As a premier player for the NFL's only undefeated team – and one in the midst of what may be the least-hyped 7-0 start in league history – Roddy White would love to get in touch with his inner Rodney Dangerfield and tell you the Atlanta Falcons don't get any respect.
White, however, completely understands why the Falcons have yet to generate comparisons to the 1972 Miami Dolphins, or even the 2011 New York Giants. During its impressive, five-year run under the leadership of general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith, Atlanta has face-planted in the postseason like Katy Perry covered in cake frosting.
"We're off to a good start, but until we finish strong, we're just a big question mark," the Pro Bowl receiver said in a phone interview after the Falcons' 30-17 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. "We can be 7-0, 10-0, whatever – but until we get into the playoffs and win, we're just regular-season warriors."
It's tough to argue with White's perspective, especially given the way his last two seasons ended. In 2010, the Falcons went 13-3 to wrap up the NFC's No. 1 playoff seed, then got steamrolled by the Aaron Rodgers Express, losing 48-21 in the division round to the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.
White was so unnerved by that defeat that he asked Reebok to print up some T-shirts with "Unacceptable" on the front and "48-21" on the back.
"I still keep a T-shirt in my locker," White said, "as a way of saying, 'This can't happen to us ever again.' It's just a constant reminder that we haven't made it. That game hasn't left my mind yet. I think about it constantly."
[Related: Matt Ryan shrugs off 7-0 start]
Last year, after returning to the playoffs as a 10-6 wild card, the Falcons put forth a performance that was even less acceptable. After taking a 2-0 lead on a second-quarter safety, Atlanta allowed 24 points to the Giants (also the eventual Super Bowl champs) while scoring zero of their own, running its postseason record to 0-3 in the Dimitroff/Smith era.
Dimitroff, a two-time NFL executive of the year, and Smith, the low-profile coach he hired shortly after his arrival in January of 2008, wisely resisted the temptation to make drastic changes after last season.
"Mike and I have been very communicative as far as our approach to being calculated with our decision-making, and not being easily moved by our emotions," Dimitroff said Tuesday. "That's something we've taken pride in. That game was rough on everyone, and the next day he and I sat in my office and had a very open discussion about the direction of this team.
"There were no kitschy phrases. It was, 'How do we improve this team in all phases?' We were able to keep our emotions in check and trudge forward."
So far, it appears as though the Falcons have gained ground on numerous fronts.
Smith, who on Sunday improved to 50-21 to move into first place on the franchise's all-time coaching victory list, ended up losing both coordinators: Mike Mularkey became the Jaguars' head coach and Brian VanGorder went to Auburn. We may never know if Smith might have decided on his own to make changes at one or both spots, but whatever the case, the departures were fortuitous.
Dirk Koetter, who replaced Mularkey, made the Falcons' attack more aggressive and has helped turn Matt Ryan from an upper-echelon passer into a legitimate MVP candidate. The fifth-year quarterback is completing 68.7 percent of his passes and averaging 288.3 yards per game, with 17 touchdowns and six interceptions. His 103.0 passer rating is third in the NFL.
With weapons like wideouts White (40 receptions, 591 yards, four touchdowns) and second-year standout Julio Jones (35 receptions, 499 yards, five TDs), along with ageless wonder and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez (46 receptions, 459 yards, four TDs), Koetter has many ways to exploit matchups. Those players, however, were part of last year's Atlanta team, which frequently looked out of sync on offense.
This year, although halfback Michael Turner (108 carries, 415 yards, 3.8 average) has been deemphasized, the Falcons look far more formidable. Koetter has done a nice job of putting the Falcons' many playmakers (including scatback Jacquizz Rodgers, who had a 43-yard run against the Eagles) in position to succeed while protecting Ryan by keeping defenders off balance. Against Philly the Falcons ran a multitude of screens, including a beautifully crafted, third-quarter toss to Jones that went for 37 yards, with White throwing a key block on Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.
"We're so confident right now," White said. "We're just rolling. We believe we can score every single drive. And when we don't, we're pissed off."
There wasn't much cause for consternation against the Eagles: The Falcons scored on each of their first six possessions and only punted twice, both times in the final six minutes. Ryan was 17 of 20 for 197 yards and three touchdowns at halftime, and Atlanta led 24-7.
That the Falcons did this against a desperate Eagles team, in inclement weather (as Hurricane Sandy approached), revealed a lot about the growth of this operation.
"In 2008 we went into Philly as one of the youngest teams in the NFL, and we were wide-eyed and wet behind the ears," Dimitroff recalls of his first Falcons squad, which suffered a 27-14 midseason defeat to the Eagles en route to an 11-5 season (one which ended with a first-round playoff defeat to the eventual NFC champion Arizona Cardinals). "The Eagles had a toughness and a brashness to them, and we were immature in many ways, not feeling overly confident with our approach. This past week we came in as a mature team, businesslike and focused and ready to battle."
[Michael Silver: Put Peyton Manning on early MVP candidate list]
The Falcons also had a fair amount of swagger, with players like 2010 first-round linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and veteran cornerback Asante Samuel leading the motivational charge. For all the obvious storylines accompanying Sunday's game – embattled Eagles quarterback Michael Vick facing his former team, Ryan playing in front of family and friends in his hometown – Samuel's return to Lincoln Financial Field might have been the most pertinent.
Samuel, written off as past his prime by the Eagles' brass, was shipped to the Falcons for a seventh-round draft pick last April. Dimitroff was seeking depth for his secondary, and when No. 1 cornerback Brent Grimes went down with a season-ending Achilles tendon tear in the team's opener against the Kansas City Chiefs, the acquisition of the four-time Pro Bowler took on a larger significance.
The boisterous, hyper-confident Samuel has helped spur the development of secondary mates like fifth-year safety Thomas DeCoud and has brought an edge to a unit that is gelling under new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.
As with all things Falcons, Nolan's impact hasn't been overwhelmingly obvious. Atlanta ranks 20th in total defense; that, combined with the team's mediocre offensive ranking (13th), has the stat geeks screaming "Fraud!" Skeptics further complain that the Falcons lack a signature victory – something they might not have a chance to remedy until the Giants come to the Georgia Dome on Dec. 16 – and that they had to stage fourth-quarter rallies to defeat the Carolina Panthers, Washington Redskins and Oakland Raiders in successive weeks.
That's the pessimistic slant, but here's another way of viewing the Falcons: Seven games into the season, they have a four-game lead over the Tampa Buccaneers in the NFC South and are a game ahead of the Chicago Bears in the race for homefield advantage in the NFC. And they seem to be getting better.
Best of all, White and his teammates don't think they're anywhere close to perfect.
"Absolutely not," White said Sunday. "We know we've got a long way to go. We've yet to play the game we think we can play. We missed some things [Sunday], as we have every week. We wish we could've put more points up. We're a long way from where we want to be. Trust me, we know."
As White understands better than anyone, we won't really know if the Falcons are more than regular-season warriors until January. In the meantime, they're trudging forward in rather impressive fashion.
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