This part is undeniable: The Falcons were 10 yards from the touchdown that would have given them a late lead in the NFC Championship game. In sum, they were 10 yards from the Super Bowl. Having come so close, it’s inevitable that they want to do more than come close this time around. That said …
The Falcons do not see the 2013 season as Super Bowl or bust. Put bluntly, they’re not that stupid.
Do they believe they’ll have a chance to reach the Super Bowl? (In New Jersey, no less. Held outdoors, no less.) Sure they do. They’ve been a winning team for five seasons. They were the NFC’s No. 1 seed in 2010 and 2012. They have a lot of good players. Why wouldn’t they have a chance?
Still, there’s a difference between aspiration and desperation. Some observers have taken the offseason acquisitions of free agents Steven Jackson and Osi Umenyiora and the trading-up for Desmond Trufant in the April draft as evidence that the Falcons saw themselves as one — or two, or three — pieces from a championship. But it’s not that simple. In team-building, it rarely is.
Would a team in win-it-all-now mode have cut five starters? (Defensive end John Abraham, cornerbacks Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes, right tackle Tyson Clabo and running back Michael Turner. Of those, only Turner seemed at the end of the line.) Wouldn’t a team looking to negotiate 10 more yards have erred on the side of continuity?
To their credit, the Falcons look — and have, under the current administration, always looked — at the bigger picture. They want very much to win a Super Bowl, but their mandate under general manager Thomas Dimitroff isn’t to build a team capable of winning one Super Bowl; it’s to build one that can compete at the highest level every single season. That these Falcons haven’t yet hoisted the Lombardi Trophy doesn’t mean their work has been substandard. (Winning a Super Bowl is hard. If it weren’t, there would be a 32-way tie for first place.)
To this longtime observer, the Falcons’ 2013 season appears less a Hail Mary than a bridge to even brighter tomorrows. The offensive line, lately the worst part of a star-studded offense, has been given over to youth. The defense, which under Dimitroff and Mike Smith has never risen to the level of the offense, is again in transition: New cornerbacks, perhaps new linebackers, Umenyiora in for Abraham. It’s possible both areas could coalesce overnight; possible, but not probable.
Why change so much when you were, ahem, 10 yards from the Super Bowl? Because the Falcons were smart enough to realize that being 10 yards from a Super Bowl in a given season didn’t a guarantee continued success. As Danny Tuccitto of Football Outsiders noted last season, the 2012 Falcons were, in terms of snap counts, the NFL’s oldest team. In the five aforementioned cuts and the retired Todd McClure, the Falcons shed six men who would have been 30 or older as of Opening Day 2013.
Why did the Falcons take Trufant in Round 1? Because they needed a starting cornerback, duh. Why did they then grab Robert Alford in Round 2? Because incumbent Asante Samuel is 32 and won’t be starting much longer. Why did the Falcons trade five picks for Julio Jones in 2011 when they already had Roddy White? Because White was about to turn 30, and there would be a need for a new No. 1 receiver soon enough.
If you’ll recall, the Jones move was interpreted as the Falcons’ attempt to land the one man who would be the difference between losing their first playoff game and reaching a Super Bowl. It didn’t pan out that way, at least not immediately. The 2011 Falcons went 10-6 and were beaten 24-2 in the wild-card round. But today Jones is one of the NFL’s three best receivers and might well be the finest player on this roster, Matt Ryan included.
The point being: Just because the Falcons didn’t win it all seven months after drafting Jones didn’t invalidate the trade. They weren’t in Super-Bowl-or-bust place then, just as they’re not there now. They took a small step backward in 2011, then another forward in 2012. No one should be surprised if that pattern holds in 2013.
With this wicked schedule and so many moving parts, the season ahead wouldn’t seem the ideal place to stage a last stand. Good thing the Falcons aren’t treating it that way. If everything clicks and they wind up in the Meadowlands in February, they’ll be delighted. If not, they’ll try again in 2014. They’re in it to win it, yes, but they’re also in it for the long haul.