Bulldogs doing something Falcons aren't: handling expectations

A college football team in town is having a season in which seemingly everything is going right. A pro football team in town is having a season in which seemingly everything lately is going wrong

Georgia is 9-0 and ranked No. 1. The Falcons are 4-4 and spiraling toward irrelevancy.

They play in different leagues, on different levels, with players from different age and income brackets. But their contrasting stories illustrate the fragile nature of a football season, where factors stretch well beyond talent, injuries and easy, lazy narratives like, “The coach stinks.”

Jake Fromm, a freshman, morphs into Roger Staubach. Julio Jones, a four-time Pro Bowler, stands in the end zone and drops a ball that descends from the heavens.

Some things you just don’t plan for.

“Mental things,” Dan Reeves said.

The former Falcons coach played or coached for nine teams that went to Super Bowls. He also played or coached for more than a few teams that didn’t. He’s not surprised the Falcons took a step back this season, but not just because they were forced to hire a new offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian, to replace Kyle Shanahan.

“When you’re coming off a Super Bowl, every other team is saying every week, ‘If we can beat them, we’re good enough to go to the Super Bowl,’” Reeves said Tuesday. “You become everybody’s biggest game. Not only that, but a lot of times things change in the offseason program. When you’re striving to make it to the Super Bowl, everybody is working hard to get there. But when you make it, sometimes it’s hard to convince players to give that same effort again. They just assume they’re going back to the Super Bowl, but it doesn’t happen that way.”

The decline of the Falcons’ offense has received the most attention, and justifiably so. They scored 540 points last season. They’re on a pace for 340 this season – a staggering 200-point drop.

It’s logical to believe Sarkisian’s play-calling is a factor. But it’s overly simplistic to think the problems start and end there. Offensive-line play has not been great. Matt Ryan’s accuracy has dropped off. Receivers have officially dropped 16 passes -- which ranks as the third most in the NFL behind San Francisco (21) and Oakland (18).

“Mental things.”

The Falcons lack it. This Georgia team has it. The Bulldogs have handled the glare of high expectations far better than their NFL counterparts.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart said the leadership of this year’s team is superior to that of a year ago. Everything has rolled off that.

“The season kind of produces the leaders, and you learn a little more about the team,” he said. “I wouldn’t say (chemistry is) fragile. I would just say it changes from year to year, and the chemistry is certainly much different this year than last year. A lot of that has to do with the senior leadership."

This season could’ve swung in the wrong direction early. Georgia lost starting quarterback Jacob Eason to a knee injury in the season opener. The next week was the Notre Dame game. Fromm understandably had some shaky moments, including an interception and a fumble. But he made a couple of key throws, wide receiver Terry Godwin made a remarkable, one-handed touchdown grab in the end zone and the Bulldogs pulled out a 20-19 win on a late field goal.

Imagine if Georgia had lost that game. Would the players’ confidence level going into SEC play be the same?

Senior defensive back Aaron Davis said he didn’t know how to gauge the significance of the Notre Dame win because he wasn’t sure about the Fighting Irish’s strength at that point.

“I’m still curious to see where we go,” he said.

But he added, “A lot of guys came back for another year because they felt we had something special together. You don’t have a lot of new pieces. But you never know how those (new) pieces will interact with each other when variables change.”

Georgia has teased us before. The 2008 team was a preseason No. 1. The offense included Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Moreno, Mohamed Massaquoi and a freshman named A.J. Green. But clearly something was missing. The Dogs were body-slammed at home by Alabama, then run over by Florida. The regular season ended with a home loss to Georgia Tech.

Kaboom. The preseason No. 1 finished a pre-bowl No. 17.

When the Dogs have played inferior opponents this season, they've stomped them. That hasn't been a regular occurrence in Athens.

“Our kids have taken ownership,” Smart said.

Good fortune doesn’t hurt either. The Falcons had a great season in 1998, but they don’t upset Minnesota in overtime in the NFC Championship game and make it to the Super Bowl if Vikings kicker Gary Andersen doesn’t miss a potential clinching 39-yard field goal in regulation.

“There was a guy who hadn’t missed a field goal all year, but he missed one in our game.” Reeves said. “So you know somebody up there is looking out for you.”

Things fell in place for the Falcons that season. Not this year. But Georgia has been a different story.

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About the Author

Jeff Schultz
Jeff Schultz
Jeff Schultz is a general sports columnist and blogger who isn't afraid to share his opinion, which may not necessarily jibe with yours.