Falcons coach Mike Smith grew weary of hearing about those exasperating last 10 yards that separated his team and the San Francisco 49ers from making a Super Bowl appearance.
For Smith, those 10 yards might as well be 10,000 as he’s prepared to meet 90 players Wednesday for the opening of training camp.
The Falcons have been to three NFC title games in their history, and after the first two, the team regressed the following season.
After Dan Reeves’ 1998 team went 14-2 and reached the franchise’s only Super Bowl, they slipped to 5-11 in 1999. Jim Mora’s 11-5 squad in 2004 lost to the Eagles in the NFC title game and followed that with an 8-8 campaign.
Smith knows the history and challenges that face the Falcons (13-3 last season) as they move forward without some key and familiar faces and plan to replace players such as Todd McClure, John Abraham and Michael Turner with younger and cheaper players.
Smith said this will be the Falcons’ most difficult, wide-open and competitive training camp since he took over in 2008.
There are several questions and concerns throughout the roster, and if the Falcons are going to maintain their status as a legitimate Super Bowl contender, they must find some answers before facing arch-rival New Orleans in the season opener Sept. 8.
The offense finished last season ranked eighth overall (369.1 yards per game), sixth in passing (281.8) and 29th in rushing (87.3) in the NFL. The unit ranked seventh in scoring at 26.2 points per game.
The defense finished last season ranked 24th overall (356.6 yards per game), 21st against the run (123.2) and 23rd against the pass (242.3). The unit ranked fifth in scoring defense at 18.7 points per game.
Here’s a roster analysis of the defending NFC South champs, who must revamped their offensive and defensive lines and blend in some key additions in running back Steven Jackson, defensive end Osi Umenyiora and rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant.
Starter: Matt Ryan. Backups: Dominique Davis, Sean Renfree and Seth Doege.
How they fared in 2012: Ryan guided the Falcons to the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons and posted his first playoff victory. In 2012, he set single-season franchise records for passing yards (4,719), pass attempts (615), completions (422), touchdown passes (32) and 300-yard games (seven) en route to his second career Pro Bowl selection. Ryan’s 56 career wins are the most by any NFL quarterback in his first five seasons. Luke McCown, last season’s backup, signed with Saints in free agency.
Outlook for 2013: The Falcons have high hopes for Ryan, although it will be difficult for him to top last season’s performance. “I continue to see Matt being a better football player than he was last year,” Smith said. “I don’t even think we’ve seen nearly what he’s capable of doing.” Davis, who has not taken a regular-season NFL snap, appears headed for the No. 2 spot, with Renfree and Doege battling for a possible third slot.
Starters: RB Steven Jackson and FB Bradie Ewing. Backups: Jacquizz Rodgers, Antone Smith, Josh Vaughan, Donald Russell and Ronnie Wingo (RB). Jason Snelling, Patrick DiMarco and Devonte Campbell (FB).
How they fared in 2012: Turner and Rodgers split the position and averaged less than four yards per carry rushing. Rodgers will join forces with Jackson, one of the key offseason free-agent signings, to provide a more diversified attack.
Outlook for 2013: Jackson is expected to fill the void created by the release of Turner, who had 10 rushing touchdowns last season. Jackson, who has rushed for 10,135 yards and has posted eight consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, is expected to boost the ground attack and catch more passes out of the backfield. Ewing, who had his rookie season cut short by ACL surgery, is expected to take over at fullback.
Starter: Tony Gonzalez. Backups: Chase Coffman, Levine Toilolo, Tommy Gallarda, Andrew Szczerba and Colin Cloherty.
How they fared in 2012: At age 36, Gonzalez showed no signs of slowing down as he caught a team-high 93 passes for 930 yards and eight touchdowns, earning his 13th Pro Bowl appearance. He also became the first tight end in NFL history with 100 touchdown catches and holds NFL tight-end records for career receptions (1,242), receiving yards (14,268), touchdown catches (103), 100-yard games (30) and 1,000-yard seasons (four).
Outlook for 2013: Gonzalez returns for his final and 17th season in the NFL and should continue to get favorable matchups. Coffman and Toilolo are pass-catching tight ends. The team is intrigued by Toilolo, who’s 6-foot-8 and could be a red-zone weapon.
Starters: Roddy White and Julio Jones. Backups: Drew Davis, Harry Douglas, Kevin Cone, Rashad Evans, Darius Johnson, Martel Moore, Marcus Jackson, James Rodgers and Tim Toone.
How they fared in 2012: Jones started to blossom into a big-time NFL receiver last season, just as the legendary Jerry Rice predicted. He caught 79 passes for 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns. White had 92 catches for 1,351 yards and seven touchdowns. It was his sixth consecutive season with more than 1,100 yards receiving and his third consecutive season with 90 or more catches.
Outlook for 2013: If White and Jones can top last season’s production, they’ll be viewed widely as the top tandem in the league. Douglas is vital to the operation as the Falcons used three wide receivers on 48 percent of their plays last season.
Starters: LT Sam Baker, LG Justin Blalock, C Peter Konz, RG Garrett Reynolds and RT Mike Johnson. Backups: Lamar Holmes, Theo Goins, Ryan Schraeder and Terren Jones (tackle); Phillipkeith Manley, Matt Smith, Harland Gunn and Alec Savie (guard); and Joe Hawley and Jacques McClendon (center).
How they fared in 2012: The line was solid in pass protection as they gave up 28 sacks, which tied for seventh in the league. They were better than expected on draws and screens, but could not get the running game rolling. The unit also struggled in short-yardage situations.
Outlook for 2013: Konz appears set to attempt to fill the big and vacant shoes of longtime center McClure, who was the starter for the past 13 seasons. Konz, a technician, started 10 games last season at right guard. Reynolds should emerge as the starter at right guard, while Johnson and Holmes will battle for the starting right tackle spot.
Starters: RDE Osi Umenyiora, DT Jonathan Babineaux, NT Corey Peters, LDE Kroy Biermann. Backups: Jonathan Massaquoi, Stansly Maponga, Brandon Thurmond, Malliciah Goodman and Cam Henderson (DE). Travian Robertson, Cliff Matthews, Adam Replogle, Peria Jerry, Micanor Regis and Neal Huynh (DT).
How they fared in 2012: With Peters slowed by a stress fracture in his foot and Ray Edwards playing indifferently before getting cut, the unit wasn’t stout against the run and didn’t harass the passer enough. The Falcons had 29 sacks, which ranked 28th in the league. Defensive end Abraham, who was released, had 10 of those sacks.
Outlook for 2013: Umenyiora will be counted on to fill the void of Abraham’s departure. Peters had a strong offseason. Babineaux began last season at tackle, but as the season progressed and Edwards wasn’t succeeding, he played some defensive end when the Falcons operated out of the 3-4 alignment. The left end spot is up for grabs on run downs. Biermann likely will play a hybrid role — defensive end/linebacker —in the nickel defense. Goodman or Matthews could emerge. Jerry and Robertson will battle to be the primary backup tackle.
Starters: WLB Sean Weatherspoon, MLB Akeem Dent and SLB Stephen Nicholas. Backups: Robert James, Paul Worrilow, Pat Schiller, Brian Banks, Joplo Bartu and Nick Clancy.
How they fared in 2012: Weatherspoon, who ranked second on the team with 114 tackles last season, had arthroscopic knee surgery that caused him to miss OTAs. Nicholas, who had sports-hernia surgery over the offseason, led the Falcons with 116 tackles last season. Dent took over for Curtis Lofton last season and came on strong down the stretch.
Outlook for 2013: Weatherspoon was the team’s signal-caller last season and is slated to remain in that role. Nicholas struggled in coverage and will face a training-camp challenge to retain his position in nickel and dime situations. The unit lacks depth, as James has played sparingly from scrimmage. Banks, who was exonerated of criminal charges in 2012 after spending five-plus years in jail, is a long shot to make the roster.
Starters: LCB Asante Samuel, RCB Desmond Trufant, SS William Moore and FS Thomas DeCoud. Backups: Dominique Franks, Peyton Thompson, Robert McClain, Robert Alford, Terrence Johnson and Saeed Lee (CB). Charles Mitchell, Zeke Motta, Shann Schillinger, Kemal Ishmael and Troy Sanders (S).
How they fared in 2012: Samuel finished with five interceptions and led the team with 19 passes defensed. It was an extremely tough season for Samuel, who shuttled back and forth to Florida to be with his mother, Christine, who died in January. Dunta Robinson, who struggled in coverage last season, was released. McClain flourished at nickel back. DeCoud led the team with six interceptions and ranked second in the league among safeties. Moore had 105 tackles, broke up eight passes and had four interceptions. Moore was the team’s third leading tackler.
Outlook for 2013: Trufant was drafted to start. He will get his baptism in practice by going against Jones and White. McClain will battle with Alford to retain the job as nickel back. The back end of the defense is in good shape with DeCoud and Moore. Smith has high hopes for rookies Ishmael and Motta, who’ll battle Schillinger and Mitchell for roster spots.
Starters: Matt Bryant (kicker), Matt Bosher (punter, kickoffs, holder), Jacquizz Rodgers (kickoff returns), Harry Douglas, Dominique Franks, Tim Toone and Robert Alford (punt returns). Josh Harris (long snapper). Backups: Sean Sellwood (punter) and Jeremy Shelley (kicker).
How they fared in 2012: Bryant set the franchise record for most points in a single season (138). Bosher had four special-teams tackle in addition to breaking his own franchise record for net punting average (40.7 yards), and he set a franchise-record for most touchbacks in a single season with 45. The returners were steady last season.
Outlook for 2013: Since joining the Falcons in 2009, Bryant has made 31 of 41 field-goal attempts from 40 yards or longer. The return game needs some sprucing up. Alford, a speedster, could add spice there.