Jeff Schultz - Staff
Thursday, May 11, 2006
When the Falcons assembled for a minicamp two years ago, it was against a backdrop of uncertainty. Michael Vick had been injured. The prior season unraveled. The owner got angry. The coach got fired. Then Rich McKay and Jim Mora turned a mess into a team that reached the NFC title game, and suddenly everybody had the answers.
When they assemble for a minicamp this weekend in Flowery Branch, the Falcons again will report against a backdrop of uncertainty. Raise expectations in year one, only to decompose in year two --- that's what happens.
When there is little track record for success, nobody gets the benefit of the doubt. Just the doubt.
Are the right players being picked? Are the right players being coached the wrong way? Greg Knapp --- was he actually recommended by Steve Young? Whose bright idea was Ed Donatell, anyway? And shouldn't Arthur Blank be more worried about fixing one franchise (Falcons) than putting his stamp on another (Braves)?
One good season fades. One bad season leaves an odor. Welcome to the third minicamp.
Keith Brooking has been a Falcon for eight seasons. (I'm assuming that will be taken into consideration in the afterlife.) He says what he is supposed to say --- that what other people think doesn't matter. But he admits what other people think also isn't a secret.
"Some people come up to me, and I know they're pulling for us, but they'll say, 'We've got to have a better year. We're gonna do it this year, aren't we?'" the linebacker said Wednesday. "There's a little doubt in their comments, as opposed to last year after going to the NFC championship game and being one game from the Super Bowl. It's a totally different vibe."
One good year. One bad year. Blank didn't provide generations of Blanks with financial security by going .500.
Year three will break the tie, clarify analysis and possibly determine futures. Did we say, welcome to the third minicamp?
When he was with Tampa Bay, McKay was known more for his organizational skills than he was for choosing players. It's why he and personnel chief Tim Ruskell made such a strong pairing. But after one year in Atlanta, Ruskell went to Seattle as general manager --- and the Seahawks went to the Super Bowl.
McKay has worked hard this offseason to fix the Falcons' defense. He traded for end John Abraham, signed safety Lawyer Milloy and drafted cornerback Jimmy Williams. But little has been done to help an offensive line that got Vick buried last season. Not to suggest that defensive improvement wasn't needed --- but where does protecting the franchise's most important player rank?
Mora could be one of the bright young coaches in the game. Or he could be a one-year wonder. Blank recently gave him a "contract extension," but logic dictates that was more for appearances than supreme confidence. In reality, all Blank did was guarantee two option years on Mora's deal. That's comforting when it comes to mortgage payments, but Mora also knows he can't miss the playoffs two straight seasons.
In year one, Mora provided the fire the team needed. It was apparent in that first day of minicamp. In year two, the problem wasn't fire. It was backdraft. Neither Mora nor the team, whose youth was magnified by injuries, handled adversity well. This minicamp will set the tone for training camp, which will set the tone for the season, which will define Mora's growth as a coach.
Blank has not been an easy man to coexist with this offseason. He is demanding when he wins, so you can imagine what he's like when he loses six of eight down the stretch. It would not have been surprising if significant changes were made in Mora's staff. Instead, there was only the firing of quarterbacks coach Mike Johnson.
Much has been made of Johnson's replacement, Bill Musgrave. But the reality is that Musgrave is only the fourth-most important coach relating to the offense --- after Mora, Knapp (play-calling) and line coach Alex Gibbs (blocking schemes). Knapp's offense has been erratic, and last season he managed the unthinkable --- turning Vick into a boring quarterback. He and defensive coordinator Donatell --- who can't point to personnel deficiencies this season --- both have a third season to prove themselves.
Brooking said he "likes the doubters. I like people not believing in us."
Whatever works. But it's only natural that one good year and one bad isn't going to comfort the masses. The odor tends to linger.