The hangover from losing in the 2012 NFC Championship Game carried over in a major way for the Atlanta Falcons last season.
The Falcons went 13-3 and won the NFC South title, and it was Super Bowl or bust the following year. Well, the 2013 campaign was a total bust for the Falcons as evidenced by a lowly 4-12 finish.
Atlanta is hoping last season was just an aberration and enters 2014 on a clean slate with high expectations. One of the biggest reasons for Atlanta's demise was the foot injury to Julio Jones, perhaps one of the best wide receivers in the game today.
Jones played only five games and finished with 41 catches for 580 yards and two touchdowns, one year after hauling in a career-high 128 passes for 1,198 yards and 10 scores. Jones' absence seemed to have an effect on quarterback Matt Ryan, who also had to deal with lingering injuries to veteran wide receiver Roddy White. White appeared in 13 games, grabbing 63 balls for 711 yards and just three touchdowns.
Head coach Mike Smith was happy to see both Jones and White back on the field.
"I thought it was very good. You guys saw it. He was running routes very well," Smith said of Jones late last month. "I thought the timing between he and Matt (Ryan) were good. You know we have a plan or prescription that we're going to try and stay by for the first couple weeks and make an evaluation after that. It was great to see Julio back on the field and when you looked on the other side and saw 84 (White) out there, I know not only me, but I think the quarterback and the whole coaching staff was excited about seeing both those guys."
The loss of Jones and the ineffectiveness of White in 2013 opened the door for Harry Douglas, and he helped Ryan with a team-best 85 receptions for 1,067 yards and two scores. Tight end and future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez came back for one more year and played in all 16 games, finishing with 83 catches for 859 yards and a team-high eight TD receptions. Gonzalez retired at season's end.
Atlanta, which averaged 12 wins per season the previous three years and has made the postseason four times since 2008, will not be headed to another four- win campaign. However, the Falcons could miss out on the playoffs and possibly finish last in the division with New Orleans still on top and both Carolina and Tampa Bay improving.
Falcons head coach Mike Smith has turned the franchise around and is hoping his team has enough depth to stay fresh for another grueling fall and winter. Smith's team started 2-9 last season and had one of the worst defenses in the NFL, finishing 21st in passing yards allowed (243.6), 27th in points allowed (27.7) 28th in total yards (379.4) and 31st against the run (135.8).
Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan got some new faces in the fold and lost a familiar one when starting linebacker Sean Weatherspoon suffered a season- ending Achilles tear during a workout in June. Weatherspoon started 36 games over the last three seasons, but has missed 12 due to injury over the last two. The 26-year-old has accumulated 290 tackles, eight sacks, two interceptions and 15 passes defensed over 47 career contests, all with the Falcons.
The Falcons are hoping that expectations aren't too high this season and they'll be able to fly under the radar and make a splash in the NFC once again. It will be a daunting task because the NFC is much like the Western Conference in the NBA with talented teams across the board.
Not only does Atlanta have to deal with the NFC South, but there are two to three contenders in the other three divisions, including defending Super Bowl champion Seattle. The Falcons emerging as a wild card team seems far-fetched right now, but anything is possible.
2013 RECORD: 4-12 (4th, NFC South)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2012 (lost to San Francisco in NFC Championship Game)
HEAD COACH (RECORD): Mike Smith (60-36, seventh season)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dirk Koetter (third season)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Nolan (third season)
KEY ADDITIONS: OT Jake Matthews (first round, Texas A&M), QB T.J. Yates (from Texans), TE Bear Pascoe (from NY Giants), G Jon Asamoah (from Chiefs), G Gabe Carimi (from Buccaneers), DE/DT Tyson Jackson (from Chiefs), NT Paul Soliai (from Dolphins), CB Josh Wilson (from Redskins), CB/KR Javier Arenas (from Cardinals), S Dwight Lowery (from Jaguars), KR Devin Hester (from Bears), LB Pat Angerer (from Colts), WR/KR Eric Weems (from Bears)
KEY DEPARTURES: RB Jason Snelling (retired), FB Bradie Ewing (to Jaguars), TE Tony Gonzalez (retired), G Garrett Reynolds (to Lions), OLB Stephen Nicholas (free agent), ILB Akeem Dent (to Texans), CB Asante Samuel (free agent), S Thomas DeCoud (to Panthers)
QB: Ryan (4,515 yards, 26 TD, 17 INT) was sacked a career-high 44 times last season under an offensive line that was a complete disaster. The 17 INTs were also a career-worst, but he did manage to find enough time to surpass the 4,000-yard passing mark for a third straight year. The 26 touchdown passes were the lowest for Ryan since he had 22 back in 2009. Ryan, who threw 32 TD strikes in 2012, struggled without Jones for the last 11 weeks of the season and it cost Atlanta. Jones, though, is back healthy to team up with White, and also Douglas is back as the No. 3 receiver. Gonzalez is now an NFL analyst and Ryan will miss his big tight end target. But after what was considered a fluke down year in Atlanta could turn into something promising in 2014.
The team acquired quarterback T.J. Yates in a deal with Houston in June as a backup.
RB: Steven Jackson didn't impress in his first season with Atlanta, amassing a career-low 543 yards on 157 carries in 12 games. The veteran Jackson was a major disappointment as a replacement for Michael Turner, who at least knew how to find the end zone when close enough. Jackson did have six rushing touchdowns, but also entered 2013 with eight straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Jackson turned 31 in July and has more than 2,500 carries on his resume, numbers that suggest his better days are in the past. Jackson averaged 45.2 yards per game and 3.5 yards per carry for the Falcons, whose ground attack fell woefully short of expectations with an NFL-worst 77.9 yards per game.
The Falcons still have Jacquizz Rodgers (332 yards, 2 TD) and drafted Devonta Freeman out of Florida State as a safety valve. Getting the run game going will only help Ryan and the pass attack.
WR: Jones (580 yards, 2 TD) caught 41 passes before his season and the team's came to a crashing halt. It just goes to show how important Jones' play-making skills are, and Ryan will be the first two attest to that. With his ability to stretch the field and raw talent, Jones and White are arguably the best wide receiver tandem in the league. White (711 yards, 3 TD) hopes to be at full strength this season, but players at this level usually don't go a full season without a few bumps and bruises. White had posted six straight 1,000-yard seasons and recorded at least seven TD catches five years in a row. White had also played all 16 games in his first eight seasons. He posted 43 catches for 502 yards with 26 first down receptions, and two touchdowns in the final five games last season. White also recorded three consecutive seasons with 90-plus receptions and 1,200-plus yards from 2010-12.
Douglas (1,067 yards, 2 TD) should expect his number to dip from a year ago with Jones and White healthy.
TE: Gonzalez (859 yards, 8 TD) traded his cleats for a microphone, leaving the Falcons' tight end spot vacant. Atlanta did bring in Bear Pascoe this offseason in hopes of keeping that position competitive, but he's replacing a legend. Pascoe joins the Falcons after spending his first five NFL seasons with the New York Giants, primarily as a blocking specialist. The 6-foot-5, 265-pounder appeared in 66 games and started 32 during his tenure with the Giants. The 28-year-old has totaled just 38 catches, 12 of which came last season, for 333 yards and one touchdown during his pro career.
Tight end coach Chris Scelfo doesn't have much to work with here. Levine Toilolo played in all 16 games last season (3 starts).
OL: The Falcons stayed put in the NFL Draft and added a need player in offensive tackle Jake Matthews out of Texas A&M. He is expected to start in Week 1 versus New Orleans.
The Falcons needed to bolster their weak offensive line, which is why Ryan was sacked a career high and the running game suffered tremendously. Lamar Holmes will play right tackle, while guard Jon Asamoah was signed to play guard, joining guard Justin Blalock and center Joe Hawley. Atlanta brought offensive line coach Mike Tice on board along with Wade Harman to get the very best out of this unit. Veteran Gabe Carimi spent 2013 with Tampa Bay and will most likely fill in at guard. The offensive line needed the most help this past offseason and Atlanta did its best to shore up the front.
"I think our offensive line has done a really nice job during the OTA period as well as during minicamp," Ryan said. "From a communication standpoint, we've got a few changes from what we've done around here in the past and those guys are working through those changes. I think one of the big things that Mike (Tice) preaches is communication at the line of scrimmage. You can hear those guys talking a bunch and making sure they're on the same page."
DL: Defensive end Osi Umenyiora (47 tackles, 7.5 sacks) had a so-so first year in Atlanta and said this is the best defensive team he has ever been on. He appeared in all 16 games and has learned from the best in Hall of Famer Michael Strahan. The Falcons just hope he stays productive as he gets older because they need to add pressure on the other QBs in the NFC South such as Drew Brees and Cam Newton.
Kroy Biermann played in only two games because of an Achilles injury and the defense needs him at full strength in order to stay competitive this season.
Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga are returning for their second seasons, while Jonathan Massaquoi (46 tackles, 4 sacks) hopes to have an even bigger role in 2014.
Free agents Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai were added to the mix, while talented rookie DT Ra'Shede Hageman was drafted in the second round and hopes to bolster a line that finished tied for 29th with 32.0 sacks last year. Hageman will learn under Jonathan Babineaux (42 tackles, sack) and Corey Peters (46 tackles, 5 sacks) on what it takes to succeed at the highest level.
LB: Weatherspoon (38 tackles, INT) will be missed for the season and the Falcons will just have to rally around their wounded leader. Paul Worrilow (127 tackles, 2 sacks) stepped up in Weatherspoon's absence and was a monster on the field, playing in all 16 games with 12 starts. He added more muscle to his frame and hopes it will come in handy at the middle linebacker spot.
Joplo Bartu (85 tackles, 3.5 sacks) is looking to build on his second season with Atlanta and made 13 starts last season, seeing action in all 16 games.
The Falcons were able to bring linebacker Pat Angerer into the nest this offseason and he played in 11 games (nine starts) for the Indianapolis Colts last season, recording 63 tackles, 0.5 sacks and an interception. Tim Dobbins was added for depth, an area Atlanta struggled with last season on both sides of the football.
DB: Free safety Thomas DeCoud jumped ship to rival Carolina this offseason and had 65 tackles in 15 games. His toughness and veteran leadership will be missed, but the Falcons have to move on. William Moore (85 tackles, 2 sacks) led the secondary with three interceptions last season and should have another Pro Bowl season. Atlanta added veteran safety Dwight Lowery as DeCoud's replacement and he is coming off an injury-shortened 2013 campaign in which he sustained a season-ending concussion just three games in. He started 20 games for the Jags over the previous two seasons.
Safety Dezmen Southward and cornerback Ricardo Allen were drafted in May.
Desmond Trufant (70 tackles, 2 INT) and Josh Wilson are the starters at the corner spots with second-year man Robert Alford penciled in as the third corner. Also, Javier Arenas was signed in the offseason. Wilson started 16 games with the Washington Redskins in each of the past three seasons and has made 81 starts over a seven-year NFL career. Wilson had personal bests of 93 tackles, two sacks and an interception in 2013.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Falcons strengthened their special teams by signing dangerous return man Devin Hester in March. Hester, who was released by the Bears earlier this offseason, is the NFL's all-time leader in punt return touchdowns (13) and total kick return touchdowns (18). Hester's 19 overall return scores are tied with Hall of Famer Deion Sanders for the most in regular-season history. He left Chicago as the franchise's all-time leader in total return touchdowns, punt return touchdowns, punt return yards, kickoff return yards (5,504), total kick return yards (8,745) and second in all- purpose yards (11,632).
As a receiver, Hester had 217 receptions for 2,807 yards with the Bears. Kicker Matt Bryant made 24-of-27 field goals last season and was 5-for-5 from 40-49 yards.
Punter Matt Bosher averaged 46.6 yards per punt on 68 tries and landed 26 inside the 20-yard line. Josh Harris will handle long snapping duties.
COACHING: Smith was one of the more consistent and successful coaches in the league before last season's anomaly. He hopes added depth, draft picks, veteran additions and players returning from injury can get the Falcons back to NFL relevance. Atlanta's .625 winning percentage under Smith is the highest in team history over a six-year period.
Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter gets a healthy Jones and White to work with again, but the loss of Gonzalez is huge. Also, Koetter must find a away to resuscitate the running game.
Mike Nolan's defense received plenty of criticism, so we'll see how that unit responds this season.
The team fired defensive line coach Ray Hamilton and hired former player Bryan Cox as his replacement. Also, Tice came in to replace the fired Pat Hill and Paul Dunn.
THE SKINNY: The Falcons have to stay healthy and improve in some areas, in particular running the football. Jackson is nearing the end of his career, but still has a strong chance at making an extended run toward the playoffs if all goes well. Ryan proved he can stare in the face of adversity and still achieve success statistically. However, stats don't equate to wins and neither does a porous defense. Atlanta is hoping it can bounce back to its playoff level of 2012 and compete for a coveted wild card spot because the likelihood of winning the division is slim.