The Falcons pulled off one of the most dramatic turnarounds in the NFL last season in large part because of shrewd personnel decisions. For the second year in a row, they are aiming at a postseason berth and much of that has to do with the drafting, along with a few key free-agent acquisitions, done by General Manager Thomas Dimitroff and his staff.
Today, one of those draft picks will be put to the test in a way that could play a large role in determining whether the Falcons land a spot in the playoffs this season. Rookie Christopher Owens, a third-round pick out of San Jose State, will start for the second game in a row at left cornerback -- only the second start of Owens' NFL career. A win by the Falcons (6-5) would put them ahead of the Eagles (7-4) in the conference wildcard race.
The position on the field of left cornerback has been perhaps the Falcons' biggest trouble spot this season. It appeared that they had it shored up when they signed veteran Brian Williams after Williams was cut by Jacksonville days before the regular season started. But then Williams blew out his knee against Chicago in Game 6 and was lost for the season. Since then, Brent Grimes, Tye Hill and now Owens all have earned starts there. The hope on the Falcons' behalf is that Owens, a diminutive 5-foot-9, 179 pounds, will succeed where others have not.
Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith said he thought that Owens was thrown into the fire last Sunday in the Falcons' 20-17 win over Tampa Bay against wide receivers Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton. Maybe that is so from a receivers' perspective, but Buccaneers' rookie quarterback Josh Freeman, who showed himself to be talented and performed very well in that game, only has about as much NFL experience as Owens.
For Owens to go against the Eagles' veteran Donovan McNabb, who has guided his team to five NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl, is another matter. Smith said he did not think that McNabb would single out Owens and test him early and often.
"I think that [McNabb]'s going to read the coverage like all quarterbacks do and based on what the coverage is is the direction he's going to go," Smith said. "I think Chris is up for the challenge. He got his feet wet last week and he'll be out there from the first snap. I know he's excited about the opportunity and we're excited to see how he develops from Week 1 to Week 2."
One factor in the Falcons' favor is that the Eagles will be without their top receiver, DeSean Jackson, who will miss the game with a concussion. But fourth-year man Jason Avant has averaged nearly 100 yards receiving over the last three games and rookie Jeremy Maclin, the Eagles' first-round pick, is emerging.
In my conversations with Owens, he has shown himself to be smart and cautious in choosing his words, as many rookies are. In talking to him this week, I could see the amount that he is preparing and how seriously he is taking his task. But the excitement showed itself, as well.
"I've been watching McNabb since I was a kid," said Owens who was 12 when McNabb began his rookie season in 1999. "I really appreciate everything he's done for the game of football and for me to play against him is an honor, really an honor."
McNabb was not surprisingly rather complimentary and bland when asked for his evaluation of the Falcons' secondary in a conference call on Wednesday.
"I've had the opportunity to watch them a couple of times throughout the year," McNabb said. "They've had a lot of injuries and some guys they've put out there have made some plays."
They Falcons are banking that Owens will make some of those plays today. The leader of the secondary, veteran safety Erik Coleman, had praise for Owens.
"He's been working hard this whole offseason, working against our number one receivers against our scout team when he wasn't starting," Coleman said. "Now he's been in film room, working hard, spending time after practice. I'm sure it'll pay off for him."
Owens was not counting his chickens. I asked him if he felt good about earning the start in such a pivotal game.
"I'll feel good," he said, "after the game."