After a Super Bowl championship was ripped from his grasp, MVP Matt Ryan needed some time to grieve.
He was not alone among the Atlanta Falcons. This one hurt a lot.
“There’s no getting around it,” Ryan said on Wednesday. “You hang on to it for a little bit. You’re in kind of your spot, whatever that is, your dark place for a little bit. Then you realize life goes on.”
For the Falcons, that reality began to sink in this week when they returned to their training complex in Atlanta’s sprawling northern suburbs to begin nearly two months of off-season workouts.
Being together again, with a new goal to shoot for, put a bit of salve on their epic collapse at the Super Bowl, where the Falcons squandered a 25-point lead in the second half and lost in overtime to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
“We addressed it. We talked about it,” Ryan said. “And I felt like it was very clear that everybody was focused on what’s in front of us.”
Coach Dan Quinn, who coined the mantra “brotherhood” to illustrate the closeness of his team during their drive to the title game, has already come up with a new catchphrase to stress where the Falcons are at heading into the upcoming season.
He calls this “base camp” — the point where his team will regroup and start climbing again after coming up just short of the summit.
“In the Everest world of the climbers, where they go to base camp, they take a shot, get acclimated, come back, and keep going for it,” Quinn said.
The Falcons return largely the same team, built around a dynamic offense led by Ryan at quarterback and a young defense who showed enormous promise until Brady pulled off his unprecedented comeback.
However, there have been some big changes in the past couple of months, most notably on the coaching staff.
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan left to become head coach of the San Francisco 49ers and was succeeded by former Washington and Southern Cal coach Steve Sarkisian.
Richard Smith was dumped as defensive coordinator, replaced in house by secondary coach Marquand Manuel.
“We’ve got different guys in the building now. We’re going to be a different team than we were last year,” Ryan said. “Our focus needs to be in front of us.”
And how is this for timing: While the Falcons were talking about moving on, the Patriots were at the White House being congratulated again for their stunning victory.
It will be interesting to see how the Falcons cope with such a monumental disappointment.
There is no set template to draw guidance from, since some athletes who have been through a similar ordeal seemed to carry it with them the rest of their careers. Golfer Jean van de Velde never came close to another major title after throwing away The Open title in 1999 on the 72nd hole.
Others have used it as motivation to reach greater heights. The Boston Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 after a brutal meltdown in the playoffs the year before.
The Falcons are determined to follow the latter path.
“This is the team that wants to prove things — prove how strong they are, how tight they are, how connected they are,” Quinn said. “Obviously, we addressed [the Super Bowl], but we also talked about, now, no more looking back in the rearview; 2017 is officially here and let’s go for it like we never have before.”
While Quinn stresses competition at every position, there will not be any major holes to fill going into training camp.
The most notable battle will be for an offensive guard spot after Chris Chester retired.
He will likely be replaced by either Ben Garland, a backup on the offensive and defensive lines, or Wes Schweitzer, who did not play during his rookie season, but was cited by Quinn as showing tremendous improvement in practice and workouts.
Several players will be limited during the off-season.
Star receiver Julio Jones is recovering from foot surgery, while top cornerback Desmond Trufant is coming back from a season-ending pectoral injury that did not stop the Falcons from signing him to a US$69 million contract extension.
Both should be ready to go at full speed when training camp opens in late July.
Safety Ricardo Allen can not wait to get back on the field.
As disappointing as the Super Bowl was, he believes it taught the Falcons some valuable lessons about giving just a little bit more during the off-season, so they do not wilt again with a championship on the line.
“We’ve been in that moment. We got tired,” Allen said. “Everybody had plays to make. This just pushes us up to another level to be able to go make those plays when they need to be made.”
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