Postcard from camp: Falcons
Having never had back-to-back winning seasons, Falcons face challenge in '09
Vet John Abraham is taking on a mentoring role with five new defensive starters
Landing Tony Gonzalez isn't the only big moves Atlanta made in the offseason
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Andrew Lawrence had to say about the Falcons' camp in Flowery Branch, Ga. For an archive of all the camp postcards, click here.
Setting the Scene
The Falcons camp at their facility in Flowery Branch, Ga., and anybody who doesn't think this is getting away has clearly never been to Flowery Branch. The bedroom community is about 50 miles northeast of downtown Atlanta, which likely puts the Falcons among the teams farthest away from their representative city. Still, that's not to say the hour-plus drive isn't worth making.
1. Remember the name Eric Weems. No doubt Harry Douglas' season-ending left ACL injury deals a significant blow to the offense. But if there's a guy who could step up in his place, it's Weems. Though a mite undersized at 5-foot-9 and 194 pounds, Weems has good speed, great hands and isn't afraid to mix it up with DBs. Many of the highlight catches I saw in the two days I was in camp belonged to him. His best came on an under thrown deep comeback route. Didn't catch the number on the DB who was playing tight on Weems' back, but when he got a hand on the ball, Weems wrestled it away at the last second for a completion on the left sideline.
In his second year out of Bethune-Cookman, Weems was a star in practice and a special teams standout for the Falcons last year. It's unlikely Weems will beat out NFC Central alums Marty Booker and Robert Ferguson for the No. 3 job, but if he keeps practicing at such a high intensity, it won't be long before he sees more time on the field. When he does, watch out. (So far, he has one career catch for four yards.)
2. John Abraham is old, but with age comes wisdom. Yeah, the 31-year-old defensive end gets a lot of the old guy perks -- like not having to practice the second half of two-a-days -- but it's only because they keep him playing young. He proved as much last year when he played half as many snaps but was twice as effective, registering a career-high 16.5 sacks. But with five veteran starters gone from last year's defense, Abraham is doing more mentoring than resting in his downtime these days. "I have no choice," he said. "I'm old as hell."
Abraham carried a reputation as being a bad locker room guy when he came to the Falcons via trade from the Jets two years ago. There's been no such talk since he's been in red and black. He spends a lot of time talking to the Falcons' young players. But nothing he says to them resonates as much as his mere presence on the field. "When I was a rookie, I looked up to a lot of players," he said. "They might not have been great leaders, but you know if a guy is 31 years old and he's been in the league 10 years, 11 years, he's gotta be doing something right. I've known better athletes than me. I've known people that have done a lot better things, made more money -- but they're not in the league right now."
3. If past is prologue, then the Falcons are in for a horrible '09. Atlanta has never in its 43 years had consecutive winning seasons. The closest the Falcons came was in 2005, when they went 8-8 after winning 11 games and reaching the conference championship the year before. Besides that, it's all deep valleys, with the odd sharp peak. In 1998 the Falcons went from 7-9 to 14-2 and the Super Bowl. The next year they went 5-11.
What's to prevent history from repeating? Roddy White's positive outlook, for one. "We've got talent," he said. Still, he acknowledges the NFL's schedule-makers haven't done his team any favors, sticking the Falcons with the fourth-toughest slate. "They gave us Jets, Patriots, Buffalo," said White, adding that getting off to a fast start will be key. "That's the biggest thing. If we can just go out there and execute and have our tempo right, we'll score a lot of points and win."
New Face, New Place
For as big a boon as the trade for All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez gives the offense, the addition of linebacker Mike Peterson figures to be just as huge for the Falcons D, the league's ninth-worst last season. Not only will the 11th-year vet have no problem transitioning into the Falcons' Cover-2, as he's played in the scheme his entire career with the Colts and Jaguars (whom he led in tackles last year with 84), but also he returns to outside linebacker. He started his career there in Indy, and then moved inside in Jacksonville. "I'm loving it," Peterson said of going back outside. "I'm telling everybody that's pretty much where I made my money. Now I'm back home, in familiar territory."
If you're looking to figure out why the Falcons got rid of five of their defensive starters, look no further than their rookies in their secondary. Between hard-hitting safety William Moore (Missouri), Chris Owens (San Jose State) and William Middleton (Furman), the Falcons don't lack for speed, range and aggressiveness -- the three areas general manager Thomas Dimitroff thought needed the most shoring up. The improvement was obvious in camp. Of the three teams I visited, the Falcons' easily featured the most strips, interceptions and pass deflections. "I'm just encouraged by the way that defense is flying around," Dimitroff said. "They have a little bit of a swagger about them."
Probably the one tacked on the back wall of Dimitroff's office, of his son, Mason, at 18 months, meditating in the lotus position. "Honest to god we did not push his legs up like that," Dimitroff said. "He was doing yoga with my wife, she was just like, 'Do an Om. Relax.' And he watched her pull her legs up and did it." But as Mason has gotten older, Dimitroff has found it harder to get him to sit still. "It's funny, he's at that age now where he's in the terrible twos," he said. "He's not taking deep breaths as much anymore."
Given the abundance of platooning in the NFL, I asked Dimitroff how long it would be before teams started platooning cornerbacks in red zone and goal line situations the way they do linemen. (Maybe use smaller corners beyond the 20-yard-line and sub in taller ones as you get closer, to protect against fade patterns and the like.) Here's what he said: "I think the concept sounds interesting and creative, but I think people will realize that quickly. If they see that big corner out there who's a jump ball guy, they'll multi-move him with someone like Wes Welker inside. I don't necessarily see it going that way."
Part of the Falcons walkthrough practice before last Saturday's preseason game at the Lions featured a receiving drill for the offensive linemen. There were a lot of one-handed attempts -- and plenty of drops.
For all of you Wii gamers out there, Gonzalez's new fitness and nutrition book, The All-Pro Diet, has a chart breaking down each sport by calories burned per minute. The most intense is boxing, at 7.2 cal/min; the least is golf, at 2.3. As a comparison, a treadmill set at 1.0 mile an hour at no incline will burn 2.6 calories per minute...