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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – It was the kind of hit that had it been televised, your flat screen plasma might have been knocked off the wall.
The 274 pounds of Atlanta Falcons defensive end Chauncey Davis(notes) came to a staggering halt, the way a bicycle would if it ran into a dump truck. A sideline crowd at training camp gasped as tight end Tony Gonzalez(notes) threw the jarring head-on block, causing Davis' mouthpiece to boomerang out of his helmet and land several feet away. Onlookers blinked, as if questioning some kind of disconnect between their eyeballs and brains.
A tight end just did that?
NFL teams are hard to capture in a single snapshot, but that might have been the moment for the Falcons. It was the kind of instance that leaves you with your mouth agape, leaving an impression of something more – something unexpected. Maybe that's this team. While surely the rest of the NFC isn't sleeping on this franchise (last year assured at least that much), it has seemingly been crowded out as a Super Bowl afterthought. Instead, we've marveled over the defense and running game of the New York Giants; bubbled about the offense of the Philadelphia Eagles; and buzzed expectantly about the ability of the Arizona Cardinals to rebound from last season's Super Bowl loss.
Yet in a few months, we very well might be looking at the Falcons as the best team in the NFC. Through some underrated additions and an infusion of youth and speed on defense in the offseason, Atlanta found an elusive balance. Maybe even championship-balance – even if seemingly everyone in the franchise would rather pump the breaks on that type of conversation.
"We don't deserve that [talk] yet," running back Michael Turner(notes) said. "The Giants and Eagles, they built their respect over the years of being on top in the NFC. The Giants just won a Super Bowl two years ago. Really we're still fighting to put some winning seasons together. We've just got to get back-to-back winning seasons first."
That's right. That's the sliver in the brains of Falcons fans: In the franchise's 43-year history, it has never had consecutive winning seasons. And even the Las Vegas oddsmakers aren't believers this year, with some setting Atlanta's over/under win total at eight games. That fact might have roots in a brutal schedule, as the NFC South and NFC East – easily the two toughest collections of talent in the conference – slam into each other in non-divisional play.
But seeing Atlanta in training camp elicits a familiar feel. From an architectural/growth standpoint, the Falcons could easily stack up as this season's Cardinals – loaded on offense with a defense that is going to make strides as the season progresses. But unlike the Cardinals, Atlanta promises to once again tout the dimension of a grinding running game.
"I think this is the best team I've ever been on," said Gonzalez, who was acquired from the Kansas City Chiefs this offseason. "And I played for some good teams. We had a really good team [in Kansas City] where we went 13-3 with Dick Vermeil. We had a really, really good offense. I'm comparing our offense to that offense that year."
Certainly, Gonzalez's unit has a prolific look. With the Pro Bowl tight end joining the rising tandem of Roddy White(notes) and a rejuvenated Michael Jenkins(notes), and buoyed by one of the league's best running back tandems in Turner and Jerious Norwood(notes), it seems a given that second-year quarterback Matt Ryan(notes) could take a major stride forward this season.
Already, players are seeing significant development in Ryan, who Turner remarked has "almost an entirely different personality" when it comes to leadership this season.
"When he came in last year, he was kind of timid," Turner said. "That's gone now. He's in charge of everything."
And players have seen it almost immediately. When the Falcons staged a scrimmage for fans earlier in camp, one of Ryan's young receivers failed to line himself up correctly, forcing a timeout. Despite what would typically be a laid-back setting, Ryan fumed and barked at his wideout. It was an intense moment that raised a few eyebrows, though it probably shouldn't have been entirely surprising for a player that has the weekly game plan faxed to him the night before the rest of the team gets its copy.
"You know what people say about the 'it' factor? I don't believe in that," Gonzalez said. "To me, the 'it' factor is somebody who is willing to bust his ass to be the best. Matt has no problem putting in work. He knows what everybody is doing on the field. He knows which player is 'hot' each route. He knows how to put you in each position. And he won't tolerate it if it's not right. He's going to let you know. That's Peyton Manning(notes) stuff. That's Drew Brees(notes) stuff."
Ryan had 16 TD throws and 3,440 passing yards last season.
(Kevin C. Cox/Getty)
But while Ryan may be making elite strides, his fortunes are going to rest – much like Manning and Brees – on a defense that is still a work in progress. Atlanta will likely have five new starters on that unit: safety Thomas DeCoud(notes), cornerback Brent Grimes(notes), linebackers Mike Peterson(notes) and Stephen Nicholas(notes) and defensive tackle Peria Jerry(notes), who was the team's first-round pick in this year's NFL draft. The changeover wasn't by accident, particularly amongst a front seven that sometimes lacked a flying, quick-twitch mentality last season.
The new starters will add that dimension this season, but also raise concerns about just how quickly the unit can be advanced collectively.
"[Questions center on] the perception of this defense," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "Right now, because of the different tools that we have on the offense, people have kind of compartmentalized it. The feeling is the offense is going to be adept and they're going to be able to carry this defense, but [people wonder] going into the season with five defensive starters gone, how can this team survive that."
"It's a reality," coach Mike Smith(notes) said. "We've got a group that is going to be fast, but we've got some guys that have not played together and haven't played a lot of games in the NFL. I don't know that you're going to find a younger secondary in the league."
Yet the unit doesn't appear to be out of sorts in key spots. Peterson previously played in Smith's defensive system while in Jacksonville, and along with defensive end John Abraham(notes) has helped to bring added leadership to a young core. Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton(notes) looks fluent and sure, like he's ready to take the next step toward establishing himself as a Pro Bowl-caliber talent. Cornerback Chris Houston(notes) is flashing increased playmaking ability. And some of the rookies beyond Jerry, like fourth-round defensive end Lawrence Sidbury(notes), have shown signs of absorbing and contributing this year.
"I'm just hoping they're gripping everything and absorbing everything they're learning now [from] the older players like me and Mike [Peterson]," Abraham said. "I know Sidbury is doing a good job of trying to be all in my butt all the time. He's definitely doing a good job. He talks to me all the time, always asking me the small things."
And that might be the story of '09 for Atlanta: the small details. With an offense that is seemingly ready to explode and a defense that has the potential to surprise, it's a franchise that appears to have the right mixture to separate itself from the rest of a blurry NFC picture.
"I think we've got more respect now," Abraham said. "I'm hoping it's still kind of like it was last year, so our heads aren't big, and we still have to work for it. Last year, we were so bad the year before, people were like 'Oh, they'll win four, six games this year.' "
Abraham grinned as he made that statement.
"Hopefully they're saying the same thing this year," he said. "But I know they're not."
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