The Atlanta Falcons were one of the most explosive teams in the National Football League in 2012, getting off to an undefeated 8-0 start and ultimately finishing with an NFC best 13-3 earning home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
But as far as Falcons fans were concerned, that's where the questions really began.
They knew already that Matt Ryan was an outstanding regular season quarterback, that he could be relied upon to lead one of the most explosive offensive attacks with the likes of Roddy White and rising superstar Julio Jones at wide receiver and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez working the middle.
But throughout the course of his professional career, Ryan's outstanding regular season's have been followed by disappointing playoff appearances.
First, he was outperformed by veteran Kurt Warner of the Arizona Cardinals on his way to Super Bowl XLIII. Then, after a disappointing 2009 season, Ryan led the Falcons to the best record in the NFC in 2010, only to be blown away by Aaron Rodgers on his way to leading the Packers to a Super Bowl title in Super Bowl XLV.
And then there was last season.
Ryan came into the Georgia Dome with an 0-2 playoff record facing perhaps the hottest team in football, the Seattle Seahawks. The Falcons got off to a blazing start, leading 20-0 at halftime only to see rookie Russell Wilson and the upstart 'Hawks storm back with 21 fourth quarter points, keyed by a Ryan interception on his first fourth quarter pass to take a 28-27 with only 31 seconds left to play. It was only a 34 yard kickoff return by Jacquizz Rodgers, a couple of intermediate completions and an ill-fated timeout call by Pete Carroll that negated a missed 49 yard field goal, and finally a made 49 yard field goal by Matt Bryant that kept the Falcons alive and kept Matt Ryan from yet another home playoff defeat and another off season of answering the question, "Can you ever win in the playoffs?".
That elation was short lived however as it was only a week later that "Matty Ice" and the Falcons got off to a 24-14 halftime lead, only to be shutout in the second half and ultimately send their faithful home crying yet again, losing 28-24. Just as in the Seahawks game, Ryan began the second half with an interception, and he followed that with a lost fumble on the Falcons next possession.
So, despite the first playoff victory, the talk of Ryan not being able to win the big one has only grown louder. Even in the victory over the Seahawks, the star of the game wasn't Ryan, it was his counterpart, rookie Russell Wilson who shined in the fourth quarter, while Ryan was barely able to hang on.
And then in the home loss to the Niners, Ryan sparkled in leading the Falcons to 24 first half points, only to get shut out only 30 minutes away from the Super Bowl. In both games, it seemed that the closer Ryan got to victory, the more he seemed determined to give it away. In the second half of both games, the only glimpses of the regular season "Matty Ice" were the two times he took the field on the wrong side of the score, in the first game when he made the two completions to lead them to the game winning field goal, and in the title game after the Niners had taken a 28-24 Ryan led the team down the field 70 yards to the 49ers ten yard line on 7-8 passing.
But then again, when things appeared to be going Atlanta's way, Ryan simply didn't know how to finish, throwing two incompletions on third and four and fourth and four to end the Falcons Super Bowl dreams.
It's baffling...when things are going poorly, that's when Ryan seems to be at his best, with the odds stacked against him, he seems to thrive. It's only when it looks as though he can't fail, that he inexplicably does.
Whether it's a lack of killer instinct, a fear of success, or simply a series of bad luck against red hot teams, Ryan and the Falcons need to figure out this issue and correct it, its the biggest, most pressing question facing the organization going into the 2013 season and beyond.
Here are the other four most pressing questions that the Falcons must answer entering training camp 2013, as they prepare to defend the NFC South division title, and finally, take that final step... to the Promised Land....
1. Can the acquisition of Osi Umenyiora and the holdovers from a season ago adaquotely replace the pass rush provided by veteran John Abraham?
Umenyiora may be five years younger then the departed Abraham, but he has missed far more time in recent years, and hasn't produced at a Pro Bowl level since 2007. Abraham meanwhile has averaged over 11 sacks during the period between 2008 and 2012, including 10 sacks a season ago. Abraham has also been as dependable as they come in answering the bell week in and week out, having only missed two games in that period, while Umenyiora has missed 23 games including all of 2008 with a knee injury. Umenyiora also hasn't been a full time starter in his time with the Giants since 2010, making only eleven starts the past two seasons in New York.
So his ability to replace the game after game, snap after snap production John Abraham provided for Atlanta is very much in question. In New York, even when he was younger and fully healthy, he was never asked to carry the kind of pass rushing load the Falcons hope to get from him in 2013. There was the likes of Justin Tuck, Michael Strahan, and Mathais Kiwanuka to share the pass rushing load with Umenyiora in his early years, and later on Strahan was replaced by the freakishly athletic Jason Pierre-Paul.
Now, Umenyiora at 31 years of age will not have those gifted pass rushers to share the weight with, instead he will share that responsibility with the likes of Ray Edwards on the opposite side, as well as holdover reserve Kroy Biermann. That isn't to say that a resurrection isn't possible for the former Troy University standout. It may be a bit of a longshot in his tenth year in the league at 31 years old, but the physical demands paced on Umenyiora in recent years haven't been all that taxing, meaning his legs could be fresher then that of a typical ten year vet, Umenyiora will also be a far happier camper in Atlanta then he had been for the past few seasons in New York amid contract disputes and trade demands that went unfulfilled by management.
If the fresher legs, and the happier spirit can lead Umenyiora to rediscover the form that made him a Pro Bowler in 2007, he could be the X factor this team needs on the defensive side of the football to take that final step to Super Bowl XLVIII.
2. With nearly 2400 carries under his belt and over 10,000 career rushing yards, can the Falcons ask Steven Jackson to be their undisputed number one running back for a full 16 game season and into the playoffs?
In a word, yes. Jackson was asked to carry an extremely heavy load for the Rams for a number of years simply because there was no other options in St Louis after the final relics from "The Greatest Show on Turf" packed it in for greener pastures, or in most cases, the retirement home. Jackson was asked to carry the football over 250 times in each of the past five season, including two seasons in which he carried it well over 300 times. All this was done behind a subpar offensive line as well as consistent eight man fronts. In other words, Steven Jackson has taken a man sized beating for the better part of the past decade.
So why is the answer to this question yes?
Well, finally Jackson will be in a situation where he won't be the focus of the opposing defense. In fact, playing alongside a passing attack that features a Pro Bowl quarterback like Matt Ryan throwing passes to a the Pro Bowl trio of wide receivers Roddy White, Julio Jones, and tight end Tony Gonzalez, Steven Jackson will be something he has never been since he was spelling Marshall Faulk as a rookie back in 2004, he will be an afterthought. Now for most 10,000 yard running backs, the idea of being anything but the number one offensive option may be too much for their egos to handle.
But after the pounding Jackson has taken over the past eight seasons behind a less then stellar offensive line and a far less then spectacular passing game to draw defensive attention away from him, the idea of not seeing constant eight man fronts, of being able to stay healthy and fresh well into January, and of actually playing meaningful football when January rolls around all have to make the 29 year old Jackson feel like he's 22 again. Even the presense of third year running back Jacquizz Rodgers has to be a welcome sight to Jackson as well.
He may not be the center of attention that he was for the Rams, but at this point in the running back's career, that's not what it's about. It's about staying healthy, it's about prolonging his career, and most importantly, its about winning, more specifically winning a championship, something Jackson hasnt even sniffed since his very early days in St Louis. Make no mistake about it, Jackson coming to Atlanta wasn't just a case of taking his talents to the highest bidder, it was a case of the perfect marriage between player and team.
The Falcons provide Jackson with everything he needs to get the most out of the twilight of his career, and in turn, Jackson provides the Falcons with a running back whose reputation forces defenses to defend Atlanta's explosive passing attack honestly, and whose tools are still sharp enough to make the opposition pay on the ground when they don't.
3. Is there a reliable option at quarterback should Matt Ryan be lost to injury?
In a word...no. Or at least as far as we know that's the answer. That's because the Falcons as of this publication, will enter training camp with second year quarterback Dominique Davis as number two on the depth chart and rookie seventh round pick Sean Renfree out of Duke battling fellow rookie Seth Doege, who wnet undrafted out of Texas Tech in the battle for number three.
The one thing that all three backups have in common is their NFL experience, or lack thereof. Davis spent 2012 as the number three quarterback behind Ryan and veteran Luke McCown, never spending a single week as anything other then the inactive emergency signal caller after making the squad as an undrafted free agent out of East Carolina. Now Davis did show some impressive flashes last preseason, you don't make a team as an undrafted rookie if you don't. But it's one thing to complete a few passes and make a few plays in garbage time of the preseason, it's something entirely different to be thrown into the fire as the starter for the defending NFC South champs, leading a huddle that features the likes of Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, and Steven Jackson.
Can a team on the cusp of a Super Bowl really go into a season with only one quarterback on the roster who's taken an NFL snap?
It appears the Falcons will give Davis every opportunity to prove he's ready for such a role. Look for him to get about as much playing time in the preseason as any quarterback in the NFL. The Falcons will need to know after that fourth preseason game, whether Davis is a viable option, or if they have to go shopping off the scrap heap for a veteran clipboard holder.
It's not an impossibility that Sean Renfree could end up as the number two as well, after all we saw a third round rookie come out of nowhere to win a first string job in Seattle last year, so why can't a seventh round rookie win a second string gig this year, especially when the competion for the role has just as much meaningful playing experience at this level as he does? Don't forget, Renfree is a Duke educated kid, and he enters the league with a reputation for being highly intelligent as well as fundamentally sound.
He may not have the strongest of arms, but he was highly productive at Duke because he got the ball out on time, and had a knack for reading defenses and throwing his receiver open, a talent you usually don't see from first year quarterbacks. The book on Renfree was that he probably lacked the physical tools to ever be a starter at the NFL level, but he had the cerebrel tools, and love for playing, and more importantly preparing to play to be an ideal long term backup.
The Falcons didn't just draft Renfree on a whim, there was a reason behind the pick. They certainly saw something in the former Blue Devil to bring him into the fold, and to use a draft pick to do so. Look for Dominique Davis to get first crack at the number two gig, but make no mistake about, he will definitely have to earn it as I can't imagine his edge over Renfree will be that significant at the outset of camp. Don't forget, the Falcons invested a draft choice in Renfree this year, while Davis joined the team as an undrafted free agent.
The most important thing the Falcons have to remember though, is that it's not just an either/or situation. If neither of these two young signal callers proves himself capable of leading the team on a potentially long term basis, it would behoove the organization to go after a stopgap veteran. While the pickings on the scrap heap may be slim entering training camp, you can rest assured there will be at least a handful of quarterbacks with more NFL experience then Davis and Renfree that will be let go by final cutdown day.
So Davis and Renfree will not only be judged against one another, but also against a select group of backup's that the Falcons pro scouting department zeros in on.
My guess?...I believe that the number two quarterback on the depth chart come opening weekend for the Falcons is not yet on the Falcons roster. My belief is that the pro scouting department in Atlanta is zeroing in on a group of backups from other teams that they feel have to the potential to be let go, or at the very least be made available for trade come final cutdown day. My opinion is it will take a special performance from Dominique Davis to earn that number two job, and I simply don't see that kind of performance coming from him.
Unfortunately for Davis, I also believe he faces an uphill battle simply making the roster after the teams seventh round investment in Renfree. I believe Renfree was drafted to be the backup QB if the future, the only question is whether that future will begin next year, or a year or two from now.
4. With the retirement of center Todd McClure and the release of right tackle Tyson Clabo, who's going to start where along the offensive line, and what kind of effect will the changes have on the offense as a whole?
During the Falcons "State of the Franchise" fan event that took place in May, Head coach Mike Smith addressed the changes along the offensive line and offered no concrete answers, and no firm promises other then... "...open, Big competition with the offensive line". According to Smith, Peter Konz, the second year linemen out of Wisconsin will move out of the right guard spot he filled in 2012 to his more natural, collegiate position of center, where he's considered the favorite to beat out fourth year player Joe Hawley. With Konz moving inside to center, the right guard position also becomes up for grabs and will likely come down to Mike Johnson, a former third round pick out of Alabama entering his third year in the league, and Garrett Reynolds, a five year veteran who started five games at the position a season ago.
Now the man who wins the job at guard will depend somewhat on who ends up starting one spot over at right tackle. With Tyson Clabo having been released, second year man Lamar Holmes is viewed as the ideal candidate. He was a third round pick out of Southern Mississippi in 2012 and at 6'5 324 lbs he's has the prototypical frame and long arms to be an ideal starter at the right tackle position. There are questions however regarding his footwork as well as his somewhat soft temperment, and if the coaching staff feels he still needs to work those issues out before trotting him out with the starting offensive line, the starting gig at tackle will go to Mike Johnson, meaning Garrett Reynolds will win the starting job at right guard pretty much by default.
Mike Smith didn't come out and say it, but judging upon the players ages, and draft positions, it's pretty safe to say the Falcons brass is hoping it shakes out as Holmes winning the job at right tackle, and Johnson winning the job inside at guard, however it wouldn't be the worst thing either if Reynolds beat out Johnson at guard since it would allow the Falcons to have Johnson backup both positions on the right side.
No matter how it plays out, to expect a lack of growing pains when you have three new players starting at different positions along the offensive line, is expecting an awful lot. There's little doubt that in the short term as well as the long term, Peter Konz is a better fit as the starting center as opposed to starting at right guard. Time finally ran out on longtime starter Todd McClure at center and while the team may miss his leadership, Konz represents a major upgrade from an athletic standpoint.
As far as the other two positions, Garrett Reynolds is a journeymen linemen, if he's your starter, you probably want to do better, but he won't kill if you give him the proper help and support. The Falcons want to see Johnson and Holmes step up and claim the jobs as their own, in particular Holmes, who's long arms and pass blocking skills make him the ideal right tackle for a pass first team such as the Falcons. Mike Johnson was regarded as a potential plug and play guard when he was drafted in the third round out of Alabama in 2009, but his career up until now has been somewhat of a disappointment.
Reynolds may be the more complete player at this point, but if Johnson can beat him out, it would be great news for new running back Steven Jackson, as Johnson is probably the nastiest run blocking interior linemen on the ball club, and with the departure of Tyson Clabo, who was pretty much regarded as the unit's enforcer, Johnson's mauling style could bring a welcome influx of nastiness to an otherwise soft front five for the Falcons.