After watching the Atlanta Falcons dismantle the Oakland Raiders piece by piece this past Sunday afternoon, I came to a conclusion.
Atlanta's sports franchises are on the rise -- all of them -- and they are showing more promise than in years past.
Forget the ownership of the Atlanta Spirit in the Thrashers and the Hawks organizations. Forget the miscues that the Falcons have had over the past forty years. Forget the end of the Atlanta Braves' fourteen year dynasty.
It all starts over now.
Let's start with the Atlanta Falcons. As a preseason favorite to be the worst team in the National Football League by many sports analysts, they are 5-3. That's correct, one more win than the grand total for all of last year. Why is that? Well, first of all, Arthur Blank hired a future GM from the Patriots' organization who has done wonders already in Atlanta with building a team from the ground up -- Thomas Dimitroff. With that and the hiring of Mike Smith as the head coach, the Falcons were set for the Draft. On Draft Day, many Atlanta fans wanted Glenn Dorsey in a Falcons uniform. Matt Ryan could wait -- there were other quarterbacks in the draft. I was one of those who were upset that Atlanta did not strengthen their defensive line.
Boy, am I glad they made that move in spite of my wishes.
Matt Ryan looks like a veteran in the form of a rookie. The Falcons D-line has done relatively well, led by John Abraham and his NFL-leading 10 sacks. Stripping off the age and adding talent has this team screaming for more wins down the road. Will they continue this success throughout the remainder of the season? Nothing is for sure, but there is definitely a bright spot for the future. With Ryan excelling, the Atlanta Falcons can establish themselves as a respectable franchise for the next ten years.
Now, on to the Atlanta Hawks. When the Hawks decided to trade for Mike Bibby without giving up much (in hindsight), I knew that the team was beginning to try to push and win. I honestly thought they would play better and get a spot in the playoffs higher than the 8th seed in a weaker Eastern Conference. Nevertheless, getting that 8th seed was probably the best thing that could have happened for these Hawks. Being able to beat the champions at home for three games brought a sense of excitement to this city -- one that has not been around since the pre-dogfighting Michael Vick days in the playoffs against the St. Louis Rams (or extending even further back to when the Braves perenially made it to the playoffs).
It doesn't matter that Josh Childress left. Let him go. The more important player in Josh Smith stayed around. And with Smith earning a long-term contract with the team, along with a rising superstar in Joe Johnson and tremendous talent and ability in Mike Bibby and Al Horford, the Atlanta Hawks have stopped playing around in the sandbox. They are built to win. After two early convincing wins in the season, they have the chance to push deep into the playoffs.
With the Atlanta Thrashers, everyone knows that there is a major rebuilding phase here. However, as an avid Thrashers fan, I must say that this team is tremendously better than the one that was put out on the ice last year. There is a new legitimate coach in John Anderson who stresses offense as defense. I like this style -- if the puck is always in the opponents' zone, is there a huge need for defense? Shots on goal have already increased since last year, along with defensemen in assisting and scoring goals. The power play is their main problem, along with others, but at least this team is competitive. There sure are Thrashers fans who are completely faithful that see the potential in this team; I am certainly one of them. Kari Lehtonen is one of the most underrated goalies in the National Hockey League. In the past few years, his numbers have not been great. But...look at the number of shots on goal. When opposing teams constantly shoot in the high 30's and into the 40's every night, it begins to take its toll on the goalie. Even with that high number, Lehtonen has done extremely well.
Combine Lehtonen's talent level alongside Ilya Kovalchuk, Tobias Enstrom, Ron Hainsey, Erik Christensen, and Bryan Little, and there is a solid nucleus of players to build around. Zach Bogosian will hopefully turn into a superstar once he is able to recover from his injuries and get more playing time under his belt. The Thrashers are at least competitive and are probably at least a year until getting back into playoff contention. However, the future is certainly bright here also.
The Atlanta Braves are the most intriguing sports franchise in this city at the moment. This city has not experienced a 90-loss season like the performance this year in quite some time. Many of the older players have been banged up -- and the baseball world saw once again what can ultimately happen to a rotation made out of aging arms. From the original rotation set at the end of Spring Training, all but one pitcher missed time on the Disabled List -- Tim Hudson, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Mike Hampton (note: all over age 30). The only remaining pitcher was Jair Jurrjens, the newcomer from the Tigers' organization.
Boy, what a trade. Bringing in Jurrjens and Gorkys Hernandez for a declining Edgar Renteria was the right call by Frank Wren. Jurrjens has the potential to be the new ace of the staff down the road at a very affordable price for the next few years. Hernandez joins a group of elite prospects in the Braves farm system that proves to be promising down the road.
The Braves have many pressing needs to fill -- two starting pitchers and a power-hitting corner outfielder. With the sudden power outage of Jeff Francoeur, this team lost a great amount of it's potency. It went from a lineup featuring a threat in Andruw Jones and Mark Teixeira to without those two after the trade deadline passed this year (although Jones really did not do well in Los Angeles this year, either). The Braves have a great nucleus of players to build around, but acquiring that power threat and two pitchers are a necessity. As soon as that happens, the Braves are back in contention once again. With the right pieces and confidence, that team can dethrone the Philadelphia Phillies as the reigning NL East champs. It will take time, money, and effort though. And, fortunately, the Braves front office have all three.
The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets have also woken the city up from its football slumber. With the departure of Chan Gailey and the arrival of option-loving Paul Johnson, the Jackets are in a fine position to wrap up the ACC title. I never saw it coming to be honest -- I was certain an option offense could not survive against some of the great defenses of the Atlantic Coast Conference. I was wrong. Tech has looked very good this year and have shown more life than I could have expected. At this pace, they have a legitimate shot at becoming ACC champions and playing in a BCS bowl for the first time in a long time.
As a Georgia Bulldog lover for life, I am extremely disappointed in how UGA has fared in its two losses this season. However, there is room for hope here as well. Remember that many cornerstone players of this team has been lost to injury -- primarily on the offensive and defensive lines. This offensive line has done a tremendous job refocusing its efforts in such a small amount of time. Give them the remainder of this year to gel. Next year, the line will prove to be much more stronger and efficient with more experience among the players. If Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno both stay around for next year, the offense will have some of the nation's top players in key positions at quarterback, runningback, and A.J. Green at wide receiver. There is a bright future here, with tons of depth at each position because of the great coaching and recruiting ability of Mark Richt.
Some of these franchises aren't there yet, but some of them are able to compete for the gold right now. Atlanta has been a dismal city for sports for as long as I can remember -- not more than two really had great seasons at a time. That's close to changing. The tide will shift, and Atlanta can become the new sports powerhouse on the block.