Falcons did not take step back

Matt Ryan and the Falcons are on the right track despite missing the playoffs. AP Photo/Donna McWilliam

It started with talk of a Super Bowl and whispers about the next Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. It’s ending without even a playoff berth and more whispers, this time about a sophomore slump.

So what the heck happened to the Atlanta Falcons and Matt Ryan?

Nothing catastrophic, really. We -- I’m talking media and fans -- just got a little ahead of the game. Coach Mike Smith likes to talk about “the process’’ and it can sound boring as heck. But this season that looks like a step back really isn’t.

“You get what you earn in this league,’’ Smith said in a conference call with the Tampa Bay media on Wednesday. “Since we first got here, we’ve been talking about building a team that sustains as a contender for years.’’

The Falcons are 8-7 and out of the playoff picture one season after shocking everyone by going 11-5 and making the playoffs. But I’ll make the case that you can look ahead to next season and see the Falcons have a better chance of living up to those lofty expectations than they ever really did this season.

Here’s why:

1. We’ll see how it sorts out in the spring, but the schedule isn’t going to be nearly as brutal as it was this year. The rest of the NFL world isn’t going to be out to get the newfound media darlings because they no longer fit that description.

“It’s a big factor when everybody’s waiting for you,’’ wide receiver Roddy White said. “You don’t get them by surprise anymore.’’

No one took the Falcons lightly this year, and the NFL didn’t do them any favors with a schedule that included four games against teams coming off a bye week.

“We saw the schedule and knew what we had to face,’’ Smith said. “We’re not going to make excuses or complain because all you can do is prepare for the way the schedule is laid out.’’

2. The Falcons will be better prepared the next time around. Again, we all got caught up in the excitement of last year. When Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff came to town, they had a roster many thought was the worst in the NFL and were still picking up pieces of the earthquake left by Bobby Petrino and Michael Vick.

You can’t totally build your kind of roster in one year, and this season showed you can’t do it in two. In 2008, the Falcons focused on offense, drafting Ryan and tackle Sam Baker in the first round and spending most of their free-agent money on running back Michael Turner. Smith got through his first season without anything close to the kind of defensive talent he wanted.

That was supposed to change this year, but it sort of got postponed. Defensive tackle Peria Jerry and safety William Moore, the first two picks in the draft, went down with season-ending injuries before they could make an impact.

They’ll be back next season, and you can bet the Falcons are going to be looking for a pass-rusher and a cover corner early in the 2010 draft or in free agency. Even with a bunch of injuries and some horrific early struggles, this defense got better as the season went on.

Fact is, Smith and his staff can flat out coach defense. Imagine what they can do when they finally get some good parts to work with.

3. The core really is in place and it’s a good one. Yes, there’s plenty of tinkering to do on both sides of the ball. But the Falcons have Ryan and middle linebacker Curtis Lofton as the quarterbacks of their offense and defense, and that’s a great start.

Some people are trying to hang this disappointing season on Ryan, but that’s not even close to being accurate. Look at his stats. They’re pretty similar to last year and better in some ways.

“We put more on the quarterback this year,’’ Smith said. “He handled it very well. The learning curve at that position goes beyond one or two years.’’

I’d still take Ryan over any quarterback not named Manning, Brady or Brees because the guy is going to be good for a long time. If Ryan stumbled this year, it was more because of things around him than anything he did or did not do.

The biggest problem for the offense early on was that Turner wasn’t running as well as last year. Blame it on Turner or blame it on the offensive line. The Falcons have to decide if Turner was a one-year wonder and make an upgrade or two on the offensive line. If Turner still is their primary runner next year, it wouldn’t hurt to have a strong backup to pair with him.

4. No matter what the Falcons do about their running game, Smith and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey must tweak things. They might share a run-first philosophy and there’s nothing wrong with that. But when you have a talent such as Ryan surrounded by White and tight end Tony Gonzalez (and receiver Harry Douglas will be back from injury next year), you must play to your strength. I’m not saying the Falcons need to suddenly turn into the Saints on offense, but it’s time to turn Ryan loose more.

5. They have momentum on their side. Sunday’s game doesn’t mean a lot in the grand scheme of things. But it means a heck of a lot to Smith and the Falcons. A win would make them 9-7 and give them back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in the 44-season history of the franchise.

That would allow Smith and his team to bury another embarrassing piece of franchise history. Then, one year later than many expected, they could really take a leap.