Back in the preseason, the Atlanta coaching staff and media relations department were constantly singing the praises of linebacker Sean Weatherspoon.
They would tell anyone who would listen that Weatherspoon was an emerging star, a guy who should be headed to the Pro Bowl for the first time in his three-year career. Nothing really has changed, but there is one guy who doesn’t want to see Weatherspoon in the Pro Bowl.
"I’m trying to get to New Orleans, not Hawaii," Weatherspoon said in a phone interview Wednesday morning.
New Orleans is the site of this season’s Super Bowl. Weatherspoon said he’d be honored if he is elected to the Pro Bowl, but that’s not his ultimate goal. He wants to win a Super Bowl, and that at least looks like a possibility.
The Falcons are 12-2, have already clinched the NFC South and are on pace to be the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. But there are a lot of people out there who think the Falcons will stumble in their first playoff game, the same way they have in three of the past four years.
"No, this is a different team," Weatherspoon said. "We’ve got two new coordinators that have changed a lot of things on both sides of the ball. We’ve got some new players that have helped bring a new attitude to this team. We won a lot of [regular-season] games since I’ve been here, but we want to do more than that. There’s a sense of urgency because we’ve got a lot of older guys like John Abraham, Todd McClure, Mike Peterson and Tony Gonzalez and we want to get them rings. I think that sense of urgency, more than anything, is what makes us a different team from last year or my rookie year."
Weatherspoon also was quick to point to the arrival of veteran cornerback Asante Samuel as another reason the Falcons are a different team. Samuel played on two Super Bowl championship teams in New England, so he knows how to win. But that’s not all that Samuel has brought to the Falcons.
Watch Samuel for just a couple of minutes and it immediately becomes obvious he plays with a swagger.
"Asante is confident and effervescent," Weatherspoon said. "He has a swagger that I think is very healthy for our team."
That swagger might also be contagious. Weatherspoon showed signs he was an emotional guy in his first two seasons. But now he’s developed a swagger of his own.
More than any of the changes he listed above, Weatherspoon might be the single biggest reason the Falcons are a different team this year. If you watched Sunday’s shutout against the New York Giants, you saw Weatherspoon in the middle of just about every play. The game might have been the best defensive performance in franchise history.
Samuel and Abraham still are very productive, but they’re on the downsides of their careers. They remain leaders on the defense, but Weatherspoon has become the unquestioned leader of this defense and the best player on that side of the ball.
Weatherspoon is vocal by nature, but he’s become more so this season. That’s something coach Mike Smith asked for after middle linebacker Curtis Lofton left for New Orleans via free agency. Smith told Weatherspoon he’d be wearing the radio helmet and calling the defensive signals.
"When they put the green dot on the back of your helmet, you have to be vocal," Weatherspoon said. "You can't just talk the talk. You have to go out there and make the plays, too."
Weatherspoon’s been making plenty of plays.
Although he missed three November games with an ankle injury, Weatherspoon has produced 78 tackles, three sacks, one interception and one forced fumble.
"I feel like our defense has gotten better as the season has gone on," Weatherspoon said. "I think I’ve earned the trust of my teammates as a leader. You can’t just walk out there one day and say, 'I'm the leader.' You have to earn it and it’s a process. But I think it’s to the point now where I’m comfortable as a leader and my teammates are comfortable with having me as a leader. They see me playing with confidence and doing my part in studying to make sure we’re always lined up right."
Since Weatherspoon’s return from injury, the defense has held Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin to 50 rushing yards, ended Drew Brees’ streak of consecutive games with a touchdown pass and shut out the Giants.
"I’m still trying to grow as a player and as a leader every week," Weatherspoon said.
When rosters are announced next week, maybe we’ll see that Weatherspoon has grown into a Pro Bowler. But he’d rather miss that game and help the Falcons grow into a Super Bowl champion.