The 2017 Atlanta Falcons’ mission is simple – avoid being trampled by the elephant in the room.
With preseason training camp opening this week, the biggest question about the Falcons isn’t whether the supposedly retractable roof on its gleaming new Mercedes-Benz Stadium will ever be able to open properly.
It’s whether the Falcons have recovered enough from a historic Super Bowl collapse to make it back to another one.
The answer will be determined over the course of a 16-week season, but the immediate redemption prognosis is promising.
“The spring showed that we are so moving forward from what we perceived as the possibility of a post-Super Bowl hangover,” said general manager Thomas Dimitroff. “Our focus is not on the past. It’s on moving forward. I know that’s a cliché. But everyone is just really, really positive. No one is pointing fingers. No one is focused on (the collapse), contrary to what has been written. The focus is on the future of this team.”
Of course, every team always says it’s moved on from whatever calamity befell it the previous season. It’s far easier said than done. It was the same theme a year ago for the Falcons’ NFC South rival Carolina Panthers coming off their own demoralizing Super Bowl defeat.
The similar scenarios are impossible to avoid. In 2015, Carolina had the best offense in the NFL and went on its own magical run to the Super Bowl. That’s when the best offense and its NFL offensive MVP quarterback got humiliated by the best defense and seemed to wander through an ensuing 6-10 season like it was on a collective concussion protocol.
The Panthers’ missteps coming off a 17-2 season were easy to decipher. It got old fast on the offensive line leaving its playmaker quarterback Cam Newton a shell of his previous confident self. It let a linchpin defensive player get away and lost its franchise linebacker to injury. It had no reliable kicker, a key factor in going 2-6 in games decided by one score.
The Falcons have no such issues in the things they can control. They have a roster built for longevity. The offense has all the same winning pieces that made it the most versatile in the league last year. The defense should be deeper and more experienced. Kicker Matt Bryant is arguably the most consistent weapon in the clutch.
Barring an unforeseen injury to a vital cog like quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Devonta Freeman or receiver Julio Jones, there’s no reason the Falcons shouldn’t produce at a similar rate under new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. The only thing Sark needs to change is the play calling when you have the chance to run the clock or seal the game with a simple field goal.
That said, it’s hard to completely bury the lingering disappointment of having a championship slip away so painfully. The Falcons blew a seemingly insurmountable 28-3 second-half lead through a combination of its own game mismanagement and the brilliance of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
They understand all too well through 50 years of toil how those opportunities aren’t easy to come by. There are no guarantees everything will fall into place again.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn, however, isn’t looking back. His relentless energy is only poured into what’s in front of this team.
“Now that 2017 is here, that’s our focus,” Quinn said. “As we’re heading into ’17, we think we can get a lot better.”
Of course, both the Tampa Bay Bucs and Panthers believe they will be a lot better this season as well in a bruising NFC South, and neither one has to play six non-division playoff teams from last season. Everybody in the division has to face the Patriots and the Packers in mandated divisional matchups against the AFC East and NFC North, but only the Falcons will have to tackle fellow division champs the Cowboys and Seahawks while the Panthers get to face the last-place Eagles and 49ers instead.
Another quirk of Atlanta’s schedule is that all of its NFC South games are packed almost entirely in the second half of the regular season – starting with the Panthers in Week 9 on Nov. 5 and finishing with the remaining five division games in the last six weeks. That’s fine if everything is going well but can be rough if injuries pile up over the course of a long season.
The Falcons have just too many strengths to believe that a Super Bowl hangover can incapacitate them. And playing in a brand-new stadium in front of energized PSL holders should be a welcome tonic for forgetting the past.
“This organization is oozing with competitiveness,” Dimitroff said. “Everyone feels really good. We have a young team overall. I think we’re really fired up with all of our energy.”
Quinn feels the same way about his team’s enthusiasm as he tries to keep the focus forward on specific goals like winning the turnover margin, being the most poised at the end of halves and taming the division.
Ultimately, the only way to beat the elephant in the room is to face it head on.
“To a man, we can’t wait to get going,” Quinn said.