Through hard times, you always find out more about yourself. The 2013 season did not go the way I anticipated. It was not the season anyone involved with the Atlanta Falcons — the organization, the players and the fans — saw coming.
Heading into the year, there were high expectations. We had to weather a storm of injuries, and rely on a lot of young guys to step up. Hopefully, that pays dividends for us next year. I think that we’ll see the experience of this year — as well as the talented roster that we already had — come together.
The NFL is a very competitive league, and we found ourselves in tough situations early on in the season. We had eight games decided by six points or less and won just three of those. Of those eight, four were decided by one or two points and we lost three of those four. If we had been able to learn how to finish and make the plays that presented themselves, the season could’ve been very different.
Look back at that very first game: Week 1 in New Orleans. We had an opportunity to take a win on the road against a division foe. That would’ve been huge for us. It probably would’ve sent us into the season that we wanted and expected.
In the last few weeks of the season, the guys played for each other. We wanted to finish in a way that made the city of Atlanta proud, and to be able to look at one another in the locker room and say, “That man is playing for me. I want to go out there and return the favor.” I think you saw that.
We played two very good teams. Both games were decided in the last seconds. We’re not a 4-12 team. If we continue to hold onto the character that we have around here, we can be a very special team in 2014.
One of the things that will help us get back to that point next year is the return of Julio Jones.
Early in the season, you saw the talent. He made very explosive plays before he went out with that foot injury. He could turn a two-yard screen pass into a gain of 20 or 30 yards, and change our field position. He made some huge catches in our game against the New York Jets in Week 5.
The amount of attention he commands from a defense also makes it a lot easier for the rest of the offense to flow. But Julio is one of those rare players who finds a way to continue to make plays — regardless of the coverage or what the defense does to take him away. I really think the sky is the limit for him going forward.
I was really happy that Roddy White was able to finish the season strong, and show people who have questioned what he had left in the tank that there is still plenty left. He is a guy that I highly respect for his work ethic, and the way he goes about the game. He played all year through nagging injuries, and came up with some big catches for us down the stretch.
He puts the team before himself, and gives you everything he has. I learned this year that he won a state championship as a high school wrestler. You see it when he goes out there, and is willing to go down the field and block a safety for me. A lot of times when you think of successful receivers, we tend to throw around the word “primadonna.”
Roddy? He’s a warrior.
To finish in the fashion that he did — to not throw in the towel because the season was lost and he had these nagging injuries — is very impressive. It shows you exactly who Roddy is.
As he heads into the prime of his career now, it’s going to be exciting to watch Matt Ryan up close and personal these next two seasons.
Matt is a tough leader, and he not only works hard on the practice field, but in his preparation. He was my training camp roommate, which allowed me to see how early he would get up and start his day.
He worked meticulously with the receiving corps to make sure they were running their routes at the right the depths, and hitting the landmarks on certain routes. If things got a little off due to bump and run coverage or something like that, he’d make sure they knew exactly where the ball was going to be.
Watching things like that showed me how he has gotten to the level he has.
RESPECT FOR A LEGEND
This year, Tony Gonzalez showed me many things that I will take with me as my career goes on. He is an unbelievable and rare talent. To have the success that he had, year after year, comes from the way that he takes care of himself on and off the field, starting with the way he eats, all the way down to the way that he studies and prepares himself for games.
Even through a bad season, when we did not expect ourselves to be in that position, he still loved the game and was consistent. He continued to be a playmaker that Matt could depend on to be there for him.
He’s just a genuinely good guy, and he cares about the game. He cares about the NFL. He understands the responsibility of being on this stage for so long. He gets that there are children and young people that watch us and look up to us, and he never took that for granted.
CARVING MY OWN LEGACY
I’m definitely aware of the things I’ve been able to accomplish throughout my career, and there are always targets on my list of goals. This past season, I moved all the way from 27th to 20th on the NFL’s all-time rushing list.
When you’re talking about the Top 25 all-time rushing leaders — there are a lot of Hall of Famers on that list. Those are guys I grew up watching and idolized. To have my name beside those guys means a lot to me, and I don’t take that for granted. I use those numbers as motivators to keep me striving for greatness. It’s why I work so hard and why I continue to run the way I do.
The player I passed at No. 20 — Ricky Watters — was one of my favorites as a kid. From his days in San Francisco to Philadelphia and Seattle, Ricky was a guy I loved to watch, especially in the open field. He was a great runner. He had the high knees, and his runs just looked effortless. He always looked like he was smoothly cutting through the field.
To have watched him and now to have passed him on the all-time rushing list, it’s pretty surreal. When you put together dreams and hard work, good things can happen.
When I was in Southeast Asia touring Thailand last year, I had to cut my trip short a little bit. But I promised myself I would go back to Asia and I’m heading over there this month to visit China and Japan. During that last trip, I fell in love with Asian culture. That environment and the people there allow me to really be at ease and find peace after a long season.
I typically recalibrate and reset my goals during my travels. I try to come up with things that are realistic and achievable. It’s something I do yearly, and it works for me. While I’m away, I think about what I’ve accomplished over the last year, what I would like to do better and areas where I would like to improve — not only in football, but in life as well.
I love the cities over there, so I can’t wait to see Honk Kong and Tokyo. I’m also looking forward to the Great Wall of China. I know it’s going to be one of those moments that later in my life I will look back at and be very grateful that I was able to go there, see it and be a part of history.
I’m very thankful that I still have my health and strength, and will be able to come back ready to make another great run in the 2014 season. I’d like to see myself have more carries next year, to have more of an impact on the offense and be more involved in the rhythm of the game, be it through carries or catches. I’m able get in a groove the more times I carry the ball, so I’d like to see myself ramp up the production in that area.
The sense of urgency to be a champion and to be great is something I can see and feel now more than at any time in my career. We took a detour this year. But as a group, we have to remember that our record doesn’t reflect the talent on this team, nor does it indicate how far we have to go to get back to be in contention to win a Super Bowl. We’re not that far away. That will be the first thing I remind myself, and that I remind my teammates.
The NFL has so much parity that it’s not hard to believe that you can have a team’s record fluctuate greatly from year-to-year. The Carolina Panthers went from a disappointing season last year to winning the NFC South with a first round bye this year. You don’t have to let setbacks derail you if you continue to train and prepare as a team with the same goal in front of you year-in and year-out.
We have to put in the work in the offseason to get back to being an elite NFL team. We also have to get our confidence back. Once we have that, I believe we’ll be a very good team — the team that a lot of people expected to see this season.