The Atlanta Falcons are treating their 2014 training camp as an opportunity to press the reset button, after an unexpected and disappointing 2013 season.
After a few days of camp, running back Steven Jackson happily reported a renewed sense of enthusiasm and energy within the Falcons — and this time, no Kool-Aid.
“I thought for sure we were going to the Super Bowl,” Jackson told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I feel like we all got slapped by a piece of humble pie. I drank some of that Kool-Aid, and the Kool-Aid was passed around.”
The 2012 Falcons went 13-3 in the regular season and won a divisional playoff game before being clipped in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game.
From there, in an effort to take the next step in the process and reach the Super Bowl, Atlanta went out and added S-Jax and a few other newcomers, and the hype train was moving at full bore. SJ39 was one of many thinking Super Bowl in 2013, but several key injuries, including one to No. 39, sent that train off its rails.
“When I came here last year, I kind of believed my own hype,” Steven said. “The team was so close to going to the Super Bowl, and I thought I was going to be the missing link. Then reality slaps you.”
When reality and the injury bug hit, the pressure and the losses just mounted in ATL. No. 39 admitted to reporters that he listened to all the outside whispers and got caught in the moment.
But he took the offseason to rejuvenate his mind and his body. Now, he says, all that unnecessary pressure is gone. He’s ready to play his way back to the elite status that he brought to The A—and the team is ready to reclaim its 2012 form.
“We’re all eager to get the season behind us, get that nasty taste out of our mouth,” SJ said. “I think the coaching staff, players as well, we know what we have here, but we have to go out and prove it. Last year, we didn’t have a chance to do that. So I think we all want to get back to being what this organization is used to and that’s winning.”
After he logged less than 1,000 yards for the first time in his career, some are wondering exactly what the Falcons will have in S-Jax. ESPN’s Vaughn McClure wrote that Steven looks rejuvenated. Head coach Mike Smith contends that No. 39 in still one of the league’s elite backs.
“We saw in the last couple of games the kind of running back Steven is before he got injured,” coach Mike Smith said. “I like the other guys as well, and we’re going to have multiplicity with our packages. But I’m very confident Steven Jackson is still an elite running back in the NFL.”
Steven has never been one to doubt his own ability. But last year, he learned that he doesn’t need to carry his team week in and week out. With that revelation, he’s put his trust in the athletes next to him.
“I feel comfortable knowing that I can still compete at a high level,” he said. “There were quite a few of the years in St. Louis when I shouldered a large burden, this year I know I don’t have to shoulder the burden of carrying the franchise. I’m not the missing piece—I’m just one piece.”
Looking around the practice field so far this summer, SJ39 is smiling about what his teammates, the rest of the pieces to the Atlanta puzzle, have brought to the table.
“Carrying over from mini camp, every guy came back retaining information,” Jackson said. “We were ready to practice at a full pace. We saw guys finishing to the ball. Defense had enthusiasm to get to the ball. So it looks good.”
Steven praised the rest of the running back corps, including newcomer Devonta Freeman, who No. 39 says has an “uncanny” ability to make tacklers miss.
Perhaps most importantly for the group of runners, the team’s revamped offensive line is looking strong as well.
“All of our guys up front look fit,” Jackson said. “Guys are athletic enough to get out in space. If they have to pull, they have the ability to get out on a defender in space. We’re all working together as a unit, and we look good.”
From the front line of the offense to the defenders across the field, the Falcons aren’t looking like the team that stumbled to 4-12 last year. And as the season draws closer to its start, SJ is hoping that the squad will continue to take on Super Bowl-caliber qualities.
“You can tell guys have stepped it up a notch. Guys want to be a part of this team,” Steven said. “We still have to put the pads on, that’s when separation really happens. When you put those pads on, you can see who has the heart and determination. But the enthusiasm was out there today.”
- Jackson: ‘I kind of believed my own hype.’ (AJC, July 26, 2014)
- Falcons’ projected roster (ESPN, July 26, 2014)
- Hot Reid: Running Backs Shine (AtlantaFalcons.com, July 29, 2014)
- Jackson: ‘Pads define a player’s determination (AtlantaFalcons.com, July 27, 2014)
- Jackson Looking Forward to Donning Pads (AtlantaFalcons.com, July 25, 2014)