Flowery Branch, Ga. --Falcons fans lined the sidelines Friday morning at the Atlanta Falcons first practice of the training camp season carrying many things: flags, chairs, fans, umbrellas.
A small group of them were holding wooden spoons, welcoming Atlanta's newly-signed first-round draft pick Sean Weatherspoon.
The 22-year-old rookie from Missouri said this day couldn't come fast enough and was relieved he didn't have to miss any time at practice because of ongoing negotiations.
"My main goal was to make sure I made it to this practice," said Weatherspoon. "That's the big deal. You don't want to miss any time out there on the field. It was a big deal getting here and I'm very excited that I'm here."
Signed and delivered, but he knows he's got plenty of work to do, starting with finding the football condition that a month or two away from the football field will produce. He's listening to anyone with a word of wisdom.
"You've got to knock the rust off a little bit, getting back into the swing of things," he said. "The older guys are out there talking to me and the coaches are just getting me ready. I'm just going to keep working and hopefully make some things happen."
One of the most vocal presences in his ear is that of 12-year veteran linebacker Mike Peterson. Weatherspoon knows that even though there may be competition between the two of them for the starting nod, the experience Peterson brings is invaluable.
"He knows everything that's going on out there," he said. "He's played in this system for a long time. He knows exactly what's been going on. I kind of lean on Pete and he's been doing a great job trying to relay the message to me on what I have to do. [He's telling me] to stay in the playbook. I got my playbook this morning, so I'm excited."
Peterson is happy to see the rookie in camp on time to start with his teammates, but also because it gives him a few more days to give the young linebacker a hard time.
"It's very important [to have him in on time], especially when you have a guy who you're counting on to help this ball club. To have him here with the guys, mingle in, and carry my helmet, it's great."
Weatherspoon, relieved that the contract process was over, said he was excited to be back on the field and running around. He's also pleased by the welcome he's received from Falcons fans, with or without spoons.
"I'm excited that the fans are excited about me being here and that the people here really want me here," he said with a big grin. "That's a big deal for me."
Quest for perfection:It's only Day One, Practice One, but defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has his mind, body, and soul in midseason form.
At one point during Friday morning's practice, Van Gorder proclaimed to his team a statement that may serve them well through these hot August days as they prepare for a season of high hopes.
"We've got to be perfect in everything we do," the coach said.
While not perfect, they certainly practiced like they wanted to be.
Linebacker Coy Wire met running back Jerious Norwood just north of the line of scrimmage on the sideline in a play that in game action would have blown up a ball carrier.
Safety Erik Coleman recorded the first interception of training camp on a Dunta Robinson tipped pass in deep coverage on Troy Bergeron.
Curtis Lofton floated out of his middle linebacker position to tip and catch a Matt Ryan pass late in the morning's practice.
Mike Peterson also chipped in with a pass takeaway of his own. A leader on the defense, he's returned for another season as the vocal heart of Atlanta's defense. He knows perfection may be unattainable, but there's nothing wrong with trying.
"That's what we want to be on defense," said Peterson. "Training camp is the time to perfect your craft. You're trying to fine tune it, be perfect at it. Nobody's perfect, but if you strive for it, you'll fall somewhere close."
Tight end Tony Gonzalez had high praise for the team's defense, saying after one day a few things were clear, starting with the offseason acquisition of cornerback Dunta Robinson.
"I think a lot of people were talking about our defensive backs as our biggest need," Gonzalez said. "We went out there and got one, got one of the best. From what I saw today in today's practice, that decision was the best decision we could make."
Robinson is rejuvenated by being back home in his native Georgia and with a team that many believe is on the cusp of being a perennial winner. However, he says, hype doesn't win championships.
"It's new for me because I've never come into a season the six years that I played in Houston and we were the team that everybody was saying 'We're looking for you guys to do big things,'" said Robinson. "It's a new feeling for me but at the same time, talk is cheap. You've got to come out and produce and you've got to get the job done. You really can't pay too much attention to that."
Atlanta's defense is entering a pivotal stage in its development under the tutelage of Head Coach Mike Smith and Van Gorder. The youth movement has filled the roster with young talent and that talent will be looked upon to change games. Five of the 11 potential projected starters for 2010 are 25 or younger.
Three of those players (Kroy Biermann, Curtis Lofton, and Thomas DeCoud) are entering their third seasons, years, according to Gonzalez, are prime contributing years. The tight end believes those three players are critical to Atlanta's success.
"All those guys are coming into their own," he said. "The third and fourth years are when you start to hit your peak as a player. A lot of guys are hitting that third and fourth year. They need to start playing. It's not a 'I hope they do," it's a "Have to" if you want to be successful and I think they understand that."
Back on the field:The Falcons welcomed a few of last year's injured players back to the field on Friday morning.
Defensive tackle Peria Jerry, cornerback Brian Williams, and wide receiver Harry Douglas all participated in practice.
Head Coach Smith said they will continue to ease the players into practices, having just been medically cleared to take part. The coaching staff and trainers want to see how each player responds and bounces back after each day of camp.
"The plan right now is they're going to practice once a day," said Smith. "They'll come out and do walkthroughs in the afternoon practice. They'll be out and they'll spend the afternoon doing walkthroughs and hopefully we'll come back tomorrow and be able to get another practice out of them like we did today. Hopefully by next week we'll continue to advance their workload."
The rehabbed players all spent major parts of last year off the field, nursing their injuries, but none longer than Douglas, who went down with an ACL injury just days into training camp. The third-year receiver described the injury and the loss of his second season as 'heartbreaking', but said his family and the Falcons family helped him pick up the pieces and move on.
He spent last night thinking about how much he'd worked heading into last year to have it lost with the snap of a knee. He said he was happy the rehab was behind him and thankful for the chance to be back on the field, playing the game he loves for the team that has shown him love.
"I just love being around this place," he said.
An important message:Ask any Falcons player and he'll tell you Coach Smith likes his addresses to the team and usually has a good one in his back pocket.
This year the approach was simple. Smith told his team to follow the message of May's minicamp. The directive at that time was to be a team focused on attitude, effort, and technique. With camp set to begin and enthusiasm at a fever pitch, he told his team to focus on staying healthy.
"Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate," Peterson said of Smith's comments to the team.
"The biggest thing for us to stay healthy, especially in the first ten days of training camp," said Smith. "We want to make sure that we're doing everything we can for our guys in terms of hydration. Tempo of the practice, I think, is going to be very important for staying healthy. That's one of our main objectives."
Strategically, Smith wants the team to continue to advance on offense and defense in training camp.
"We've made a lot of subtle adjustments in Year 3," he said. "The playbooks have gotten bigger so we have to continue to work in those areas."
Don't complain about the heat:With temperatures expected to get as high as 97 on Friday, with a heat index of 99 to 103, it's understandable if players get a little disgruntled.
Well into the 90's at 10 a.m. there were a lot of wet brows, but the first day back at a game you love will make heat like that worth it. So will the belief that your team can meet the expectations placed on its shoulders.
"That's why I'm so excited," Gonzalez said Friday about the team's promise in 2010. "That's why this 100 degree weather is just a side note as far as I'm concerned. We just want to come out and get better and see how far we can take this thing."
When asked how Flowery Branch's heat compared to his former locale of Jacksonville, Florida, Mike Peterson used his attire to illustrate his answer.
"Not even close," he said. "You can see I've got long sleeves on, I'm trying to sweat."
According to the Weather Channel, one new Falcon has experienced far worse heat in his career. A ranking of the top-ten hottest training camp sites (Atlanta ranks #9) shows that Houston is the hottest in the NFL, with temperatures reaching triple digits at least every other day.
Dunta Robinson spent six years of his NFL career in that heat, after growing up in the South. He knows about heat like he knows about Steve Smith's low center of gravity.
"This is a good day compared to what I'm used to out in Houston," Robinson said. "The good thing about is I've been in the south all my life from growing up in Athens, Georgia, to going to the University of South Carolina, to the Houston Texas, and now with the Atlanta Falcons. I'm pretty accustomed to the heat so it's not new for me."
Fan attendance: The morning practice, which saw