FLOWERY BRANCH — It was just moments into the Atlanta Falcons’ first afternoon practice on Thursday at the team facilities in Flowery Branch, and already fans’ excitement was at a fever pitch.
After a morning walkthrough that was closed to the public on the first day of the team’s 2012 training camp, fans and media members were on hand to get their first look at a team many hope to see playing deep into the playoffs this year.
It didn’t take long for fans to begin sending loud cheers in the direction of the players. One fan held a cutout of a spoon sporting the No. 56 in reference to outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon.
“Spoon!” he yelled after Weatherspoon made a play on the field.
Despite a disappointing one-and-done in the 2011 playoffs, Falcons fans expressed great hope in the direction the team had taken in the offseason, which included hiring new offensive and defensive coordinators and making a trade for star cornerback Asante Samuel.
“I think they have a legitimate chance at a deep playoff run,” said John Andrews, a native of Conyers who has been coming to training camps for the past three years. “I think the defense will be better under (new defensive coordinator) Mike Nolan and Samuel will help, too.”
Michael Conrad and Ricky Jordan, both of Athens, were at their first training camps, but both said they have followed the team for years. They shared Andrews’ optimism for the 2012 season.
“I think they’ll at least go further than the first round this year,” Conrad said. “I hope so. I think the defense is ready, and (wide receiver) Julio Jones is ready to break out.”
“There’s nothing else to hope for but a Super Bowl,” Jordan said. “I think we’re tired of seeing them lose in the first round, but I think they’ve got a chance this year. I’m excited for the season.”
Scott Zumbach, a native of Cobb County, brought his two daughters, Jessica and Audra, to the camp. Scott said that he had lived in Georgia since 1995 and has followed the Falcons ever since.
Despite the disappointing finishes the past few years, he says he’s been impressed with what they’ve built and expects it to keep getting better.
“They’ve had four winning records in a row,” he said, referencing a Falcons franchise record. “I never want to get down on them too much.”
And while the beginning of training camp signals the countdown to playing games that matter, which begin for the Falcons in Kansas City against the Chiefs on Sept. 9, a chance to see and experience football again was enough for a lot of the fans present.
The fan experience included concessions, a gift shop, games and live radio broadcasts from 680 The Fan and 790 The Zone, among others.
Scott Zumbach said it was a fun atmosphere to be a part of. His daughters, who also follow the team, said they were excited to see the players and hoped to get an autograph or two, namely the team’s star under center.
“Matt Ryan,” they both answered when asked whose autograph they wanted the most.
The family already has tickets to a game against the Arizona Cardinals on Nov. 18.
Matt Mincey, of Oxford, also spoke to the atmosphere around the camp.
“It’s my second time out,” he said. “It’s really fan friendly. It’s a great experience.”
Fans aren’t without their concerns for the season. There are questions about the team’s depth at linebacker after the injury to Lofa Tatupu, who has since been released, as well as the improvement of teams like the Carolina Panthers in the division.
“You’ve got to worry about the Panthers a little bit,” Conrad said. “But I still feel good about what the Falcons have on the field. I can’t call it a Super Bowl year yet, but I like what they’ve got.”
But Andrews knows where he’d be if the team did make it that far.
“I’d be there,” he said.