FLOWERY BRANCH — Dripping with sweat after a two-hour practice, Tony Gonzalez couldn’t keep a smile off his face.
While most 14-year veterans scoff at participating in training camp runs in near 100-degree weather, Gonzalez said “it is what it is,” and that the heat is “just a side note” on what the Falcons are hoping to achieve in 2010.
“We’re out here trying to get better because we have something special,” said the Falcons tight end who had 83 receptions for 867 yards and six touchdowns in his first season with the team last year.
“I’m excited as I’ve ever been and there’s no reason why we can’t be a highly competitive team in this league,” he added. “Our goal is to make it to the Super Bowl, and I don’t think there’s a problem with saying that.”
Fresh off their first back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history, the Falcons opened training camp Friday with a healthy roster and high expectations.
“The biggest thing for us is to stay healthy, especially the first 10 days of training camp,” third-year head coach Mike Smith said. “The other thing is we have to continue to advance both offensively and defensively in what we’re trying to do schematically.
“We’ve made a lot of subtle adjustments in Year 3,” he added. “The playbook has gotten bigger and we’ll continue to work in those areas (that need improvement).”
A larger playbook means more work for third-year quarterback Matt Ryan, who burst on to the scene with a remarkable rookie season but was hampered by a toe injury last year.
“It’s all about fine tuning what we’re good at,” Ryan said of the expanded game plan. “There’s some additions here and there, and some subtractions as well, but all-in-all I think we’re pretty comfortable with what we do.”
Ryan, who threw two interceptions during some team drills, had every skill position player at his disposal Friday and consistently found Gonzalez, Michael Jenkins and Harry Douglas, who was participating in his first practice since injuring his knee during last year’s training camp.
“Harry worked so hard this offseason,” said Ryan, who threw for nearly 3,000 yards and 22 touchdowns in 14 games last year. “He had a huge smile on his face this morning because all the hard work paid off and he’s back to doing what he loves to do.”
The same can be said about 2009 first-round pick Peria Jerry, who missed the remainder of last season after suffering an injury in the second game of the year. Douglas, Jerry, 2009 second-round pick William Moore and veteran Brian Williams, all participated in Friday’s first practice and will be managed closely according to Smith.
“The plan is for them to practice once a day and do walk-throughs in the afternoon,” Smith said. “Hopefully in the next few weeks we’ll be able to increase the workload.”
Staying healthy is important for the Falcons, but the team’s success might be determined by Ryan, Gonzalez, Roddy White and the rest of the playmakers.
“The first thing you have to have is talent, and we have talent,” Gonzalez said. “A lot of the guys are hitting that third or fourth year and coming into their own and our quarterback is one of them.”
Ryan spent the offseason watching film in order to elevate his game and the team’s success.
“There’s a number of things we need to improve on, but the biggest thing is consistency,” Ryan said. “We need to be more consistent on first and second down, we need to be more consistent on third down and in the red zone.
“Those are all things we’re going to work really hard at.”
Atlanta will need more consistency if it hopes to keep pace with the New Orleans Saints, a division rival who won the Super Bowl last season. The Falcons were 0-2 against the Saints last season.
“I think it’s the best thing that could happen because it’s a measuring stick,” Gonzalez said of playing in the same division as the defending champions. “I think it was a measuring stick last year because both those games we could have won, there’s no doubt about it.
“Playing them twice is only a plus for us,” he added. “The championship goes through them and we’ll see how we do against them this year.”