This is an idea that has been rattling around my brain for a couple of weeks now, and only now am I really putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) on the subject.
I have been thinking about where this team’s future lies, and it makes me wonder that if this year’s Falcon team doesn’t go deep into the playoffs, and I’m talking like conference championship deep, then they might live to regret it.
I have come to this conclusion because from what I can tell, the league as a whole is down. There is really no great team that everybody points to as saying the path to the Super Bowl goes through them. The team that many have ranked at or near the top throughout the entire season, the Houston Texans doesn’t quite fit our classic definition of a great team. At least no one looks at the Texans and sees them as “scary good,” a team that you’d immediate cross the proverbial street to avoid if seen coming around the corner. How does that compare to some recent years? Back in 2009, you had the Colts and Saints both nearly run the table and go 16-0. The following year you had the Patriots scoring in droves, as well as the Steelers sporting a dominant defense. In 2011, it was again the Packers nearly pushing for perfection, and you now had the 49ers thrown into the mix as the top team with a dominant defense.
Now this year, teams like Houston, Chicago, and San Francisco do sport those caliber of defenses. But all three offensively are primarily running teams. If teams helmed by Matt Schaub, Jay Cutler, and/or Alex Smith respectively were playing in the Super Bowl, your first instinct is probably to put your money on the other team. All three quarterbacks have a long way to prove they can win the big games between now and February.
And offensively, the two lone standouts are the Patriots and Broncos. And while this year’s Patriot team is on pace to put up the most points it’s had since the 2007 season, it’s managing to also be on pace to give up more points than they did a year ago. With early season losses to Arizona and Seattle, and some other close shaves, this year’s Patriot team looks a lot more vulnerable than some recent years’ teams.
Maybe it’s because he’s on a different team, or because the Falcons beat them, or some other reason, but it’s hard to really buy the Peyton Manning-led Broncos as an elite team. They are a good team no doubt, but in comparison to past Colt teams and other teams in recent memory, they too look much more flawed.
Old reliables like the Steelers, Ravens, Saints, and Packers are also down in comparison to recent years. Baltimore and Pittsburgh, two teams that generally rely on their defenses to make deep runs in the playoffs, now sport old defenses that are nothing special. The Saints and Packers typically exploit high octane offenses to do their damage, but neither unit is really separating itself from the pack this year.
The point I’m slowly working my way towards is that we might look back on this season and see that everything was ripe for the taking. Without a clearly defined strong team that everyone has to go through to get to the Super Bowl, 2012 might represent the Falcons best chance.
Especially when you consider that this team is going to probably have to do some reloading and re-tooling starting next year. Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner are probably going to be gone. The offensive line still needs a lot of work. The defense has become average, and many of its top players (Abraham, Babineaux, Samuel, Robinson) are on the downsides of their careers. If the Falcons invest next off-season in young replacements for Gonzalez and Turner, as well as trying to beef up the offensive line, then those are investments that won’t be made defensively. Point being the Falcons are probably a couple of off-seasons away from being able to field a defense that comes close to what the Texans, Bears, or 49ers have. And it also might take Gonzo and Turner’s replacements a year or two to really get into their groove and grow into prominent roles offensively.
All this means that after this season, it could easily be another two or three years until the Falcons are able to put a team on the field that is better than the current one. And who knows by then what the landscape of the league is. Maybe the dynasty that many predicted the Packers would begin starting in 2010 comes to fruition. Maybe young QBs like RG3 and Andrew Luck have turned their respective teams into contenders. Maybe Cam Newton and the Panthers under the influence of a good head coach are now a team that regularly lives up to their potential. Who knows? It’s practically impossible to predict, and thus cannot be factored in the favor of the Falcons.
If the Falcons were to finish this year with a No. 3 seed, host a team like Seattle or New Orleans in the opening round of the playoffs, win and then lose in the second round to a team like Chicago or San Francisco, would that be considered a disappointing year? For most, I do not think so, and there is certainly a big part of me that would also not consider that a disappointment. The Falcons get the monkey off their back, and of course in that scenario beating a rival like the Saints in the playoffs would be all the more sweeter.
Another scenario could be the Falcons getting a 1-seed, beating a team like the Giants in the second round of the playoffs, and then playing a team like San Francisco or Green Bay in a winnable NFC Championship game. And there is another part of me that thinks that is not only an ideal scenario, but one which should be expected. Not achieving that could be regrettable, given if a few years from now we look back and see that whomever represented the AFC and NFC in the Super Bowl were highly flawed teams. And thus the 2012 season, the last hurrah for players like Tony Gonzalez, John Abraham, etc. was a missed opportunity for the Falcons.
Again, I’m completely aware of how unfair it is to expect a team that has not won one playoff game in 8 years to suddenly string two or three together and go to the Super Bowl. Especially considering the many flaws we have on this team (no running game, average defense). But I’m also aware that you have Matt Ryan playing at or near an MVP-level. There’s really no reason to think that Ryan is going to be any better over the next 5-7 years than he is now, especially when you consider he has a tight end and wide receiver playing at elite levels, and then a second wideout in Julio Jones who is not that far behind. Can you realistically expect the Falcons four best players to ever put together a season as good as this current one?
Matt Ryan is on pace to put up 4900 yards, 35 touchdowns, and over a 100 passer rating. Only five QBs in NFL history have ever had 4800-35-100 seasons. This essentially could be for Ryan what the ’84 season was for Dan Marino. Or even the 2001 season for Kurt Warner, who then had to wait another 7 years before he helmed a team with any sense of relevancy (more on that later).
Gonzo is putting up numbers that blow away anything he’s done thus far as a Falcon, and you have to go back to his prime days in Kansas City before you see numbers this good. And considering that he is competing with the likes of Roddy White and Julio Jones for touches rather than Eddie Kennison and a rookie Dwayne Bowe, indicates even more how extraordinary this season is for him. Meanwhile, Roddy is quietly on pace to set his career high in yards. And the team’s third receiver may wind up with around 80 catches, 1300 yards, and double digit touchdowns at his current pace.
I don’t know how many teams in NFL history have sported three 1000-yard receivers, but I do know that the last time one did, it played in the Super Bowl that year and nearly won it (2008 Arizona Cardinals). The Cardinals hadn’t had a winning season in 9 years prior to that Super Bowl year.
There are some similarities between that year and this year in the sense that the league wasn’t filled with classically great teams. The NFC’s best team was the Giants that year, who like this year’s teams was a good defensive team that had primarily a run-first offense. Next up, were the Carolina Panthers (led by Jake Delhomme), Atlanta Falcons (led by a rookie Ryan), and the Minnesota Vikings (led by Tarvaris Jackson & Gus Frerotte). In the AFC, the top team was the Kerry Collins-led Tennessee Titans, who began the year 10-0 thanks largely to a good defense and a very strong running game (again, that sounds familiar).
The team the Cardinals beat in the NFC Championship game was the Eagles, who had to win 4 of their last 5 just to make it as a 6th seed after spending the first three months barely above .500. This year’s analog for that team could potentially be the Saints.
It’s just all making me wonder if the Football Gods are weaving the Laces of Fate to make this 2012 season the Falcons best possible chance despite their multitude of issues to finally get that Lombardi Trophy to Flowery Branch. And if the Falcons don’t, or at least don’t get very close to doing so, will they ultimately live to regret it?