The naysayers and terminal pessimists can say what they like about the Atlanta Falcons suffering a last minute loss in the NFC Championship game, but the truth is that the 2012 Falcons exceeded the expectations of many, including (probably) themselves.
When you introduce two new coordinators–Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan–to take over what is essentially the same personnel group that had been on the field for nearly two prior seasons, you have to believe that it’s entirely possible to take a step back. New schemes must be learned on both sides of the ball, and players must become accustomed to the coaching styles of the new play-callers.
But the Falcons seemed to mesh with their new offensive and defensive minds right from the start. Even in training camp it seemed obvious that the players were buying into what these two coaches were giving them, and that the learning curve might be shorter than originally thought. But still, most had to think that this was going to be a team on the playoff fringe, and that missing the postseason was even a distinct possibility.
Many predicted the Falcons to finish with nine to ten wins, with their only saving grace for the playoffs being that the New Orleans Saints were bound to have an off year given their suspensions and other off field issues. Koetter and Nolan made the most of the tools they were given, and some of the players who’s potential had only been talked about in past years finally started to reach the expectations of the coaches.
On offense, left tackle Sam Baker is a perfect example. A player who was taken with a high draft pick out of a premier school, Baker had languished with both injuries and poor play for four seasons until under the tutelage of a new coaching staff he started looking like the stud the Falcons had taken out of USC in 2008.
The Falcons defense also reaped the benefits of a fresh approach. A piece-meal defensive line and a young and inexperienced linebacker corps (with the exception of old man Mike Peterson) rose up in big games and kept the Falcons winning even when the offense sputtered. The good mix of young talent and veterans in the secondary proved to be perfect for Nolan’s blitzing schemes and multiple formations, allowing safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore to have Pro Bowl seasons.
There are still plenty of positions and issues to be addressed in 2013. How do you replace a Hall of Fame tight end who is likely retiring? Who can step up to help generate a better pass rush? How can some additional speed be added to the linebackers to help deal with the prevalence of the read-option offense? And, let’s not forget, where will Atlanta’s running game come from?
13 wins and being just 10 yards short of making the Super Bowl should be enough for any Falcons fan to proudly hang their hat on, given this year’s circumstances. And. as has been the tendency under head coach Mike Smith, they have set the bar even higher once more.