black or white, city guys or country guys, whatever. The "brotherhood" concept the Falcons talk about really does seem to resonate, in every corner of the building. And in the locker room, it helps that guys the Falcons have paid big -- Ryan, Jones, Trufant, center Alex Mack -- also stand tall as examples for their teammates. (The Falcons want to add running back Devonta Freeman to that list, but his agent left town without a contract extension this week. Freeman reported anyway.)

People keep bringing up comparisons to the NFC South rival Carolina Panthers, who got shoved around by the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50 and then face-planted to 6-10 last season. But was that the product of some intangible hangover? Or was it fallout from a stunning decision to remove the franchise tag from cornerback Josh Norman, and their MVP Cam Newton getting beat up from Week 1 behind an undermanned offensive line, and star linebacker Luke Kuechly missing six games because of a concussion, and continued reliance on older veterans entering decline?

Sure, things could fall apart for the Falcons, too. Maybe Ryan comes back to earth, or the coordinator changes don't work out, or young defenders don't make the leaps expected, or injuries strike, or some combination of those and other problems nobody can predict in July. That's the nature of the NFL. But there's no reason to think these Falcons aren't capable of picking up where they left off six months ago, in the middle of the third quarter on the game's biggest stage in Houston.

Follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero.

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