Season is over for Falcons, but 'the process' isn't

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The moment lasted perhaps 15 seconds. Its implications went a year into the past and years into the future.

In a hallway leading to the Atlanta Falcons' locker room at University of Phoenix Stadium Saturday, coach Mike Smith stopped briefly and hugged team owner Arthur Blank and his wife, Stephanie.

"We're glad you're with us,'' Stephanie Blank said to Smith.

"We're going to get better,'' Smith said.

Yes, the season is over for the Falcons, but "the process'' isn't. This might have been only the start.

Recording an 11-5 regular season and their first playoff berth since 2004, the Falcons showed just how far they have come from the dark days of last season. Bobby Petrino and Michael Vick brought the franchise to its deepest point.

A 30-24 wild-card playoff loss to the host Arizona Cardinals showed just how far the Falcons have to go to complete the process Smith is always talking about. This team is good, but it's not yet perfect.

"I'm disappointed but not discouraged,'' Smith said.

There's really no reason Smith should be discouraged. If he can accomplish half as much in his second season as he did in his first, the Falcons won't be losing playoff games.

All season, Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff would never talk about any specific goal for winning a certain amount of games. They'd talk only in the most general terms about "the process'' and make it sound like they weren't all that surprised by the team's success.

Deep down, though, does anybody really believe Smith and Dimitroff ever thought they'd be 11-5 and in the playoffs until maybe a week or so ago when they were 11-5 and in the playoffs? Did anybody really expect anything like this?

No way.

What the Falcons did this season was accelerate "the process." Let's be real honest. When Smith and Dimitroff looked at their roster coming out of training camp, they had to know they had some holes. Smith and his staff did a masterful job of hiding them for 16 games.

That was good enough to bring life back to a franchise and its fan base. The Falcons got more out of quarterback Matt Ryan than anyone could have imagined. The NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year never really played like a rookie -- until Saturday. The Cardinals intercepted Ryan twice and sacked him three times. He completed 26 of 40 passes for 199 yards.

"In games like this -- and, hopefully, we'll be in games like this in the future -- you can't make mistakes,'' Ryan said.

But don't put all the blame on Ryan. The Falcons weren't able to do the basics they'd done all season. They couldn't run the ball as Michael Turner finished with 42 yards on 18 carries. The Falcons' defense couldn't match up with Arizona's passing game.

Ryan and Turner are the reasons the Falcons even reached the playoffs. The flaws around them were exposed by the Cardinals and that clears the way for the next step of the process.

It's now obvious what Smith and Dimitroff need to work on in the offseason. In no particular order, they need a pass rusher besides John Abraham, another quality defensive tackle, more speed at linebacker and some more talent in the secondary. On offense, they need to give their $73 million investment (Ryan) an upgrade or two on the offensive line and a pass-catching tight end.

Funny thing is, Dimitroff and Smith probably knew all those needs were there at the start of this season. You can change the direction of a team in one offseason by drawing out every bit of its talent. But it takes two or three offseasons to assemble the roster you want.

The Falcons have the major chunks in place with Ryan, Turner, offensive tackle Sam Baker, receiver Roddy White, defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux and linebacker Curtis Lofton. That's a great start. Throw in role players such as receiver Michael Jenkins, cornerback Chris Houston and a fruitful draft class beyond Ryan, Baker and Lofton that included contributors such as receiver/return man Harry Douglas and defensive back Chevis Jackson. The Falcons have the nucleus for a very good team.

Now, it's time for Smith and Dimitroff to add some more pieces and try to make this a great team.

"We're going to remember how we feel as a team because we plan on being back in this situation and we want to remember how this feels,'' Smith said.

The loss might sting a bit right now. But, someday, the Falcons might look back on this game and view it as just one more step in "the process'' of winning a Super Bowl.