NFC South: Ray Edwards

julio JonesAP Photo/Dave MartinStar WR Julio Jones helps make Atlanta's roster one of the NFL's most talented from top to bottom.
From the outside, the Atlanta Falcons might appear to be sitting on a splendid perch.

They’re coming off a 13-3 season and they have a roster stocked with extraordinary talent from veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez right down to rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant. When the preseason predictions start coming out in another month or so, the Falcons are going to be a trendy Super Bowl pick, and that’s totally logical.

From the inside, I get the sense the Falcons are confident, but not totally comfortable with where they’re sitting. That’s probably because they’ve been here before.

It’s fresh in the minds of general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith because it wasn’t that long ago. In 2010, the Falcons went 13-3 and seemed to be just a player or two away from the Super Bowl.

The Falcons certainly thought so. They went out and signed free-agent defensive end Ray Edwards and made a huge trade on draft day to get receiver Julio Jones. But the Falcons quickly learned that if you spend too much time and resources on fixing what was broken in the past, you can take your eye off the present and the future.

That’s what happened in the 2011 season. The Falcons stumbled to a 2-3 start. They finished 10-6, but the New Orleans Saints ran away with the NFC South title. Atlanta got a wild-card berth in the playoffs and got thumped 24-2 by the New York Giants.

Before the dust from that loss settled, coordinators Mike Mularkey and Brian VanGorder were gone. Their replacements, Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan, came in and helped set the stage for a bounce right back to 13-3.

But now comes the next step, and that’s why the Falcons shouldn’t be feeling too comfortable.

[+] EnlargeThomas Dimitroff
AP Photo/Greg TrottCoach Mike Smith, center, and GM Thomas Dimitroff focused on making the Falcons younger in key areas this offseason.
Will history repeat itself? Will the Falcons take another step back at a time when they appear poised to take a giant leap forward?

I don’t think history will repeat itself, mainly because the Falcons learned from their mistakes of 2011 and they’re taking a different approach this time around.

The most significant quote I heard this offseason was when Smith said the Falcons were 10 yards away from the Super Bowl last year, but they’re starting at 0-0 in 2013. Smith drilled that message into his team during the offseason program.

That type of self-awareness is nothing but a good thing. It’s hard just to win a game in the NFL. The Falcons have to go out and work as hard, or harder, than last year if they expect a similar season. Actually, they need to expect more. They need to expect a Super Bowl championship.

Blowing a 17-point lead to San Francisco at home in the NFC Championship Game wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t good enough for Smith and Dimitroff and it certainly wasn’t good enough for owner Arthur Blank.

I’m not subscribing to the theory of some who believe Smith needs to win a Super Bowl or Blank will clean house. Blank’s too smart for that. He realizes he has an excellent combination in Smith and Dimitroff. But expectations are justifiably high, and it wouldn’t reflect well on Smith or Dimitroff if the Falcons end up taking a step back.

There’s a reason why I don’t think the Falcons will take a step back. It’s because Smith and Dimitroff didn’t resort to the same gold-rush attitude that they did after the 2010 season. Blame a big part of that on Edwards, who ended up being perhaps the biggest free-agent bust in NFC South history. I think Smith and Dimitroff would make the Jones trade all over again, but that’s a once-in-a-career type of deal.

Dimitroff and Smith did go out and fix one major problem area from last year. They let aging running back Michael Turner go and replaced him with a slightly younger Steven Jackson. That alone should give a huge boost to an Atlanta offense that didn’t have even the threat of a running game last year.

But, more than that, I like the fact that Smith and Dimitroff were proactive. They let a still-productive John Abraham go and replaced him with a slightly younger Osi Umenyiora. They let veteran cornerback Dunta Robinson go and went out and drafted Trufant (yes, they traded up for him, but it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as the Jones trade) and Robert Alford.

Although adding veteran defensive tackle Richard Seymour still might be a possibility (at the right price), Smith and Dimitroff avoided going for quick fixes and big names this time around. They let veteran right tackle Tyson Clabo go, and center Todd McClure retired.

Sure, it’s a little scary having two new starters on an offensive line. But the Falcons have invested draft picks in the likes of Peter Konz, Mike Johnson and Lamar Holmes in recent years. It’s time to get them on the field.

That’s the way you fix things for the long term -- by making deliberate and calculated moves instead of moves that smack of desperation.

That’s how you take a step forward and not a step back.
Matt RyanAP Photo/Dave MartinMatt Ryan quieted his critics after winning a playoff game, but there's still more left to accomplish.
It’s time for the Atlanta Falcons' Class of 2008 to move on past graduate school and get the most advanced of degrees.

Almost a year ago, I wrote a column about how the members of that draft class were headed for a crucial season that could define them individually and collectively. They passed the test with flying colors, winning a playoff game for the first time and coming within 10 yards of a Super Bowl appearance.

This draft class now seems destined to be one of the best in NFC South history. Let’s check in on Atlanta’s Class of 2008 to see where its members are and where they might be going.

Quarterback Matt Ryan is the face of this class. He was selected with the third pick overall, and he was good right from the start. Ryan was calm and poised as a rookie and did lots of nice things in the following years.

But entering last season, Ryan’s career had hit a bit of a lull. The critics who said that Ryan couldn’t win the big one were getting louder. That theory was supported by the fact Ryan never had won a playoff game, despite leading the Falcons to winning records in each of his first four seasons.

So Ryan went out and set career highs in passing yards (4,719), completion percentage (68.6) and touchdown passes (32) as the Falcons cruised to a 13-3 season in 2012. Then he got the biggest win of his career, leading the Falcons to a playoff victory against Seattle.

If you didn’t think Ryan was paying attention to the talk about his previous playoff frustrations, his uncharacteristic emotional reaction at the end of the Seattle game told you something about the quarterback’s intensity.

I was stunned as I stood in the tunnel near the Falcons’ locker room that day and saw and heard Ryan running off the field repeatedly pumping his fist. I was even more stunned as Ryan, who normally is very soft-spoken, got closer and I could hear him repeatedly yelling in happiness.

The joy ended a week later with a close loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. That brought back some of the critics, but I see nothing but a bright future for Ryan. The victory against Seattle took a lot of weight off his shoulders. He’s likely to get a contract extension later this offseason, and I expect his next five years to be even better than his first five.

“It takes so much more than just Matt Ryan to finish plays, especially down the stretch," Atlanta receiver Roddy White said in a "First Take" interview Wednesday. "You can’t just put it on the quarterback and say, 'You have to make this one play to get over the hump.' It has to be me. It has to be Julio [Jones]. It has to be Tony [Gonzalez]. We have to go out there and make those plays to make it easier on Matt Ryan."

White’s right. But it’s not just White, Jones and Gonzalez who have to help Ryan take the next step. He needs help from the guys from his own draft class, and they all seem to be on the upswing.

[+] EnlargeThomas DeCoud
AP Photo/John BazemoreThomas DeCoud, a '12 Pro Bowler, has solidified Atlanta's secondary as a much-improved group.
Take left tackle Sam Baker, who also was chosen in the first round in 2008. Through much of his first four years, Baker dealt with injuries and was maligned by fans for his inconsistent play. In 2011, he lost his starting job.

But the Falcons stood by Baker. He got healthy and turned in a stellar 2012 season that earned him a new contract. Some people might say it was a one-season wonder, but I think Baker can play like that every year if he stays healthy.

Then there’s wide receiver Harry Douglas, a third-round pick in 2008. He’s carved a nice niche as Atlanta’s slot receiver and could deliver even more big plays in the future with defenses focused on White, Gonzalez and Jones. But Douglas wasn’t even the gem of the third round for the Falcons.

That turned out to be safety Thomas DeCoud. He made the Pro Bowl last season, and he and William Moore are starting to get recognition as one of the league’s best safety tandems.

And let’s not forget defensive end Kroy Biermann, a fifth-round pick in 2008. Biermann once was best known for being married to one of the stars of "The Real Housewives of Atlanta." But he made his presence felt on the field last season.

Biermann beat out free-agent bust Ray Edwards, produced four sacks, showed the ability to drop into zone coverage and had a big impact on special teams.

We also have to mention linebacker Curtis Lofton, a second-round pick in 2008. He gave the Falcons four very nice years before bolting to New Orleans as a free agent last offseason.

The Class of 2008 validated itself last season. But there’s still a little more this class can do.

The unquestioned best draft class in NFC South history came in 1995, when Tampa Bay landed Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks. They helped turn around a downtrodden franchise and led the Bucs to a Super Bowl championship in the 2002 season.

Sapp will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer, and Brooks almost certainly will follow him next year. In hindsight, that was a magical draft for Tampa Bay.

But maybe Atlanta’s Class of 2008 will be viewed in a similar manner someday. When Ryan and company arrived in Atlanta, the Falcons were coming off the Bobby Petrino and Michael Vick fiascos. The class quickly helped turn a franchise around.

The next step is to win a Super Bowl, maybe even more than one. If the Falcons can do that, their Class of 2008 has a chance to enter the argument with Sapp and Brooks as the best in NFC South history.

Panthers need to utilize RBs

April, 4, 2013
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DeAngelo Williams/Jonathan StewartAl Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesDeAngelo Williams, left, and Jonathan Stewart led the NFL's most expensive backfield last season.
It’s Trivia Thursday, so let’s jump straight to the question.

What NFC South unit in 2012 was the most overpriced and underutilized, and helped get a general manager fired?

The answer is the Carolina Panthers’ backfield. Yes, in 2012, the trio of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert was more useless and more expensive than even former Atlanta defensive end Ray Edwards.

That’s saying a lot because Edwards, who the Falcons dumped midway through last season, will go down as one of the all-time busts in division history. The difference is the situation with Edwards, who was messing with locker room chemistry, moved past the point where it could be repaired.

Carolina’s backfield still has a shot at redemption. A very good shot. For that to happen, though, coach Ron Rivera and his staff need to let Williams, Stewart and Tolbert be running backs, and let quarterback Cam Newton be a quarterback.

“That's something we have to work on," Rivera said when asked about his situation at running back during the recent NFL owners meetings. “We've been talking about that. We reviewed the season, looked at how things unfolded. We have to find a way to really be able to rotate those guys and make sure everybody's getting enough quality touches. We'll continue to try to develop it, because our running back position is loaded, and at the end of the year we had a lot of success with it. So, we've got to make sure we find the right formula."

The formula shouldn’t be that difficult to find, because the talent is there. Williams and Stewart are very good tailbacks (with first-round draft status and 1,000-yard seasons on their résumés) and Tolbert can make an impact at tailback and fullback. Rivera and his staff simply have to let Williams, Stewart and Tolbert run.

But that was a problem last season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Panthers used a league-high $15.3 million in salary-cap space on running backs. But Newton ended up leading the team in rushing, yards per rush, runs of 20 yards or more, and rushing touchdowns.

For reasons that never have been fully explained, the Panthers came out of the gate last year letting Newton run the read option and ignoring the power-running game. It would have been one thing if that was translating into wins, but it wasn’t.

The Panthers lost six of their first seven games, and general manager Marty Hurney was fired in October. It’s easy to look at the backfield and Carolina’s salary-cap situation and blame all the Panthers’ problems on Hurney.

But shouldn’t Hurney, Rivera and the rest of the coaching staff have been on the same page when Williams was given a huge contract coming out of the 2011 lockout, when Stewart was given a big extension last summer and when Tolbert was signed as a free agent from San Diego last offseason? Shouldn’t it have been automatic that all three would get plenty of touches?

That didn’t happen, and here’s another stat for you: The Panthers spent $12,179 per rushing yard by their running backs last season. Only Jacksonville ($12,402) spent more per yard, and the Jaguars finished 2-14.

The Panthers finished 7-9, but that’s only because they started to change their offense in the second half of the season. They won five of their final six games because they went back to the power-running game. Williams had 210 yards in the season finale against New Orleans.

Rivera and new offensive coordinator Mike Shula need to keep that in mind, or else they’ll end up following Hurney out the door. I’m not saying the Panthers need to go back to the John Fox days and bring back Nick Goings to run draw plays on third-and-long. But there needs to be a little balance to this offense.

I’m not saying the Panthers should completely scrap the read-option. Newton is a threat any time the Panthers even give a read-option look. But when Newton’s a threat too often, Williams, Stewart and Tolbert aren’t threats at all.

They’re way too talented to waste another season. Besides, Rivera, who barely survived last season, needs to win this year.

The way to do that is to let Williams, Stewart and Tolbert run. Newton can run a little from time to time to keep defenses off balance, but the guy has an incredible arm, and the Panthers need to let him focus on being a quarterback.

Let the running backs do the running, and everything else will fall into place.

Around the NFC South

March, 16, 2013
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Time for a look at some odds and ends from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Running back Steve Jackson said he considered retiring before signing with the Falcons. Jackson said the opportunity to play for a team with a shot at a Super Bowl is what attracted him. But let’s be careful not to call Jackson “the missing piece.’’ The last guy to have that tag in Atlanta was Ray Edwards, and that clearly didn’t work out. But I think Jackson has a much better chance at being successful than Edwards did.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

The team had offensive lineman Chris Williams in for a visit. Williams was a first-round pick in 2008, but never has lived up to his hype. Still, he’s worth a look, because the Panthers are short on depth on the offensive line.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Free-agent linebacker Victor Butler left a visit to Pittsburgh without signing a contract. That means New Orleans now becomes a possibility. Butler spent two seasons playing for New Orleans defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, and could help speed up the transition to the 3-4 defense.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

The Bucs reportedly have signed tight end Tom Crabtree from Green Bay. He doesn’t have a big history as a pass-catcher, but he gives the Bucs some depth at tight end. That is important because Dallas Clark, last season’s starter, might not be coming back.

NFC South afternoon update

February, 13, 2013
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Time for an afternoon run through some odds and ends from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Quarterback Matt Ryan, who sprained his left shoulder in the NFC Championship Game, has fully recovered and started working out in the weight room.

North Dakota’s boxing commission has suspended a fighter for taking a dive in a recent bout with former Atlanta defensive end Ray Edwards. Too bad Edwards wasn’t able to find offensive tackles who would take a dive. If he had, he still might have a job with the Falcons.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

While making a pitch to state officials for $62.5 million in funding, owner Jerry Richardson said he would never move the team. Although there were the usual Los Angeles rumblings a while back, I can’t see Richardson, who is so deeply rooted in the Carolinas, ever even attempting to move his team out of Charlotte.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

The team reportedly will interview former Kansas State coach Rob Prince as a potential running backs coach. Bret Ingalls has held that role and remains with the team. But the Saints reportedly plan to switch Ingalls over to offensive line coach.

The Saints have the best regular-season record of any division team since the start of the 2006 season.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

The Bucs have signed punter Chas Henry. I don’t think incumbent punter Michael Koenen has much to worry about. Henry will get a look through the offseason and preseason, but Koenen has a pretty firm grip on the job. But coach Greg Schiano has made it clear he wants competition at every position and that even includes special teams.

Looking at Falcons' defensive snaps

February, 12, 2013
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I’ve got complete playing-time numbers for the Atlanta Falcons defense (we’ll have numbers on their offense and the offenses and defenses for the rest of the NFC South teams later).

The Falcons had 1,022 defensive plays and safety Thomas DeCoud was on the field for 1,021 of them, which put him at a team-high 99.9 percent.

Let’s take a look at the playing time percentages for the rest of Atlanta’s defenders:
  • Cornerback Christopher Owens 16.63

NFC South evening update

February, 11, 2013
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Let’s take a run through some odds and ends from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Remember Ray Edwards, the free-agent bust the Falcons released in the middle of last season? Well, after no other team signed him, Edwards apparently turned to boxing. Check out the video of his recent fight in North Dakota.

Since Dave Caldwell left to become the general manager of the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Falcons have readjusted their personnel department by promoting from within. The latest example is the team’s announcement that Tukunbo Abanikanda has been promoted to area scout. In 2012, he worked as a scouting assistant.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

In his latest mock draft, Charlie Campbell has the Panthers taking Ohio State defensive tackle Jonathan Hankins. Defensive tackle has been a problem spot for the Panthers for years and veteran Ron Edwards appears to be a likely salary-cap cut.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Safety Rafael Bush said he has re-signed with the team. Bush played mostly on special teams last season. But, with new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan taking over, Bush could have a shot at more playing time at safety.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Stephen Holder reports that the Bucs have had no substantial contract talks with defensive tackle Roy Miller. That’s a little surprising because Miller was a key part of a solid run defense last season. But there’s still a month before the start of free agency, so talks could start up at any time.

Where They Aren't Now: Ray Edwards

January, 10, 2013
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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has been running a fun series on past Atlanta Falcons' playoff heroes this week.

Here’s the installment on kicker Morten Andersen. The series also includes a little on what each former player is doing now, sort of a “where are they now’’ thing.

That got me thinking and I decided to spin off in a slightly different direction. I decided to do a “Where They Aren’t Now’’ series on former Falcons.

Let’s kick it off (and, this likely will be the only installment) with Ray Edwards.

We know where he won’t be on Sunday. He won’t be on the field at the Georgia Dome playing for either the Falcons or the Seahawks, even though the defensive end had the chance to play for both teams.

The Seahawks worked out Edwards a couple weeks ago. Yet, after Chris Clemons went down with an injury, Seattle signed future Hall of Famer Patrick Chukwurah, which really says a lot about how little people think of Edwards. Chukwurah, 33, has nine career sacks and last appeared in an NFL game in 2007.

If Edwards has any pride, he should have been embarrassed by that transaction. Edwards is 28 and has 33 career sacks.

The fact that Chukwurah was signed over Edwards is just the latest twist to a sad story.

Once upon a time, Edwards could have had the world by the tail. Coming out of the lockout in 2011, the Falcons signed Edwards to a big free-agent contract and the thinking was he’d be the perfect complement to John Abraham.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Edwards produced just 3.5 sacks in 2011. The company line after the season was that Edwards wasn’t completely healthy and the Falcons spent much of training camp talking about how they expected him to have a breakthrough season in 2012.

That didn’t happen either. Edwards did nothing on the field, which didn’t score many points with coach Mike Smith. There were also several instances where Edwards didn’t treat Falcons’ staff well, which also didn’t score him many points with Smith. Edwards was talked to about that, but it kept happening.

Edwards quickly lost his starting job to Kroy Biermann. In a backup role, he continued to not produce. Even worse, he pouted and Smith sensed Edwards was becoming a problem in the locker room.

So Smith solved that problem by removing Edwards from the team. After nine games, Edwards was released.

That cost Edwards $15.5 million in future base salary and $2.5 million in escalators.

It also cost him a chance to be playing in a playoff game.
Kroy Biermann might not be the most famous athlete ever to come out of Montana’s Hardin High. But the defensive end for the Atlanta Falcons is the most successful athlete to come out of a high school that is legendary in another sport.

Hardin’s basketball program, particularly legendary Crow Indian Jonathan Takes Enemy, was featured in this 1991 story by Sports Illustrated’s Gary Smith, which may be one of best pieces of sports writing I’ve ever read.

At a high school where basketball was king, Biermann left the sport after his freshman year and focused on football and wrestling.

“Yeah, basketball was huge,’’ Biermann said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “But football and wrestling were pretty big deals, too. There wasn’t much else to do out there. If you didn’t play sports, you were going to have to work on the farm.’’

In high school, Biermann played linebacker, fullback, tailback, wide receiver and returned kickoffs and punts, which might help explain his current role as one of the NFL’s most versatile defensive ends.

Biermann, who beat out Ray Edwards for a starting job early in the season, is used in a variety of ways in coordinator Mike Nolan’s scheme.

At 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds, Biermann can play the run (he had 52 tackles in the regular season) and rush the passer (he had four sacks). But Biermann, who moves as well as some linebackers and also plays on special teams, is part of the reason the Falcons have had good success with their blitz packages.

Frequently, the Falcons drop Biermann into coverage and blitz a linebacker or defensive back.

“It’s a fun defense to play in,’’ Biermann said. “Coach Nolan’s playbook is a lot deeper than we’ve even shown. It’s fun, it’s exciting and it’s a fast-paced defense. He does a great job of putting us in position to make big plays.’’

Atlanta's defensive playing time

January, 8, 2013
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One thing I always like to do after the season is look back at playing time for all the players in the NFC South.

We’ll get to the Buccaneers, Panthers and Saints at some point in the coming days or weeks. But we’re going to take a look at the Atlanta Falcons now since they’re in the playoffs.

Let’s start with Atlanta’s defense. The Falcons had 1,041 defensive snaps. Here’s a list of how man plays each player was on the field for, followed by my thoughts on things that stand out: My thoughts: Having the 34-year-old Abraham on the field for almost 72 percent of the plays seems excessive. But, after Edwards flamed out and was released, the Falcons really didn’t have much depth at defensive end. … Babineaux was on the field for 82 percent of the plays. That’s a huge number for a defensive tackle and it makes you wonder if he might be a little worn down. … Technically, Dent is Atlanta’s starting middle linebacker. But he only took part in 48 percent of the plays and some of that came while he was filling in for an injured Weatherspoon. The Falcons used their nickel defense more often than their 4-3 base. But I think you might see a fair amount of Dent on Sunday against Seattle because the Falcons need to slow Marshawn Lynch and the running game. … That’s not a misprint that Jones, a Pro Bowl wide receiver, was on the field for one defensive play. The Falcons threw him out there as a safety, the same way they used to do with Brian Finneran, at the end of one game.

NFC South award time

January, 3, 2013
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Doug Martin, Robert McClain, Drew BreesUSA TODAY SportsThe NFC South may not get a lot of recognition come awards time, but Tampa Bay's Dough Martin, Atlanta's Robert McClain and New Orleans' Drew Brees all deserve some attention.

Although we in the NFC South sometimes have an inferiority complex when it comes to recognition, there will be no shortage of it in what follows.

I already rolled out my All-NFC South team and named Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan the division’s Most Valuable Player. But let’s take this time to hand out some other awards for the 2012 season.

Comeback Player of the Year: I’m starting with this one because it’s probably my favorite story of the season. I’m going with Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis. He probably won’t win the league-wide award because Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson are bigger names (there’s that NFC South inferiority complex again). But nobody came back from more than Davis. The guy tore his ACL three times. As far as anyone knows, no NFL player had ever come back from three torn ACLs -- until Davis did it. And he did more than come back and just play. He turned in a very solid season.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: This one is easy. Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin is the only choice. On the night they drafted him, coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik talked about how Martin would be an all-purpose back. He was precisely that. He ran inside and outside, caught passes and made LeGarrette Blount disappear.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: This one is not quite as easy. I’m giving the nod to Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly, but only by a slight margin. Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David also had an excellent first season, but Kuechly led the NFL in tackles, and Carolina’s defense was better than Tampa Bay’s.

Coach of the Year: Hmmm, I’ll go way out on a limb and take Atlanta’s Mike Smith. In a year when the other three teams went 7-9 and the Falcons went 13-3, Smith is the only option. Aside from throwing a challenge flag on a play that would have been automatically reviewed and trying to force the ball to Michael Turner too much, I can’t think of very many mistakes Smith made. Of course, the real test for Smith will be whether he can get the first postseason win of his career.

General Manager of the Year: Atlanta’s Thomas Dimitroff wins in a landslide for the same reason Smith did. You just can’t argue with 13-3. Plus, I’ve got to give Dimitroff a lot of credit for not listening to public sentiment (that’s not a strong point for every general manager in this division) during the free-agency period. Fans were screaming for the Falcons to go after Mario Williams and other big-name free agents. Dimitroff didn’t listen and simply re-signed most of his own free agents. You can’t argue with the result.

Best free-agent signing: Receiver Vincent Jackson cost the Buccaneers a fortune, but he was worth every penny of it. Almost instantly, he became the best receiver the Buccaneers have ever had (yep, he edged out the likes of Alvin Harper, Reidel Anthony and Jacquez Green). He gave Tampa Bay a big-play threat, and he also made Mike Williams perhaps the best No. 2 receiver the Buccaneers have ever had.

Best trade: Dimitroff’s biggest move of the offseason was a trade to get Asante Samuel, even though there were rumblings the veteran cornerback was in steep decline. That turned out to be far from the truth. Samuel showed he has plenty left. More importantly, he has brought a swagger that Atlanta’s defense lacked in recent years.

Second-best trade: I know there is a segment of Tampa Bay fans that thought the midseason trade of Aqib Talib to New England was a horrible move. I understand that the Bucs' pass defense was bad and trading away your best cornerback isn’t going to provide immediate help in that department. But I think Dominik deserves kudos for looking at the big picture and for getting anything in return for Talib. Let’s be honest: Talib was nothing but a headache throughout his time in Tampa, and there was no way Schiano was going to want him around in 2013. Talib would have walked away in free agency, and the Bucs wouldn’t have had anything to show for him. The trade at least gave them a 2013 fourth-round pick.

Best release: A lot of people think Smith is too nice a guy. That’s mainly because the Atlanta coach genuinely is a nice guy. But that doesn’t mean he’s soft. Smith can be very firm when it’s in the best interest of his team, and that’s what happened at midseason when he and Dimitroff released defensive end Ray Edwards. Let’s not sell Edwards short and say he was a slouch. The 2011 free-agent signing was a tremendous slouch. He had lost his starting job to Kroy Biermann, and he was causing problems in the locker room. Instead of letting things fester and spread to other corners of the locker room, Smith simply told Edwards to hit the road.

Best defensive player on the worst defense in history: The New Orleans defense shouldn’t get too many accolades because it allowed more total yards than any defense in history. But middle linebacker Curtis Lofton deserves some praise. He came over from Atlanta, where he no longer was viewed as an every-down linebacker and showed that, at least for the Saints, he still was an every-down linebacker.

Best assistant coach: Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter wins, although Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan and Atlanta defensive coordinator Mike Nolan got consideration. Koetter came in and did a better job than predecessor Mike Mularkey of letting Ryan go out and do the things he does best.

Best off-field tactic: Appeal anything and everything. That’s the approach New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma took throughout the entire bounty scandal. There were plenty of twists and turns, and former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who oversaw the final appeal, did not clear Vilma of wrongdoing (no matter what Saints fans think), but Tagliabue ultimately did vacate what was supposed to be a season-long suspension for Vilma.

Most underrated player: Robert McClain. If you haven’t heard of him, you’re not a Falcons fan. Even Atlanta fans had no idea who McClain was until Brent Grimes went down with a season-ending injury. McClain stepped up and gave Atlanta quality play as the No. 3 cornerback and sometimes even as the No. 2 cornerback. For the record, McClain was a seventh-round draft pick by Carolina in 2010 and spent some of 2011 in Jacksonville. He probably will be sticking around Atlanta for a long time.

Best performance by a guy that had a "down" season: Drew Brees might be the only guy in the world who can go out and throw for 5,000 yards and have people still think he had a bad season. Brees wasn’t horrible. But when you’ve been almost flawless for several seasons, anything less is viewed as an off year.

Could Ray Edwards haunt Falcons?

December, 26, 2012
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The Atlanta Falcons may not have seen the last of Ray Edwards, the high-priced defensive end they released in November.

Edwards reportedly worked out for the Seattle Seahawks on Monday and the team is expected to make a decision on whether to sign him Wednesday.

Signed as a free agent in 2011, Edwards was supposed to be the perfect complement to John Abraham, but it never came close to working out that way. Edwards had a disappointing first season with the Falcons and then things only got worse. He lost his starting job to Kroy Biermann early this season.

All indications are that Edwards did not handle the demotion well and, fearing he was becoming a problem in the locker room, the Falcons released him.

But the Falcons soon could see Edwards again if he signs with Seattle. It’s possible the Falcons could face the Seahawks in the playoffs.

Could Edwards give the Seahawks an edge? He might have some extra motivation to go against the team that cut him. But what have we really seen out of Edwards as a player to make us believe he’s capable of doing anything special?

You could also speculate that Edwards could give the Seahawks some “insider information’’ on the Falcons. It’s possible he could share a tidbit or two, but another reason the Falcons parted ways with Edwards was because they didn’t think he was exactly a student of the game.

Unsung heroes of the Atlanta Falcons

December, 22, 2012
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DETROIT -- When the Atlanta Falcons play the Detroit Lions on Saturday night, all they have to do to secure the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs is win.

The Falcons have been doing plenty of winning. They’re 12-2 and we’ve heard lots about quarterback Matt Ryan and his star-studded receiving cast of Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. And we’ve heard plenty about a defense that’s led by veteran defensive end John Abraham and emerging star Sean Weatherspoon.

But they’re not the only reasons the Falcons are doing well. Let’s take a look at five lesser-known reasons why the Falcons are sitting pretty.

Stephen Nicholas: Weatherspoon has been the star at linebacker, and he’s the heart and soul of the defense. But Nicholas is having by far the best season of his career. The Falcons always thought Nicholas had good skills but believed he didn’t always take full advantage of them. That’s all changed this season as Nicholas has been coming through with big plays and playing consistently well.

Sam Baker: The left tackle was a lightning rod for criticism through much of the first four years of his career. Fans were ready to run Baker out of town after he lost his starting job last season. But the Falcons believed that injuries had been holding Baker back. They told him to spend the offseason getting healthy, and they stood by him. That’s paid off in a big way, as Baker has done a solid job of protecting Ryan’s blind side, which has allowed the quarterback to have much more success throwing deep.

Kroy Biermann: This guy never will be a superstar, but you at least know what you’re getting with Biermann. He’s a high-energy guy. The Falcons were unhappy with high-priced Ray Edwards and cut him near the middle of the season. If Biermann wasn’t around, the Falcons would have had to stick with Edwards, and they probably wouldn’t be in the shape they’re in right now.

The secondary: Free safety Thomas DeCoud and strong safety William Moore were inconsistent the past few years, and there were questions about their ability to become solid starters. But the tandem has thrived under new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. DeCoud and Moore have been coming up with interceptions -- six by DeCoud and four by Moore -- and they’ve been much more consistent as tacklers than they were in the past. The Falcons suffered a big loss at cornerback when Brent Grimes, who was carrying the franchise tag, went down with a season-ending injury. But Dunta Robinson has enjoyed his best season since joining the Falcons, veteran Asante Samuel has shown he still can play and nickelback Robert McClain has been the most pleasant surprise of the season.

The special teams: We’re not counting the return game, because that hasn’t been a factor. But punter/kickoff specialist Matt Bosher has emerged as a field-position force in his second season. Place-kicker Matt Bryant went through a brief slump near midseason, but he’s snapped out of it, and there aren’t many kickers around the league I’d rather have in a clutch situation.

Jason Babin in the NFC South?

November, 28, 2012
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It happens every time a player of any prominence is released elsewhere. Fans from just about every corner of the NFC South start asking if that player will land with one of the division's teams.

It’s been happening ever since Philadelphia released veteran defensive end Jason Babin on Tuesday. It’s a logical question because Tampa Bay, Atlanta and New Orleans all could use some punch in their pass rush. Babin had 18 sacks last year.

It makes sense for the Falcons to make a play for Babin because he could be the player that puts them over the top, right?

No. According to D. Orlando Ledbetter, the Falcons have no interest in Babin. He was a free agent in 2011 and the Falcons didn’t pursue him, instead choosing to sign Ray Edwards and look how that worked out. The Falcons are going to stick with what they have.

What about the Buccaneers, who lost starting defensive end Adrian Clayborn to injury and don’t have much of a pass rush aside from Michael Bennett?

I feel pretty safe in saying Tampa Bay is not going after Babin. The indications I’ve received are that the Bucs don’t have much interest in a guy in his 30s because that doesn’t fit their style. It also doesn’t make sense for a team that has spent a lot of time getting problems out of its locker room to go out and sign a guy that Philadelphia thought wasn’t the best locker-room guy in the world.

What about the Saints? This is the one team I wouldn’t completely rule out. It’s painfully obvious the Saints could use help in the pass rush. New Orleans has a history of being willing to take on veterans that wore out their welcome elsewhere. I’m not saying the Saints will end up with Babin, but I think the situation is at least worth watching.

How about Carolina? Defensive end is one position where the Panthers really don’t need help. Charles Johnson is set at one position and Greg Hardy finally has started to play up to his potential. Besides, with a new general manager, and possibly a new coach, expected to be hired after the season, I can’t see the Panthers making any major personnel moves right now.
The Atlanta Falcons were so eager to show defensive end Ray Edwards the door last week, they handed him a check for $1 million on his way out.

According to a league source, Edwards collected $1 million in termination pay. I’m not sure if the Falcons handed that to him the exact moment they released him just over a week ago or if Edwards got the check a few days later.

It doesn’t matter. It just shows how intent the Falcons were on getting rid of a guy they felt had become a major problem in the locker room.

FOX Sports’ Jay Glazer reported that the decision to part ways with Edwards came after he refused to join a team gathering, after repeatedly being asked to do so. I think that might have been just the final straw. I’ve been told that Edwards was rude to the team’s support staff on several occasions and it didn’t stop after he received a lecture from coach Mike Smith. Edwards also seemed to take a nonchalant approach after he lost his starting job and his playing time continued to dwindle.

Give the Falcons credit for realizing that team unity trumps just about everything. They were willing to write the $1 million check, just to get rid of Ray Edwards.

They also were willing to swallow their pride and admit they made a mistake last year when they signed Edwards to a five-year, $27.5 million contract with $11 million in guaranteed money. They’ll still take a $4.65 million salary-cap hit for Edwards next season, but he had been scheduled to count more than $7 million toward the cap.

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