NFL.com has dispatched several writers to report on the 32 training camps over the next few weeks. Albert Breer details his visit with the Atlanta Falcons. (Click here for the complete archive of Training Camp Reports.)
WHERE IS NFL.COM?
Flowery Branch, Ga., about 45 minutes north of downtown Atlanta -- a quiet place for a training camp that's been devoid of hype. In the NFC South, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are bringing in Greg Schiano, the Carolina Panthers are bringing back Cam Newton, and the New Orleans Saints have brought all kinds of trouble to this offseason. Meanwhile, the Falcons are here, content to remain firmly under the radar.
1. The Falcons want to play with guns blazing this season. There's some feeling here that the Falcons have played tight in their three playoff failures over the last four years. And the club's coordinator hires of Dirk Koetter (offense) and Mike Nolan (defense) reflect, at least implicitly, the idea that everyone needs more of a gunslinger mentality. It might be quarterback Matt Ryan taking a risk downfield because receiver Julio Jones is capable of redefining what "open" means. It might be new acquisition Asante Samuel putting the gambling nature of his cornerback play to good use on defense. I asked general manager Thomas Dimitroff about the difference between a playoff team and a champion. He responded by describing the groups he was around when he was with the New England Patriots as "teams that had swagger, belief and drive to finish every play. And a belief there was no one in the NFL that could take them down. There's something special about that." It's overly simplistic to think that mentality is all that's standing between Atlanta and the Super Bowl. But it's not a stretch to think it's been a factor.
2. Don't run away from the problem -- embrace it. Head coach Mike Smith and Dimitroff have built what the general manager calls "an analytical organization," which explains the research the coach did in trying to fix the postseason problem. Smith didn't go into exactly what he found the issue to be other than to point to a confluence of small things, rather than a couple of big things. But in calling dozens of his coaching friends, and studying dozens of playoff teams -- successful and less so -- Smith confirmed that he's unwilling to minimize the problem by attributing it to three bad days in January, or chalk it up to the fact that the three teams that beat Atlanta made the Super Bowl. "That's no consolation, believe me," he told me. "You can't justify it -- 'Well, they ended up here.' We didn't play well enough or compete well enough to move on, and that's the bottom line." Talking to players, too, it's clear there's no backing away from the failure. "We haven't gotten it done," linebacker Sean Weatherspoon told me. "We've won in the regular season, but it's nothing until you progress to the main goal. You gotta get some wins in January and hopefully make it to February. That's the goal."
3. Ryan's hoping to become Matty Right in Year 5. Ryan has, as any quarterback would, become the symbol of the Falcons' shortcomings. So it makes sense that in this offseason, Ryan has fixated on doing everything he can to make things right when the stakes are at their highest. The quarterback packed on five to seven pounds of muscle and dropped two to three percent in body fat in an effort to strengthen his core, which should help him as a passer. Ryan's build is not unlike Tom Brady's; Brady underwent a similar transformation in his 20s. But the broader idea is simply to be in a better position to succeed come January. "If you're stronger at the beginning of the season, you can't not be in a better position at the end of the season," Smith said. "You're gonna get worn down." Mentality's important, too, under a new coordinator in Koetter, with the hope being that the quarterback is more aggressive with more spread principles in the offense.
4. Julio's a horse. The word "unique" gets thrown around too much -- if something is truly unique, there is no equal -- but Smith was willing to make the leap and use the word to describe Jones in a physical sense. Dimitroff and Smith see the receiver as a composite, possessing a blend of the capabilities that other elite playmakers bring to the table. And there's reason to think Jones is on the verge of really capitalizing on that considerable upside, especially if you watch him dominate in practice against an experienced group of corners. He had no offseason program last year and struggled with injuries at midseason, yet piled up 24 catches for 461 yards and six touchdowns in the Falcons' last five games. Over 16 games, that pace projects to 77 catches, 1,475 yards and 19 touchdowns. Safe to say, the sky is the limit.
5. Nolan holds the keys to Atlanta's breakthrough. The idea with both coordinators, according to Smith, is to make the Falcons more multiple. Atlanta hopes to find more ways to deploy the talent base that this regime, now in its fifth year, has amassed, and blend new ideas with old. Nolan brings all of that, having spent seven years running a 4-3 and seven years running a 3-4 in his 14 years as a coordinator. But there are specifics here, too: Atlanta needs to get more pressure from its pass rush, spearheaded by defensive ends John Abraham and Ray Edwards, and more playmaking from of its secondary. As Smith says, "If you go back and see where his strengths were year-in and year-out, it's on third-down efficiency. We've been one of the top five teams the last four years in scoring defense, but we've not been very good on third down." And when you're in the same division as the Saints, with an offense that treats every down like third down, you need to be.
THE NEW GUYS
Samuel: You can't be within 100 yards of the practice field in Atlanta without hearing Samuel chirping about who's making plays and who isn't. (Just like it was with Samuel in New England and Philadelphia.) The upside of this mentality is obvious: Samuel makes practice more competitive because he's always competing and judging others in competition, and he puts a premium on playmaking. "You can sense his energy level," Weatherspoon said. "It rubs off on people. ... You see him having a great time, and you wanna get in on it." Ideally, if he can stay healthy, he'll add an edge and bring some swagger to a defense that needs both.
Peter Konz/Bradie Ewing: The first two Big Ten draft picks of the Dimitroff era are both Wisconsin alums, and both are prototype Badgers. Konz should start right away at right guard, and Ewing has every chance to be the team's fullback. Each could bring juice to a run game that finished 17th last year, a low-water mark for the Smith/Dimitroff era.
Jacquizz Rodgers: OK, so Rodgers isn't new. In fact, he played in all 16 games last year as a rookie. But get this: The slash back out of Oregon State caught just one screen pass all year. You can bet Koetter is going to use the diminutive dynamo differently. And the potential is there, with all the other weapons around him, for Rodgers to become a dangerous check-down option for Ryan.
The general sense of needing to "cut loose" pervades Falcons camp. It's pretty apparent the coaches are looking for their players to play faster and freer, and one example that has been referenced is the Houston Texans' defensive transformation last season. The Falcons looked at how Wade Phillips turned things around there, and a big reason cited is that Phillips lightened the mental load on his players. It's kind of simplistic to say, "Just go play football," but it sounds a lot like that's the idea, for Nolan's group in particular and the Falcons in general.
- Slot receiver Harry Douglas has put on weight to better withstand the rigors of the season and become more consistent. Kind of like Rodgers, he has a jitterbug quality in space that could allow him to take advantage of defenses focusing on the more imposing weapons around him.
- Too bad about Lofa Tatupu's season-ending torn pec. He was no sure thing to start -- set to battle with Akeem Dent -- but by the sounds of it, Tatupu was a good presence in the club's building.
- Did you know Koetter and Andy Reid were staffmates at San Francisco State in 1985? Yup. Koetter was the offensive coordinator. Reid coached the offensive line. Smith raised the point to me when I asked about Koetter being a "spread" guy and the one who started Boise State's amazing run.
A year ago at this time, Atlanta was a popular Super Bowl pick, with the logic being that the Jones trade was a sure sign the Falcons thought they were a piece away (though they didn't exactly see it that way themselves). This year, no one's picking them to win their division, let alone make it to February. And while that's just fine with the folks in Atlanta, there is a sense that everyone in the building had better be thinking big. To that end, Smith is using the ever-popular "Finish" as the team's mantra. "We want to finish the day. Finish the play. Finish the series. Finish the game. Finish the season," he explained. "But it starts now. You can't talk about finishing strong at the end of the year. It starts with, 'Hey, we gotta finish this practice.' " Using the well-worn term certainly keeps the bigger picture in the heads of these Falcons. And -- just a hunch -- I kind of think that's the idea.