When head coach Mike Smith met with his team to begin training camp this year he reminded them that last season was done. One of the popular phrases used in the aftermath of the loss in the NFC Championship game was "10 yards from a Super Bowl." Smith reminded his team they're no longer 10 yards from anything.
It's a new season and a new quest, but the lessons from last season have hardened this year's Falcons. While they still practice with the same enthusiasm for the game and their appreciation for each teammate is evident, this year's team has a slightly different vibe from teams in the past. There's a razor sharp sense of focus this year, influenced by what happened last season and it's clear on the practice field.
"We've got a lot of guys on this team that want to win and they want to win now," linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. "You know what the goal is and when the goal is what it is, the state of our franchise, where we are, everybody really gets it and we're a focused group."
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Weatherspoon is one of the ambassadors of the Falcons spirit. He's a vocal and energetic player, growing into a leadership position with the Falcons. He's rarely at a loss for words, but when you ask him to speak about the way last season ended, he's short on words and can do little more than shake his head.
The tone at practice this year, said Weatherspoon, is a product of the coaching staff creating a razor-sharp focus in every player on the roster. Weatherspoon thinks this year's Falcons are driven to make the outcome in 2013 different than it ever has been.
"That focus goes with the sense of urgency we have," Weatherspoon said. "I mean, I know we're not supposed to talk about last year, but when things don't go your way and you were in the position to make things go your way and it doesn't go our way, it definitely makes you feel a certain way." Weatherspoon has done his part to make sure things are different this year. Although he missed most of the offseason training activities, he returned for minicamp and his linebacker coach, Glenn Pires, on Monday said the fourth-year linebacker hasn't missed a beat once camp began and looks great, but even more so, he said Weatherspoon came in this year with a dedication to continue to get better.
"What's great about Spoon is he's never satisfied where he's at," Pires said. "He's improving and he knows the things because the older guys look at what happened last year and they want to improve. They know they're going to get better and that's what he does well. When he first came in, he said 'Coach, I've got to get better at this and better at that,' and that's exactly what he's doing. He's improving on what he's got to do from last year. That's what I love about Sean."
Weatherspoon has given his fellow linebackers and ultimately the entire team a mantra this year, a direction for on-field performance: Ball out of control. That's what they have planned for the games this year, but until then there's practice and they're taking the field every day in camp ready to get better on the field and not just say they're trying to get better.
"Coming out here, we're going to have fun, joke around and laugh and sing, but when we step on the field, we're really a focused group," the linebacker said. "We're just trying to bring that each and every day. I think we're focused. That's the main thing; it's not just about coming to practice and getting through practice. It's about focusing during practice. You make a mistake in practice, it's about correcting it and not making it again. I think our group really understands that so that's what we're trying to do."
Like many Falcons, the way last season ended is tough to talk about. They mention it very little, but they know how close they were and the desire to experience a different feeling at the end of the season is one of the things driving them this year. Weatherspoon and the Falcons are focused on 2013 and it shows in practice.
"When I come out here, I'm thinking about the times that aren't so great," Weatherspoon said. "When we're out here, we're working to make sure we don't put ourselves in that position again. We just want to come out here and get better each and every day. I think the main thing that will help us is focus. Focus is the main thing for us this year."