It's the offseason in the football world, but in the NFL, that just means time to get ready for the regular season.
On Saturday, the Falcons hosted a tailgate event for the fans of the franchise, the first year for an event of this kind, called Grill With The Falcons Built By The Home Depot, and it accomplished a lot for all involved.
For the tailgaters, the event held at Mall of Georgia was a time in the offseason to get warmed up for the regular season, just like the players. In total, 25 tailgate teams competed for the honor of being named the best, but in this particular competition, the winner didn't matter as much.
Saturday's event was the warmup needed for gamedays and the atmosphere delivered something very similar to what happens outside the Georgia Dome during the season.
"Even though we are at the mall, it's a gameday experience," Mark Cooper of the ATL Falcoholics tailgate team said. "It's like this at all the lots you go to. It's so good to see the fans. This is how we do it for the Falcons every Sunday."
For the players, it was a chance to gain a new experience in their football lives. For most fans of the game, tailgating it a huge part of their lives, but for players, gameday is about having a job to do on the field. Saturday brought together more than 30 Falcons at Mall of Georgia for a one-of-a-kind tailgating experience.
"It's different than a game, obviously, but it's really cool," Falcons left guard Justin Blalock said. "To see that we are part of people's life on a day other than Sunday is cool. For us players, we get to see what a tailgate is like because most of us have never had the experience. It's a good chance for us to come out, let your hair down and interact with the fans. Hopefully they get something out of it because I've had a blast today."
The grilling event came from the mind of Falcons head coach Mike Smith, who, like his players, hasn't been to many tailgates.
"I've never been able to experience a tailgate party," Smith said. "It's pretty cool. It's an opportunity to interact with the fans for the players and coaches. It's just been fun and I've really enjoyed the heck out of it. My team's worked hard and hopefully we're going to do well. "
Smith said the Falcons chose this weekend to host the event because the team has their minicamp next week, the final chance to prepare for training camp and the official start of football season. Having the event in June let the fans get their gameday grills and appetities warmed up.
"This is the OTAs for them so they're not getting out of practice," Smith said. "This is going to make sure we are on the top of our game for the regular season."
The event included food trucks, carnival-like games and players roaming through the crowd, or in the case of the offensive linemen, riding on a golf cart and cooling everyone down with their water guns. Players and coaches posed for photos and took pictures all day and some, mostly rookies, took turns in a dunk tank.
It was a party atmosphere all day and when it ended, winners were named. Participants raised money for Children's Healthcare of Atlanta all day and in total the groups raised $28,000.
The tailgate team raising the most with $3,193 was the FalCony team. Falcons Flock won the prize for the best tailgate setup and The Tailgating Chefs (@TailgatingChef) won best tailgate fare.
The overall winner of the tailgate competition was Cooper and the ATL Falcoholics (@ATL_Falcoholics). Among the players and coaches tailgate teams, the defensive backs raised the most money and Smith and his staff took home the top prize for overall tailgate experience. Smith was awarded a giant spatula for his efforts, which included signing autographs, shaking hands and posing for pictures in addition to his cooking duties for more than three hours.
The event succeeded in capturing the essence of gameday in the offseason and what it means to be a Falcons fan. Although it was just the first time the Falcons have hosted an event like this, it's clear it will become an offseason mainstay for years to come.
"It just gives us one more touchpoint with our fans in the offseason," Jim Smith, the Falcons' senior vice president of sales and marketing, said. "For our fans, they are so engaged during the season from July to January. In the offseason, we've got to find unique ways to do it and this is clearly one of them."