NFL 2014 Preview: The Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta Falcons' quarterback Matt Ryan. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 32 teams—including why you should or shouldn’t be rooting for them this season–in the month leading up to NFL kickoff on Sept. 4. Today, the Atlanta Falcons.

Last year’s record: 4-12

Coach: Mike Smith

2014 is about… Pretending 2013 never happened. Prior to last season, the Falcons had put together five winning campaigns in a row and made the playoffs in four of the five. Last year was a relative tire fire. They had problems on both lines—which contributed both to their league-worst rushing attack (77.9 yards per game) and the NFL’s second-worst rushing defence (135.8 yards per game)—and tied the Bucs for last in the division. But the Falcons addressed both lines in the first two rounds of the draft, and are looking to make a quick turnaround, something along the lines of what Kansas City did in 2013. If that doesn’t happen, though, the top levels of the organization—virtually unchanged from last year—will get a major shakeup.

Core players: Matt Ryan (QB), Julio Jones (WR), Roddy White (WR), Sean Weatherspoon (LB)

But they lost… Tony Gonzalez (TE). If NFL teams worked the same way MLB teams do, Gonzalez would’ve gotten a heartfelt send-off from each of the cities he visited last year. A future Hall of Famer, Gonzalez changed the tight end position. In his 17th season at age 37, he started every game and caught 83 balls. Only one other tight end (Jimmy Graham) caught 83 balls last year. Filling Gonzalez’s shoes will be difficult. Also gone for all intents and purposes is Weatherspoon, who will miss the entire season with a ruptured Achilles. 

Yeah, but they got… Tyson Jackson (DT) and Paul Soliai (DT) from Kansas City and Miami, respectively. Two of the best tackles available, they’ll slot in immediately no matter what scheme proves dominant this coming season. Also stolen from the Chiefs, Jon Asamoah (G) will help the team bump Joe Hawley back to centre full-time and remove Peter Konz from the starting lineup.

Growing from within: Jake Matthews (RT), the son of NFL Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews and cousin of Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, was chosen with the fifth overall pick in May and will immediately play opposite Sam Baker (LT), whom the team will get back from the injured reserve. Canadian GM Thomas Dimitroff also used a fourth-round pick on Devonta Freeman (RB), who could see a solid workload if Steven Jackson (dealing with a hamstring injury already) and Jacquizz Rogers struggle again. Freeman’s five-foot-nine, but this team is no stranger to small backs (Rogers himself is five-foot-six).

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Why this team? Because their pass-happy offence makes them a perfect fit for CFL fans looking to the south—they passed the ball on 67.24 percent of all plays last season, the most in the league. Or because their fan base is so passionate (and so anti-Saints) that a couple of them risked their own livelihoods and egged the New Orleans bus at the airport. You know you want to be a part of something like that.

Why not? Because in the long and criminally underrated history of the Saints-Falcons rivalry (which the Dirty Birds lead 47–43 all-time), it’s a bad time to jump in with the Falcons, as New Orleans has won 13 of the last 16 games dating back to 2006. Or because Ryan’s nickname, Matty Ice, is at least a passing reference to Natty Ice, possibly the worst beer in the world. Not a good omen.

Perfect for fans of… Sweet, sweet dance moves:

How much hope? 5/10. They’ve got a top-tier (or near to it) quarterback and possibly the league’s best receiver corps, and they’ve shored up a porous offensive line. But they’re missing major pieces on defence and are counting on a rookie runner to goose a stagnant run game. Best to be dubious.

Will you be mocked for front-running? No, probably not. They’re the subject of this year’s edition of Hard Knocks and could become pre-season darlings, but by week two that’ll all be forgotten. When all’s said and done on HBO, the facts remain: They were 4-12 last year, have never won a Super Bowl and have been ousted in one game in three of the four playoff appearances in the Matt Ryan era. Not the stuff bandwagons are built on.

A Meme To Remember: It’s nice when you can get the first and last word in, even when it’s just on a random two-year-old blog post featuring a back-and-forth between rival videoboards.

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