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Holloway: One step forward, two steps back
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Unless your paychecks come from an NFL franchise or you’re sitting on the No. 1 draft pick in your fantasy football keeper league, you’re not going to get much out of most preseason games.

They’ll hold you over till the real games start and give you something to talk about, if not much of substance.

But in so many ways, this year for the Falcons feels different.

The final scores of these games still don’t matter -- for a franchise that needs hope, last week’s 20-17 "loss" to Jacksonville felt as much like a win as any. Against somebody else’s defensive starters, Matty Franchise looked NFL-ready. Michael Turner looked worth the money. The Generation Y defensive backfield held up admirably.

If you were looking for reasons to believe, they were there.

But NFL reality is harsh.

Cast a cynical eye and the Falcons look more like this:

At quarterback they’ve got a rookie, a former insurance salesman and first-round bust. (Sorry Dawg fans. D.J. Shockley might make the team, but he’s not in the discussion when it comes to who starts.)

There’s also no running back with a full season’s worth of NFL carries; an offensive line that gave up too many sacks in 2007 and couldn’t clear a running lane wide enough for a Chinese gymnast; a defense that ranked 29th in the league last year; and the only cornerback on the roster with more than a year of NFL experience is a guy named Blue.

The Falcons aren’t irredeemable, but there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical, and the regression they showed Saturday night only serves as reinforcement.

The drive at the end of the first half sums it up. Ryan looked jittery, but he was moving the ball - from his own 6 to the Colts’ 46. Especially impressive, because before Ryan entered, the Falcons hadn’t converted on a third down.

Then with the team approaching field goal position, the rookie quarterback performed like one. He stared down a comeback route that was intended for Brian Finneran, but ended up a touchdown for Indianapolis cornerback Kelvin Hayden.

A red zone interception early in the fourth quarter that killed an efficient Chris Redman-led drive is another example.

So it went Saturday night, and so the season is bound to go.

Like coach Mike Smith said about his team, "This is part of the process that we’re going through," and about his quarterback, "He’s going to have ups and downs as he goes through the maturation process."

For every long run by Turner, there’s a loss on third and short. You can cut down on penalties of mental lapse, but that’s negated when you’re flagged for emotional outbursts - like when Roddy White got tagged Saturday with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for throwing a tantrum after Ryan’s pick six.

Improvement - that’s to say more than four wins - isn’t out of the question for this year’s Falcons. The talent in the NFL is too evenly distributed to say such a modest mark is out of reach for any team at this point in the season. But if the Falcons end up fielding a better product in 2008, it’ll come with two promising steps forward, followed by one or two frustrating steps back.

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