When an organization that’s more accustomed to being a punchline than a playoff team suddenly wins 56 games over five seasons and comes within a hiccup of reaching the Super Bowl, strange things happen. It gets drunk on success. Strengths are exaggerated, flaws overlooked.
“You become somewhat addicted to victory and you get focused on that,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “I was in a spot after 2012 where I thought we were only going to get better.”
You’ve heard of blindside hits? The Falcons suffered the off-field version of it. The season after their narrow loss to San Francisco in the NFC Championship game, the team spiraled. There was a series of injuries, which exposed holes, which were never fixed, which led to a coaching staff being blown out. Dimitroff kept his job, but was hit by shrapnel.
The Falcons haven’t made the playoffs since 2012. Remarkably, only six players in training camp were on that NFC title team, and one (Sean Weatherspoon) just returned for a relative tryout. The others: Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Jonathan Babineaux, Matt Bryan, Matt Bosher. (Impress your friends with the trivia.)
Is the pain over? Maybe.
It has taken an overhauled roster orchestrated by second-year coach Dan Quinn and Dimitroff, but there’s a belief in Flowery Branch that things are again pointed in the right direction. Many personnel issues have been addressed, pass rush being the lingering concern. But equally important is an atmosphere cultivated by Quinn and his coaches that has created a stronger bond among players and coaches than previously existed.
Yes, it’s July. Nobody has fired a shotgun snap over the quarterback’s head or looked like Wile E. Coyote trying to tackle Jameis Winston yet.
But Quinn’s decision to have Navy SEALS lead team-building exercises at the outset of spring workouts resonated with players. He and Dimitroff also have paid greater attention to acquiring players with the right personalities more than before.
Imagine Ray Edwards, but in an alternate universe.
Dimitroff: “We’ve learned from past mistakes. We’ve learned from players who we brought in who weren’t the ideal fit.”
Babineaux, drafted in 2005 and the longest-tenured Falcon, believed the Falcons were “right there” and on the verge of a Super Bowl after the 28-24 loss to the 49ers (a game the Falcons led in the fourth quarter and then nearly pulled out with a last-minute drive). Then came the horrors of 4-12 and 6-10 finishes. Some of what happened in 2013 could be attributed to a mind-numbing series of injuries — Julio Jones, Steven Jackson, Asante Samuel, Kroy Biermann, Roddy White, Weatherspoon — but the problems went beyond that.
Babineaux said the Falcons teams that followed weren’t nearly close enough, lacked accountability to each other and even a certain mental toughness. But he has seen a change.
“We have a lot of new guys this year, but we’re tight now,” he said. “Training with the SEALS helped us with team toughness. I think it helped us bond. I felt that week like we really grew together. We were better last year than 2013 and 2014, but I still feel like there were times when we weren’t all there mentally. But now I feel we’re going in the right direction.”
There were a series of poor decisions that left the locker room short on leadership and created too many holes on the offensive and defensive lines. Todd McClure and Tyson Clabo were replaced by acknowledged draft busts Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes. Sack leader John Abraham (10 sacks) was released and signed with Arizona (where he then had 11.5 sacks). Two major acquisitions, Jackson and Osi Umenyiora, were ineffective — and, worse, at times looked disinterested.
The Falcons also allowed tight end Tony Gonzalez to skip most of training camp in exchange for returning one more year. It’s not a stretch to suggest the absence of a supposed team leader in the most crucial of seasons — remember, the Falcons were thinking Super Bowl — impacted the group.
This much is certain: The season went south, and coach Mike Smith couldn’t hold things together.
“I felt we kind of took a step back in 2013 as far as not having that closeness,” Babineaux said.
“There’s an authenticity here that is beyond admirable,” Dimitroff said. “When you have a team like that, there’s a very fine line in terms of allowing people into the building who don’t adhere to that approach.”
None of this may matter if the Falcons’ pass rush doesn’t improve, or if Ryan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan can’t bridge their gap. But it could prevent the week-to-week hangovers we’ve witnessed the past three seasons.
“I remember thinking after 2012, we’re in a great position and we’re going to take the next step,” Weatherspoon said.
When they did, there was only air below their feet. There aren’t many left to tell the story.