Consistency key for Falcons improvement

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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga.– Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith said Monday the biggest improvement he wants to see in his team next season is to be more consistent on a play-to-play basis.

General Manager Thomas Dimitroff, also reviewing the team's 2009 campaign on Monday, said the Falcons achieved three of four goals on defense going into last season: They played faster, more urgently and with more passion -- but not consistently enough.

So the franchise's two most influential architects have laid the thematic groundwork for next season.

Be more consistent.

Smith said how to attain that somewhat abstract goal is "the biggest thing we'll have to evaluate."

Dimitroff indicated playing more consistently can be a result of youth. Five of the Falcons 22 Week 1 starters were rookies or second-year players. Six of 22 were in Game 16, including four on defense.

"I think this team became more consistent as it settled into the scheme, whether it was on offense or defense, especially on the defensive side," Dimitroff said. "They became more comfortable with their technique, the scheme, coaching styles and they'll only continue to get more consistent.

"That is a difficult thing when you're young. I think what is very encouraging is that I really believe this team is a wide-eyed group of individuals who is looking to get better and I continue to say this is one of the best locker rooms I've ever been around. The fact these guys continue to play and continue to strive to get better is admirable to me, to say the least."

In wide-ranging interviews, Smith and Dimitroff addressed everything from the draft and free agency to the development of second-year quarterback Matt Ryan. Both gave their offensive and defensive team MVPs.

For both on offense it was Tony Gonzalez-- with Smith quickly shooting down any speculation the 13-year veteran might choose to retire despite some confusion after a statement Gonzalez made following the season finale -- while they differed on defense.

For Smith, the defensive MVP was Thomas DeCoud, a second-year player who started for the first time and proved a force as a hitter and effective at creating turnovers. For Dimitroff, it was a different second-year player, linebacker Curtis Lofton.

Dimitroff said he thought Lofton, the NFL's sixth leading tackler this season, was ready to "take it to another level next year."

One huge factor complicating Dimitroff's job as the Falcons turn towards next season is the labor situation. Under the NFL's existing collective bargaining agreement with the NFLPA, the 2010 season will be an "uncapped" season, meaning teams will not have to operate under a salary floor or ceiling in terms of player payroll.

With that deadline rapidly approaching and both sides yet to reach a deal, it is looking more and more likely that the uncapped year could become a reality. In the event of an uncapped year, the requirement for players to reach unrestricted free agency jumps from four years of service to six, meaning more than 200 players would lose unrestricted status.

"Obviously the uncertainty of the CBA is what's going to dictate our movements going forward," said Dimitroff, who said he was speaking without an opinion as to how the CBA issue would be resolved. "There's some very good football players out there who might become unrestricted or who may retain their restricted status. What that means is our personnel department is going to have to work overtime to make sure they have everyone evaluated that may or may not come available."

With regard to the draft, the Falcons currently have five picks. They have no pick in the second or seventh rounds, as the second-rounder was traded for Gonzalez and the seventh for cornerback Tye Hill.

However, Dimitroff said that he thinks it is possible that the team will receive three compensatory picks for the 2009 free-agent losses of cornerback Domonique Foxworth and linebackers Michael Boley and Keith Brooking. The NFL uses a complex system to determine the round in which the team receives the compensatory picks. The highest a team can receive is a third-rounder.

Dimitroff's staff also has been affected by the uncertainty over the CBA in another way.

Some college players who are underclassmen are fearful that as part of a new CBA, a cap will be placed on rookie salaries. One result could be a larger number of underclassmen than usual choose to make themselves eligible for the draft. Those players must make their decision by Jan. 18.

"I foresee there being a greater number of juniors coming out this year," Dimitroff said. "That's just my opinion. I think it's one of those things like free agency this year, our college scouting department has had to work overtime this year to make sure they cover their bases."

Dimitroff noted that Falcons scouts do not evaluate juniors while on campus out of respect to colleges, but they do perform those evaluations at the office.

"We have to make sure we have our ducks in line, as far as knowing and planning going forward, if in fact these juniors do have an early declaration," he said. "Again there are some fantastic players coming out who are seniors and juniors and that will be interesting to see how that affects the strength of the entire draft, if more juniors do declare given the uncertainty of the CBA."

Other notes that came out of the two news conferences were:

On the offseason...

Smith said the team would begin its 14-week offseason conditioning on March 22. Coaching sessions will begin on April 1 and May 2 will be the mandatory minicamp.

On the kicking game...

Placekickers Matt Bryantand Steve Hauschkaare both under contract for next season.

On players and retirement...

Smith met with all of the team's "over 30" club and said none of them had spoken about retirement. "Our guys were very upbeat," he said.

On injured players...

All 11 players who finished the season on injured reserve should be ready for next season, Smith said. He said some others have had "minor procedures" to "clean up" some injuries already but did not identify anyone by name. Asked specifically about left tackle Sam Baker he said Baker has not had surgery.

On the coaching staff...

He said no one on his coaching staff has yet to be officially contacted by another team about any coaching vacancies.

On positions to focus on in free agency and the draft...

Neither Smith nor Dimitroff would identify specific positions that they hope to improve the most in the offseason.

On the playoffs...

Smith said watching the NFL's Wild Card playoffs was "very tough" and that "my ears were very red and I wasn't a good person to be around," as he was jealous of not being on the sidelines himself.

On free agency...

In terms of free agency, Dimitroff said older players "can really have some positive effects" but cautioned of "overpopulating your roster with 35-year-olds" so that the team is not "turning over the roster every year."

On Matt Ryan...

Of Ryan, Smith said: "I think Matt is going to be an outstanding player in this league for years to come. I know Matt will be scrutinized not only for all the touchdown throws he makes but he'll also be scrutinized for the interceptions. And I think there will be a lot more touchdowns than interceptions." And Dimitroff said: "I am pleased with Matt's development. Any time you go into the second year, there's that much more [game film] out on a player. People are studying Matt all offseason. He was going to be faced with tough challenges schematically. As we also know he was faced with challenges -- a handful of injuries that weren't even reported. Those aren't excuses. He had to deal with them and he dealt with them in an admirable fashion. He's a tough guy. He's the kind of guy that we know this team looks to as a leader. He'll continue to be challenged as we all will in our roles. He's the least of our concerns here… We're excited about his development and evolution."

On free agency...

And with Owner and CEO Arthur Blanksitting just a few feet away from him, Dimitroff was asked what the team will spend on free agents. "Free agency -- we never want to be sort of denoted as a team that is heavy in free agency or heavy players in free agency or big-time draft-driven. I think it's very, very important to analyze what may be out there in the draft versus the players that will come available with that 'U' [unrestricted free agent] versus 'R' [restricted] notation. We'll determine at that point what our spending may be, along with how gracious our owner wants to be in free agency, as well. We're excited about what may be out there as we continue to build this football team and get more and more depth at all positions."

MORE ON THE FALCONS OFFSEASON:

  • TRANSCRIPTS:Head Coach Mike Smith | General Manager Thomas Dimitroff
  • J. MIKE'S MISSIVES:Some key words from Smitty and TD
  • FEATURE:Consistency the key for Falcons improvement
  • PRESSER VIDEO:Head Coach Mike Smith | General Manager Thomas Dimitroff
  • ONE-ON-ONE:Head Coach Mike Smith | General Manager Thomas Dimitroff
  • FALCONCAST: J. Mike and Matt discuss the season with John Manasso
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