Since 2007 ended, the Falcons have gone out of their way to put the most tumultous year in franchise history in the rear view. The front office shakeup, the overhauled coaching staff, the purging of unhappy veterans and the drafting of what the franchise hopes will be the quarterback of tomorrow were all intended to make certain that the 2008 season marks the beginning of a new era.
Unofficially — and for better or can’t get much worse — that era begins today, when the Falcons open camp in Flowery Branch. Here’s a look at some of the storylines worth paying attention to as the team readies for its Sept. 7 opener against Detroit:
The future is when?
New general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith have made no secret that Matt Ryan was drafted to be the franchise quarterback, and Smith has said the best player will start on opening day, regardless of experience. Ryan looked strong in offseason workouts, and he’s widely expected to supplant starter Chris Redman by season’s end. The question is: How soon will it happen?
Running game resurgence
Until Ryan was brought on board, the biggest acquisition of the offseason was running back Michael Turner, who spent the last four years backing up LaDanian Tomlinson.
A 240-pounder who runs like a runaway bowling ball, he seems to fit offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey’s power-running scheme. He’s only got 1,257 rushing yards and six touchdowns in his career, but with speedster Jerious Norwood playing the foil, the Falcons think he might top those numbers this year.
For that to happen, the re-tooled offensive line will need a return to its 2006 form when it paved the way for the league’s leading ground game. Last year, the Falcons were 26th in the league in rushing yards.
Rich McKay was stripped of his GM duties and banished to business affairs in part due to the lackluster draft classes assembled under his watch.
Dimitroff, his replacement, got his chance to stamp the team with his identity with 11 picks in April’s draft, and pulled in a few potential starters: Ryan, OT Sam Baker, LB Curtis Lofton, CB Chevis Jackson. But it’s the picks he didn’t make (no defensive tackles) that drew rounds of criticism.
They say a draft class can’t be properly evaluated for three years, but if the Falcons run defense doesn’t improve quickly, that won’t stop a lot of disaffected fans from trying.
WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT TRAINING CAMP
Question: What should I do if I want to make sure the team is actually practicing outdoors on the day I plan to come out and watch practice?
Answer: Check the team’s Web site, www.atlantafalcons.com, for continual updates or call the Training Camp hotline (770-965-2752). Practice times are subject to change without notice.
Q: Where can I find a list of daily activities related to training camp?
A: Check the list of daily activities on the club’s Web site, call the hotline number or inquire about the various events in the Falcons Training Camp Fan Shop.
Q: Where will fans park during training camp?
A: Training camp parking is available at the Hog Mountain Sports Complex and Flowery Branch High School across the street from the Falcons Training Complex. When Hall County schools begin on Aug. 7, parking will be available at the Hollis Transportations Lot located one mile from the Falcons training complex. A complimentary shuttle service will be provided from this location. Please follow the signs to this location. There is no general parking available at the Falcons training complex.
Q: Where do fans with disabilities park?
A: Fans with disability parking permits will be allowed to park inside the Falcons training complex. Disability parking permits must be properly displayed for law enforcement officials to grant entry. A designated seating area will also be provided for fans with disabilities.
Q: Where do special guests and VIP sponsors check-in?
A: Special guests, VIPs and sponsor check-ins sites are located near the main building entrance of the Atlanta Falcons training complex.
Q: What should I bring to training camp?
A: For your comfort, please feel free to bring the following items to training camp: Hats, jackets, rain gear, sunglasses, sunscreen, binoculars, blankets, umbrellas, lawn chairs and strollers.
Q: May I bring my camera to training camp?
A: Still cameras with lenses less then 12 inches and without flash attachments are permitted for use during all training camp workouts at Flowery Branch. No flash photography of any type will be permitted at any time. No audio or video recording devices are allowed, including camcorders or cellular phones with video capabilities.
Q: May we bring our coolers to training camp?
A: Coolers are permitted at Falcons Training Camp, but will be subject to search by Falcons security, team personnel or law enforcement officials. Alcoholic beverages and glass containers are prohibited.
Q: Are backpacks and bags allowed at practice?
A: For the safety and enjoyment of all fans attending Falcons practices, backpacks and large bags more than 8 1/2 inches wide by 13 inches long by 5 inches deep are NOT permitted at training camp. All people, bags and purses are subject to inspection. Individuals who refuse to have a bag, purse or backpack inspected will be denied entry.
Q: What should I leave at home?
A: The following items will not be permitted at training camp: alcoholic beverages, glass containers, noise makers, loud radios, large signs and inappropriate attire.
Q: Will the Falcons provide tours of their Flowery Branch facility during training camp?
A: Because of the large number of fans expected to attend training camp, the Falcons are unable to provide tours of the team’s headquarters.
Q: Are there activities for children?
A: A Kids Zone interactive area will be available for children one hour prior to each practice session.
Q: Where can I purchase merchandise?
A: The Falcons merchandise tent is located near the main fan field entrance of camp.
Q: Where can I beat the heat?
A: In an effort to ensure comfort for all fans who attend a Falcons practice during training camp, the club has a 10 foot-by-10 foot area located at the top of the viewing hill for fans to get out of the sun.
Q: Where can I buy concessions?
A: Food and beverage items will be available for purchase at each practice session. The main concessions are located on top of the spectator hill.
Q: Is there an ATM on site?
A: There are no ATM machines available to the general public at the Atlanta Falcons Training Complex. Please plan accordingly.
Q: Where are first-aid services located?
A: A Falcons first-aid station will be set up adjacent to the training camp fan field main entrance. Authorized medical personnel from the Falcons and Hall County will be available one hour prior to each practice through one hour following each session.
Q: Where is the lost and found area?
A: The lost and found area is in the Falcons Training Camp Fan Shop.
Q: Where do I go if I have a question?
A: Questions regarding all aspects of training camp may be directed to associates in the Falcons Training Camp Fan Shop located near the fan field main entrance. In addition, any other Falcons staff member can assist you.
Q: What is the smoking policy?
A: For the comfort and health of all fans, the Falcons training complex is a smoke-free environment. There is no smoking allowed anywhere on the grounds or inside the buildings at Flowery Branch.
Q: What safety measures are in place?
A: For your safety, the Atlanta Falcons, along with the Flowery Branch Police Department, Hall County Sheriff’s Office and other local law enforcement officials will be present.
Key players this season
All with a few years of experience under their belts, these guys are instrumental to a successful season this year.
Notable: Milloy is a four-time pro bowler, but the last time he earned the honor was six years ago. Now at 34, Milloy can still play the position (90 tackles, two interceptions in 2007), but in a very young secondary he may be more valued for his experience.
Notable: Boley has shown steady improvement since his rookie year in 2005, and finished second on the team with 125 tackles last season. If he continues at that rate, pro bowl consideration isn’t out of the question.
Position: Defensive end
Notable: One the league’s most prolific pass rushers since he was drafted in 2000, Abraham had 10 sacks in 2007 to lead the Falcons. Injuries have been an issue in the past — he’s missed half a season or more three times in his career — but he started all 16 games last season. He’ll be counted on to do it again in 2008.
Notable: Warrick Dunn, Alge Crumpler and DeAngelo Hall are out, and suddenly Brooking’s the most recognizable returning member of the team. He has led the Falcons in tackles for seven consecutive years, and is the only remaining member of the 1998 Super Bowl team.
Position: Wide receiver
Notable: The former first-round pick blossomed in 2007, grabbing 83 passes for 1,202 yards and six touchdowns. Now in his fourth pro season, White is the unquestioned focal point of the passing game.
Players in need of a breakout season
Position: Defensive end
Notable: The Falcons drafted Anderson eighth overall in the 2007 draft, hoping he would provide a pass rush to complement John Abraham. Good plan, but it hasn’t panned out yet. Anderson failed to record a sack in his rookie season.
Notable: Houston played well enough in his rookie season to work his way into the starting 11 midway through 2007. This year he’ll need to be even better. Now that DeAngelo Hall is out, Houston could draw the assignment of covering the opponents’ top receivers.
Position: Offensive line
Notable: Started 14 games at left guard last season as a rookie but was inconsistent, and the offensive line as a whole struggled. This year, ESPN ranked the unit second to last in the league. If they’re to exceed those expectations, Blalock’s improvement will be crucial.
Position: Running back
Notable: In two NFL seasons, Norwood has proven to be a legitimate threat to score any time he gets the ball in his hands. The problem is, he hasn’t had many chances. The new staff has promised a bigger role for one of the team’s fastest players, splitting him out wide and lining him up in the slot during the spring. If he can adapt to the new assignments, the Falcons offense becomes much more dangerous.
Position: Defensive tackle
Notable: A former second round draft pick, Babineaux showed a glimpse of his potential in 2007 by recording 53 tackles and forcing two fumbles. Since the team did not pick a run-stopper in the draft, Babineaux will be forced to anchor a line that pundits called the No. 1 weakness after last year.