Admittedly, that early August day at Coahulla Creek High School wasn't much more than a routine practice between two NFL teams that rarely face each other. It wasn't even a scrimmage.
Barely enough contact to need a helmet.
But as soon as the Atlanta Falcons and Tennessee Titans concluded their joint workout last month, Titans backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said of the Falcons: "You can tell Atlanta is a good team. You can tell their mindset is to have a good season and make it to the Super Bowl. They get it."
The Falcons have looked like a possible Super Bowl team for a couple of seasons now. Especially two years ago when they compiled the best regular-season record in the NFC.
But they haven't gotten past their initial playoff contest in any of their three opportunities since Matt Ryan became their quarterback as a rookie in 2008.
Three chances. Three losses. Zero wins.
Said Ryan before the most recent of those postseason defeats — to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants last season: "Quarterbacks are judged by what you do in the playoffs. I have to do something in the playoffs. All of those guys [Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees], they're all Super Bowl MVPs and I'm not there yet. But I'm going to work as hard as I can to get there."
Ryan has worked so hard this offseason that he's picked up five pounds of muscle and more than a few quarterbacking tips from new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.
Said Ryan to the Atlanta media last month: "There has definitely been some constructive criticism."
Head coach Mike Smith apparently decided reconstruction was needed on both sides of the ball. Not only has Koetter replaced Mike Mularkey (who became the head coach at Jacksonville), but defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has stepped in for Brian VanGorder, who left the Falcs for the same post at Auburn.
"I like our team," Smith said at Coahulla Creek. "I like the direction we're headed."
A reason to like Nolan running the defense: As Dolphins defensive boss a year ago, he had the Fish ranked seventh in third-down defense. Atlanta ranked 29th a year ago.
Defense may ultimately win championships, but for these Falcons to best compete for championships, they also need Ryan and Co. on the field as much as possible. Getting the opponent off the field on third down certainly helps that goal.
The team also has a new offensive line coach in former Fresno State coach Pat Hill. Given so many changes, two things become apparent:
(1) The Falcons brass, Smith included, believes this team's talent hasn't been maximized.
(2) The window for this talent to succeed is closing. Most franchises are at their best for three or four years, then must be retooled. If you believe the start of the Falcons' window began two years ago, two years from now they may be past their prime.
Yet for all this determination to improve both off the field and on — the acquisition of defensive back Asante Samuel was a bold off-season statement — Atlanta just finished 1-3 in the preseason.
Of greater concern is a schedule that includes the Super Bowl champion Giants, Dallas, a Sept. 17 Monday night visit from Peyton Manning and Denver, road trips to San Diego and Philly and the usual grind of the NFC South.
For his part, Ryan has won 43 of the 65 games he has started, and assuming Hill can coach the O-line to protect him better, there's no reason he can't improve on that fine percentage this year. His 27 completions in 34 attempts for two touchdowns in the team's first two exhibitions would suggest as much.
But wide receiver Julio Jones goes further.
"We're trying to be an explosive team,' he said.
Instead of one that implodes each postseason.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...