FLOWERY BRANCH — The NFL prides itself on parity, playmakers, and in recent years, the passing game.
Last season, 12 teams, including the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, amassed more than 4,000 yards passing, further proving that more teams might be moving away from a run-first methodology.
Although they’re certainly not going to abandon the running game, the Atlanta Falcons did fail to reach that 4,000-yard plateau in 2009, and their 3,571 yards ranked 14th in the league and behind such teams like the Packers, Colts, Patriots and Texans.
That might not be the case this season, as the Falcons have dedicated an entire week during organized team activities to perfecting the passing attack.
“The emphasis this week is on the passing game and it’s something we really want to spend some time with working with the skill guys,” coach Mike Smith said Wednesday. “It’s important our guys understand what we’re trying to get done in the passing game.”
Although it’s early in the offseason workouts, the players seem to be on the same page.
“It went pretty well,” receiver Eric Weems said of Wednesday’s practice. “We’re grasping the system, trying to move forward with everything and come together as a team before training camp.”
Weems is proof that knowledge of the system is everything, as he was asked to play a larger role in the Falcons aerial attack last year after Harry Douglas went down with an injury. Weems played in a career-high 16 games with six receptions for 50 yards and two touchdowns last season.
With Douglas still rehabbing, Weems is taking this opportunity to prove that he is a viable option in an offense that includes receiving targets such as tight end Tony Gonzalez, and wide receivers Roddy White and Michael Jenkins.
“You got to work because everybody’s skilled in the NFL,” said Weems, a third-year player from Bethune-Cookman. “Everybody knows the game and everybody has speed. It comes down to the mental aspect of it to be a big playmaker in the offense.”
Which is what makes this time of year so important for NFL franchises.
“Just learning, there’s a lot of learning going on right now so it can move faster once the season starts,” running back Michael Turner said. “We’re getting our timing down. A lot of this stuff is based on time and getting in the right position.”
Not known as a receiving threat — he has only 22 career receptions — Turner said that this type of practice is still helpful.
“I still benefit a lot with running routes out of the backfield and stretching out wide,” he said. “This type of practice helps all the running backs.”
But not nearly as much as it helps the rapport between quarterback Matt Ryan and his wealth of offensive playmakers. Although Douglas is still out, the majority of the Falcons offense took full advantage of getting reps in with Ryan.
“It feels pretty good for almost everyone to be out here,” Weems said. “We have some people getting healthy and we’re looking forward to Douglas coming back pretty soon. It’ll be even better once he gets back.”
With Douglas back in the mix, Ryan will have four viable passing options (five if you include Jerious Norwood) and a running back two years removed from a 1,699-yard season.
“We got some weapons and we have to be ready to expose every talent we have on this field,” Weems said. “We’re waiting on some guys to get back, and once everyone gets healthy, we can play to the best of our abilities.”
So how good could this offense be?
“There’s no telling,” Turner said. “I think sky’s the limit. We have a lot of guys that are dangerous with the football in their hands. Hopefully we can jell as a team and get going.”