FLOWERY BRANCH — Optimism for the opening of Atlanta Falcons training camp isn’t really a new concept. Even during the down years as the organization went through summer practices in Suwanee, fans would show up for the opening of camp with the thought maybe that would be the year the Falcons would head in the right direction.
However, the savvy bunch that makes up the Falcons fan base doesn’t simply have to hope for a favorable outcome after the franchise went 9-7 in 2009, achieving back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history. Now, fans show up to Flowery Branch for training camp to see the tweaks in personnel designed to make the team even more competitive, especially playing in the NFC Southern Division with the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints.
“I’ve heard the “S” Word floating around here today (referring to Super Bowl aspirations),” said Tim Knowlton, of Duluth, who traveled to Flowery Branch for Day 1 of training camp. He was accompanied by his brother-in-law, Travis Moore, from Collegedale, Tenn. They were back for the day’s second practice session after taking in the morning practice.
Moore, donning a Falcons cap signed by some of his favorite players, and Knowlton arrived early Friday afternoon to get a seat lining the practice field, despite a temperature reading in the high 90’s in South Hall. However, cost efficiency is one of the nicest perks for fans to watch practice on days that it is open to the public, avoiding ticket prices that come with catching a regular-season game at the Georgia Dome.
“The best part is that it’s free,” said Alex Hughes, of Byron, who made the drive up from middle Georgia. He was most excited to see Matt Ryan up close, while his son, Devin Hughes, was eager to see running back Michael Turner.
“It’s worth the long drive to get to see the team up close,” said Devin, a rising freshman and football player at Houston County High. “We got a really good seat and I’m here to see how much the team has improved.”
Fans willing to put up with excruciating heat were all of the same mind that the Falcons are headed in the right direction, which isn’t unexpected since training camp spectators are usually the heartiest of fans. The first fans to walk in the gates Friday afternoon, one hour before practice opened, were inclined to line the row along the practice field and closest to the action, rather than shaded spots away from the action.
“Everything seems extremely positive around the Falcons,” said Moore. “There are big expectations now and they are bringing in more star players.
“I appreciate what the franchise is doing.”
Fans also have confidence that the brass in the organization is pulling the right strings. Thomas Dimitroff is viewed as a “hands on” type administrator and is right there in the middle of the action during practice. This is also season three for coach Mike Smith, quarterback Matt Ryan and the nucleus they’ve built around them.
“Matty Ice has a couple years under his belt and this is going to be the best team they’ve had in years,” said Tammy Denmon, of Cleveland.
Even Super Bowl good?
“They’re going to go all the way this year,” said her husband, Mel Denmon. “Mike Smith is one of the best coaches in the league now.”
Mel Denmon is such a loyal fan he now wears his affection for the team on his body — permanently. After returning from vacation in Florida, he decided to get a Falcon clinging to a goal post tattooed on his left bicep.
Along with a stable front office making the right moves, fans are also pleased with the player acquisitions, whether by means of free agency or draft. Even though the Falcons shelled out big bucks to acquire cornerback Dunta Robinson (six years, $57 million), fans seemed to like the move to tighten up a previously vulnerable secondary. Last year, Atlanta ranked 28th in the league in pass defense.
The Falcons’ draft selections also received a positive response from fans. Knowlton sees first-round pick Sean Weatherspoon, a linebacker, fitting in immediately. Moore was equally pleased with the addition of offensive lineman Mike Johnson in the third round out of the University of Alabama, last year’s national champions. If any one pick struck them as questionable, it was defensive lineman Corey Peters from Kentucky in the third round.
“Overall, the team is making the right moves,” Moore said. “This is a team that’s fun to root for.”
The biggest hurdle to enjoying a Falcons practice in person is battling the heat. However, finding a place to buy cold drinks is never a challenge at the Falcons’ complex.
Those in attendance also came equipped with motorized fans, sunscreen and hats to stay cool and cut down on the chances of a painful sunburn.
“We’re huge Falcons fans,” Tammy Denmon said. “We were ready for the start of training camp.”