By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Falcons training camp preview: A season for the ages?
Falcons running back Michael Turner looks for running room in a game against the Carolina Panthers last season. - photo by The Associated Press

Roddy White a no-show

Top pick Jerry signs, joins camp 

Training camp starts today

When: 8:30 a.m.

Where: Flowery Branch

How much: Free

For more info: Pick a copy of The Times today for a full preview of Falcons training camp.

The Atlanta Falcons were the talk of the NFL last year as they surprised everyone by winning 11 games and reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2005 when a Michael Vick-led team reached the NFC Championship Game. And they accomplished that feat with a rookie quarterback, a never-before-featured running back and a coach and general manager that had never held those positions before.

This year, expectations are high. Matt Ryan is in his second year as the starting signal caller, Michael Turner has proven he can carry the workload in the backfield and management and the coaching staff have worked wonders to replace some departed veterans on defense and improve the offense with the addition of a Hall of Famer. But one question still remains: Will this year’s Falcons team be the first in franchise history to record back-to-back winning seasons?

Only time will tell, but here are a few reasons why they will win more than eight games and a few why they may not.

Why they will

1. Better in Year 2

With his 3,440 yards passing and 16 touchdowns, Ryan ran away with the Rookie of the Year award last year and there’s no reason to believe that he won’t be able to equal or surpass those numbers this year. He now has two offseasons and a regular season under his belt, and any questions or concerns about whether he can adjust to being an NFL quarterback have long been answered. Ryan has three talented wide receivers to throw to, and he’s improved on his ability to read defenses, which should cut down on the 11 interceptions he had in 2008. Not to mention he got another target in April when the Falcons aquired tight end Tony Gonzalez from the Kansas City Chiefs. Speaking of No. 88...

2. New redzone target

Entering his 13th season in the NFL, Gonzalez brings veteran leadership and a skill set that the Falcons haven’t had in a long time. Last year, the 33-year-old tight end had 96 receptions for 1,058 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Chiefs. Imagine what he will do with an offense that was sixth in the NFL in total offense in 2008. Gonzalez, who stands 6-foot-5, gives the Falcons and Ryan a dependable third-down option as well as a big target to throw to inside the 20.

3. Fewer questions than the competition

Since the NFC South was formed in 2002, no team has made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, so why will the Falcons? For starters, no one expected them to reach the playoffs last year, and most prognosticators believed that the team got better earlier than expected. This year’s version knows what it takes to reach the postseason and although they lost some key players on defense, the offense is back and ready to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke. The Falcons are arguably the most complete team in the NFC South, with Tampa Bay having questions on both sides of the ball, New Orleans still having its issues on defense and Carolina wondering how its offense will perform after its quarterback Jake Delhomme threw six interceptions in a playoff loss last year. Defense is a concern for Atlanta, but filling the voids of Lawyer Milloy and Grady Jackson are less of a worry than the other teams have.

Why they won’t

1. What if Turner’s burner gets broken?

No one wants to think about injuries before a season starts, but if the Falcons have one position (besides quarterback) where they cannot afford an injury it’s at running back. Sure, Jerious Norwood is a nice complement to Turner’s bruising style of running, but if Turner suffers an injury, it could spell doom for the entire offense. Don’t think the Falcons aren’t aware of this, as the team has already stated that they want to cut down on the 376 carries that Turner had in 2008 (just for the record, he had only 228 career carries entering last season). The addition of Gonzalez should help ease that workload, but the Falcons’ offense lives by the rushing game and if those carries catch up to Turner, Atlanta will be left without a feature tailback.

2. Toughness of schedule

The Falcons took advantage of the NFL’s ninth easiest schedule last year, but they won’t have that luxury this season. Of the team’s 13 opponents, only two teams (San Francisco and Buffalo) had records below .500 last season and both those teams finished 7-9. Atlanta has the NFL’s fourth-toughest schedule this year and they open the season against three teams (Miami, Carolina and New England) that won a combined 34 games a year ago. There’s no easy stretch in this year’s schedule, and the hardest month could come in November when Atlanta plays at New Orleans (on Monday night), vs. Washington (on short rest), at Carolina and then at the New York Giants. That four-game stretch could determine whether the Falcons can finish with a winning record.

3. Where’s the D?

Lawyer Milloy? Gone. Grady Jackson? Gone? Longtime Falcon Keith Brooking? Yep, he’s gone too. Atlanta rid itself of the veterans on defense during the offseason and filling the voids are a few unknowns and a slew of rookies. That doesn’t bode well for a team that ranked 24th in total defense in 2008. Everyone knows that the offense is capable of scoring a wealth of points, but the inconsistencies on defense are a concern entering camp. John Abraham is certainly capable of equaling his 16.5 sacks of 2008, but who will step up and help him anchor the defense?

Friends to Follow social media