Falcons should be back in playoff hunt

7/7/2006 - Atlanta Falcons

ATLANTA -- For lack of a better handle, and in the absence of creativity while recovering from five days of battling the crazed crowds that packed the Las Vegas hotels and casinos for the Fourth of July weekend, let's call them "rebound" teams.

They are, by the arbitrary definition we've created, franchises that advanced to the playoffs one season, failed to qualify for the Super Bowl tournament the next year but then rebounded into the postseason derby in the third season of the three-year cycle.

Since 1992, the third year of such a cycle after the NFL's adoption of the 12-team playoff format in 1990, there have been 29 rebound teams. In a 14-year span, that's a little more than two per season, and only in 2001 were there no rebound franchises. Ten of the 29 rebound teams since 1992 advanced to the conference championship game. Three rebound teams have gone to the Super Bowl, and one, the New England Patriots in 2003, claimed a championship.

In three of the four campaigns since 2001, there were three rebound teams, and there have been 10 in the past four seasons.

No reason to assume, given the volatility of the NFL and the fact that only four franchises since 2000 have failed to qualify for at least one playoff berth, that there won't be a few rebound teams this season, right?

There are, given the criteria, seven clubs that are candidates for rebound status in 2006: Atlanta, Green Bay, Minnesota, the New York Jets, Philadelphia, St. Louis and San Diego. All made the postseason in 2004, and the Eagles played in Super Bowl XXXIX. All flopped relatively miserably in 2005, with the seven teams averaging only 6.6 victories and three of the clubs finishing in last place in their divisions.

But recent history suggests that, as badly as those seven franchises performed in 2005, some of them will emerge as rebound teams in '06. Our favorite (drumroll, please) for likely rebound status: Although there might be some residual delirium from the 106-degree temperatures that baked Las Vegas the past week (don't ever buy into that hackneyed "but it's a dry heat" malarkey), our choice is the Atlanta Falcons, a club that seems, in our estimation, to have been undersold in the run-up to training camp.

In one of the most anomalous and certainly ignominious records in the history of any professional sport, the Falcons have never posted consecutive winning campaigns in the 40-year history of the franchise. So, which of coach Jim Mora's first two seasons on the job was the aberration? His 2004 debut campaign, in which the Falcons went to the NFC Championship Game? Or the 2005 season, in which the Falcons won only twice in the second half of the year to finish 8-8 and in third place in the NFC South, and in which the engaging but also erratic Mora seemed to be his own worst enemy with a series of sideline meltdowns?

The truth about the Falcons, who are under intense pressure from ownership to win big in 2006, probably lies somewhere in the middle of those two polarized performances. The consequence of owner Arthur Blank's offseason spending and the all the defensive renovations promulgated by general manager Rich McKay and Mora could be, even in what figures to be a fiercely contended NFC South, a rebound return to postseason play.

"I was just a rookie in 2004, and missed a lot of time with injuries, but I don't know that even we believed we were as good as our record said we were that year," Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall said. "And I'm sure none of us believes we were as bad as we played in the second half of last season when nothing went right for us. But I think, coming out of the offseason workouts, we feel good about ourselves. We did a lot of good things in the spring. You sense there's a confidence building up again. There's a feeling that we can really bounce back in a big way."

Uh, for purposes of this story, that's rebound, please, DeAngelo.

Team officials have made no pretense about their lofty expectations for 2006. Although the Falcons seem to be flying under the radar of a lot of pundits, management expects the team to soar, and much of the offseason maneuvering, particularly on the defensive side, was designed to produce immediate results.

The addition of former New York Jets standout end John Abraham, who will team with proven sackmen such as left end Patrick Kerney and under tackle Rod Coleman, should allow the Atlanta front to terrorize quarterbacks. But it's the run defense, where the Falcons statistically ranked an abysmal 26th in the league, that was the unit's most obvious undoing in 2005. And although Abraham is a little stouter versus the run than most credit him with being, he's not a panacea for what most ailed the Falcons' defense last season.

Enter safeties Lawyer Milloy and Chris Crocker, added via free agency and trade, respectively, early in the offseason. Milloy, 32, is not a game-altering defender at this juncture of his career, as evidenced by the 10-year veteran's five takeaways in the past four seasons combined. And Crocker is hardly a ballhawk, either. But if the two simply make the routine plays, especially against the run, the tandem will be a huge improvement over what was one of the NFL's worst safety corps in recent memory in 2005.

An undersized Atlanta front seven also needs beefy middle linebacker Ed Harwell to return whole from the ruptured Achilles tendon that ended his '05 season after just five games. The Falcons also need the veteran to play up to the free-agent contract he received in spring 2005 and to make some tackles, after averaging a fairly disappointing 6.2 per outing last year. Atlanta definitely missed Hartwell, and the defense allowed 133.9 rushing yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry in the 11 full games he was sidelined. But not to be overlooked is that, even when Hartwell was in the lineup, the Falcons were too generous, surrendering an unacceptable 118.0 yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry when he played.

In the secondary, the Falcons added size on the corner by selecting Jimmy Williams in the second round with their first pick in the draft. A former teammate of Hall's at Virginia Tech, the rangy Williams might open the season as a nickel corner, but make no mistake, the coaching staff desperately wants him to oust veteran starter Jason Webster for a full-time job.

Offensively, of course, all eyes will be on quarterback Michael Vick, which is always the case. Vick is a wondrous athlete who has yet to emerge as a polished passer, so the Falcons brought in quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave, the latest mentor who will attempt to fine-tune Vick's mechanics. The Falcons are consummate spin doctors when it comes to handling Vick and any criticism he elicits. When Atlanta is successful, even when Vick is posting mundane numbers, the Falcons brass loves to gloat about his win-loss record. When the offense stagnates, as it frequently does, Mora is prone to grow prickly and irritated and trot out a litany of statistics to publicly defend his team's highest-profile performer.

But as Vick enters his sixth season, it's time for him -- and those who attempt too fervently to insulate him -- to move beyond excuses. And it's time, we think, for the Falcons to return to the playoffs.

Despite the fact the Falcons face eight 2005 playoff teams, including the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, their schedule ranks as just the 15th most difficult in the league. The NFC South has become a challenging division -- remember: Carolina, which advanced to the NFC title game last season and is a chic early choice to represent the conference in Super Bowl XLI, finished as a mere wild card in 2005 and Tampa Bay won the division -- so the Falcons will get an early measure of their worthiness. They face all three divisional foes, including a season opener at Carolina, in their first three outings.

If the Falcons can get off to a good start in the opening month, though, they should gain at least a wild-card entry. And that, by definition, would gain Atlanta entry into the fraternity of rebound teams.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.