Smiles were all around as the official signs that football has resumed were present at the Atlanta Falcons training facility here in Flowery Branch this morning with the kickoff of the 2011 season's training camp.
Perhaps no one was more pleased to be back on the field than head coach Mike Smith, whose week has been so hectic that the start of it seems far in the distance.
"In fact it seems like it was four months ago," Smith said. "This week has been a long week in terms of having a plan in place, in terms of what we wanted to do personnel-wise. We had a plan in place with what we wanted to do with our team when they got back. We just needed to make sure we were on top of the sequencing of how we were going to be able to practice. We've come out here and had to make some minor adjustments but for the most part we spent our offseason getting prepared. We've got a good group of guys that know what we're trying to get done and know what we're trying to accomplish."
Friday morning's practice was a light walk-thru, giving the players an opportunity to get acclimated to a life of football every day once again. Smith was pleased with the work he feels his players did to stay in football shape during the unusual offseason and it's showing already.
"We've got a gauge early on through these first three of four days where our guys are physically," he said. "We did not have a running test when they reported yesterday, but we did a run just to gauge where our guys were. We were very impressed with the fitness level in the run, although it wasn't that strenuous."
The enthusiasm for getting back to football may have been the biggest adrenaline push of the day however. The league's new practice rules mean fewer intense practices, but the easy pace of Friday morning didn't mean things weren't getting accomplished.
"It was good," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "The walk thru this morning was productive. With the new schedule I think we're going to have to be productive with our walk-thrus. I think we did a good job out there; guys were focused. I think everybody's really excited to be back, coaches and players, and there was really good energy."
If ever there was a rookie class at a disadvantage, it's this season's.
Not only do they have the typical up-hill climb of a amateur-turned-professional, this year they have the added lack of offseason workouts to meet with coaches and dig deep into the playbook.
Having the entire rookie class signed and in camp when it began was the first step for Smith and his staff to get the Falcons' rookie class up to speed. The coach reminded everyone just how little contact they've had with their incoming players.
"I think our rookies are swimming more so than any year," Smith said. "This is the first time over the last 48 hours that we've really had an opportunity to meet these guys face to face, except for our first-round draft pick. It's a different year and we're going to improvise and adjust. These guys are going to have to catch up. They know they're behind and we know they're behind. We're going to have to make sure that the volume of work that we give these guys is such that they're going to be able to take it all in. We've got a different plan in place for the rookies than we do for the veterans. Basically what we're installing is for everyone but we're not going to call all the stuff that is in our playbook."
Many eyes of the media gathered on Friday morning were on that first-round draft selection, wide receiver Julio Jones. Smith is looking forward to seeing what the potential playmaker can do on the field and how he meets the high expectations that are inevitably going to be placed on him.
"I'm really excited to see what Julio can do," he said. "In terms of the move we made during the draft, I think it says what our expectations of Julio are and we're excited to work with him."
Jones benefited from attending many of the player practices during the offseason and because of that he felt his first day wasn't as difficult as some of his other young teammates.
"Not so much for me because I know more of the offense than other rookies but I can see what they're going through," Jones said. "When I came out there for seven-on-sevens, I didn't know what was going on."
Jones has been educated by his teammates, learning the best way to fit in with this team is take your business seriously every day. For that reason the young receiver has been trying to show his teammates they can count on him to bring more than just hype.
"You've got to build that bond with your teammates, especially as a rookie," he said. "Coming in, you've got to earn those guys' trust by being on time and earn their respect by going out there and practicing fast."
Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon extolled the virtues of a baby-step approach for the rookies: Learn what you've been taught for that day, carry it to the field and move on to the next day.
"The best advice I can give is to know what you know," he said. "You can't come out here and learn the playbook in one day. You've got to take it one day at a time. Whatever you know, that's what you go out there and do. …Whatever they teach you, go out there and try to learn that coaching point and you'll get better each and every day. Just keep a positive attitude when you step on the field."
Recently re-signed linebackers Mike Peterson and Stephen Nicholas can not yet join the team and that leaves the linebacker portion of the players dormitories without some big personalities.
They'll be allowed to rejoin the team on Aug. 4, and that day can't come soon enough for Weatherspoon.
"We got the house DJ, Mike P and we got Steve," Weatherspoon said. "We're ready to get those guys back in here. We've got an empty room out there in the dorm, so we're waiting on somebody to come fill it up. We're glad to get those guys signed up because we need all the help we can get. It's going to be a long season so we look forward to getting them back."
Weatherspoon said he valued the work he and the other linebackers put in during the offseason while attending player-led practices. He cited middle linebacker Curtis Lofton has one of the leaders of what the defense was trying to install and learn.
"We were out on the field at Buford High getting it in," he said. "We were going over a script. Curt had a script that he composed and we went over that. We just made sure we stayed on top of it. I think that'll definitely help us."
As for personal goals, the 2010 first-round draft pick is trying to continue to learn from the veterans around him and hopes to made bigger strides than he did during his injury-riddled rookie season.
"My main thing is I'm going to stay healthy and on top of what my responsibility is," the linebacker said. "I'm always in the (play) book. I'm always trying to get better. If I stay out of the training room I think I can be pretty successful."