ATLANTA — This is new territory for the Atlanta Falcons.
At least for these guys.
The Falcons plummeted to 4-12 last season, a bitter disappointment for a team that nearly went to the Super Bowl the previous year.
Now, everyone is curious how the team will bounce back from its first losing mark since 2007, given only a handful of players on the current roster were even with the team the last time it happened.
“This is my first go-round,” safety William Moore said. “So I really don’t know. I can tell you that after this season.”
When general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith arrived in 2008, the Falcons began a stretch of five straight winning seasons, which included four playoff appearances, two division titles and a trip to the NFC championship game.
That was a striking change for a franchise that somehow managed to go four decades without so much as back-to-back winning years.
Atlanta, it seemed, had finally grown into one of those elite NFL franchises, so accustomed to winning that no other outcome even seemed plausible.
Then came 2013, a throwback to so many of those nightmare seasons from years past.
Having spent lavishly to surround quarterback Matt Ryan with an array of dazzling offensive options, Dimitroff went cheap with the offensive line – and wound up paying a heavy price. Ryan was sacked a career-high 44 times and the running game ranked last in the league. Making matters worse, star receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White were injured.
The Falcons drafted Jake Matthews at No. 6 overall, and he moved right into the crucial left tackle position when Sam Baker went down with a season-ending knee injury during a preseason game. Jones and White are healthy, but tight end Tony Gonzalez finally went through with retirement, depriving Ryan of a key target in the passing game.
While eager to correct the problems, Ryan said he’s not putting too much emphasis on what happened in 2013.
“Those first five years happened, too,” he said. “I don’t think you can lose your confidence just based on (last season). And I don’t think we have. I think confidence is high here. I think guys expect to make the plays we need to make in order to win games.”
But clearly, this team is viewed much differently by those on the outside than it was just a year ago.
The questions extend to the defensive side, where no one managed double-digit sacks and there are doubts about free agent signees Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai doing much to address the issue. Jackson, the third overall pick in 2009, never lived up to his potential in Kansas City, while Soliai is more of a run stopper.
The linebackers are especially thin with Sean Weatherspoon out for the season. He went down during a routine offseason workout, leaving a pair of undrafted second-year players, Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu, as the starters.
Here are some things to watch for when the Falcons open the season Sept. 7 against New Orleans:
No other position will draw as much scrutiny as the offensive front. The Falcons must give Ryan more time to throw and create holes for running back Steven Jackson, who gained just 543 yards to break a streak of eight straight 1,000-yard seasons. Baker’s injury forced Matthews to shift from right to left tackle ahead of schedule, and Lamar Holmes is back in the lineup after struggling to block anyone last season.
There’s no denying the hole that Gonzalez’s retirement leaves in the Atlanta offense. He was Ryan’s default receiver, going out in style with 83 receptions for 859 yards and eight touchdowns. The Falcons won’t come close to that sort of production with the new tight end, Levine Toilolo.
It’s vital to keep Jones on the field after he played only five games because of a foot injury. The Falcons brought him along slowly in the preseason, trying to make sure he didn’t suffer any setbacks before the games started counting. A healthy Jones is one of the league’s top receivers, a unique mix of size and speed who is impossible to cover one-on-one.
Coordinator Mike Nolan experimented with a number of alignments in training camp, clearly hoping that deception will help compensate for a lack of playmakers in the defensive front. The Falcons will likely spend most of their time in a nickel alignment, taking advantage of a secondary that is their biggest strength on that side of the line.
A good start is especially important for the Falcons coming off such a miserable season. Despite a 60-36 coaching record, there’s a bit of heat on Smith to turn things around quickly. The first two games – home against the Saints, on the road against Cincinnati – look a bit treacherous. Two losses will likely shake the team’s fragile confidence and spur on speculation about Smith’s future.