When a team has a bad season, the next year can turn out to be one of several different things. It can be a bounce back year, and the team proves the previous horrible season was just a mirage. It could be a continuation of futility, where the team shows it’s simply in bad shape.
Or it could simply have a realistic step up from one level to the next.
The Atlanta Falcons had a horrific season in 2013. The 4-12 record might have been a flashback for longtime fans, but for a franchise that had become a winner with five straight successful seasons, it was shocking.
So what is realistic for 2014? Can the Falcons bounce back and be the same Super Bowl contender they were two years ago? Will they continue their losing ways? Or will they have moderate improvement to take that next step to getting back to being a top team in the NFC?
It is probably better if the Falcons go from 4-12 to 8-8 or 9-7. This roster is better, but it doesn’t look like a team ready to fight for a championship. Everything would have to go perfect -- few injuries, better depth than expected, a running attack and a pass rush on defense -- for the Falcons to get back on top in the NFC South.
Maybe it does happen. It doesn’t look like the division is the best in the conference. The other three teams all have questions. New Orleans is probably the favorite, but Drew Brees has new weapons on offense and there are still concerns about the defense. Tampa Bay has a new head coach and a new quarterback, and they are still getting some preseason love. And Carolina’s Cam Newton must prove he’s healthy and work with his new receiving corps.
There’s just not a dominant team in the division, which gives Atlanta a chance. The Falcons will be better. The rush defense, which was at the bottom of the NFL last season, will be improved with Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai on the line of scrimmage. And the offensive line, which was a dumpster fire last season, is better with free agent Jon Asamoah and rookie tackle Jake Matthews.
We all know Matt Ryan has skill players to throw the ball to on offense. His wide receivers might be the best in the league. Roddy White and Julio Jones could each get more than 1,250 receiving yards. Harry Douglas is back after 1,000 yards last year. And the wildcard could be Devin Hester, the special teams star that might get Tony Gonzalez’s yards as a legitimate offensive threat.
But there must be some sort of a running game. Steven Jackson didn’t play a snap in the preseason, so he must prove he’s healthy and finally provide something to the offense. If not, rookie Devonta Freeman will have high expectations to create some balance for the offense.
And on defense, someone has to step up and be “the man.” At some point, the Falcons are going to have to win a game with their defense. They’ll get into some shootouts (maybe Sunday), but along the way someone will have to make a stop to win a game.
The linebackers are a worry, and there is concern regarding depth at safety. But the Falcons must find a pass rush, and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan must be creative enough to use depth on the defensive line to find someone that can disrupt the quarterback.
Atlanta needs one more draft, one more free agent period to add talent to the roster. The Falcons will be better this season, but they’re just not there yet. And if they take that next logical step in getting back on track, the expectations could be sky high next year.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill at www.twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.