Over the last couple of weeks, I've had an opportunity to step back from the 2014 season and think about the ups and downs of it. Like most seasons in my career, there were some highs and lows.
One thing you can continue to see is that the NFL is forever changing. But I've really focused in the last couple years on staying centered in who I am as a person, and as a player. As long as you stay true to who you are, regardless of the emotional rollercoaster that you may go on as a team or individual, you can still appreciate the little things in your life and career.
I still enjoy playing the game and doing so at a high level. As a seasoned veteran, to be able to play in 15 of our 16 games this season made me proud. Participating in all of our games was a goal of mine, a goal that I missed by just one game.
But not being able to finish the season with my teammates and compete against the Carolina Panthers is something I regret. I believed that we would win that game, get into postseason, and host a wild card playoff game. That didn't happen. Not being able to accomplish those goals definitely catapulted me physically and emotionally to be primed and ready to play football in the spring. I want to finish the last year of my individual contract with the Atlanta Falcons at a very high level.
You can look around the league and see guys like Steve Smith Sr. and many other skill players still playing the game at a very high level well into their 30s. That reassures me that it can be done as long as you dedicate yourself and work extremely hard in the offseason, which I've already made plans to do in the coming months.
We're all very much looking forward to a new beginning with a new head coach in Atlanta. I'm excited to go out and give the Atlanta fanbase and the Falcons front office exactly what they expected of me when I came here.
I'm a man of great loyalty. Once I sign up to do something, I want to do it a hundred percent, and do it the right way. That means playing at a very high level next season for the Atlanta Falcons. There are great things on the horizon and within reach for me personally and as part of the Falcons, and I'm looking forward to achieving our goals together.
Any time I reflect on a season, it's important to me to assess the way I played the game.
I'm extremely happy with my output, and the passion that I played the game with.
Statistically, my goal was to end the season at 11,500 career rushing yards, so I came up a little short of that milestone. But in reality, I was only about 100 yards away from it while missing one game.
I believe setting goals is an important thing for every individual player. You always have to have something that you're working towards because that's how you get better. It's also important to keep goals within reasonable reach, so you give yourself a good chance of accomplishing them. I set my goals very well and worked hard toward accomplishing them.
The highlight of the season for me was playing in London again.
The two things I love to do are traveling and play football, and that whole game – outside of coming up short against the Lions — was almost an ideal trip just because it spoke to who I am personally and professionally.
I see myself as an international person. I love to travel, and have a lot of international miles under my belt. It filled me with pride to be able to play a sport that I grew up loving, and share it with a whole other culture on that international stage. Then you add in being able to score on a run that took me over 11,000 yards in my career, on that stage, it was something I'll always remember. Whenever you can do something like that before a full crowd at Wembley Stadium, it's an awesome experience.
One of the other goals I set for myself was being more of a leader for our team. I made great strides from year one to year two in Atlanta in that area, and as a voice in the locker room.
Any time you're a new person in a new environment you want to sit back and see how things work, and who the guys are in positions of leadership. That's what I did in my first year in Atlanta. It's important to do that instead of trying to come in and take over. It allows you to see where there's a void, and a role you can play.
For me, that starts with my work ethic. I pride myself on being a guy who is dependable and comes in regardless of the situation and the surroundings. It's essential to show up on time for work, ready to work extremely hard when you're there. That's just the way I am.
It's important for young guys to see what it means to be a true professional in this game. I don't speak much, but when I do, I try to make it meaningful so they can take something away from it and it gives them something of value personally and professionally.
This season, I was able to take on a natural role being the starter and the veteran in a backfield with a lot of young talent. Those guys came to me when they needed advice, and when they had questions about a particular play. I always cherish those moments. One way you can always be part of the game and build a legacy is by sharing your knowledge with others, and watching them thrive in their own careers.
Our offense has a lot of dynamic players. It also has some guys that don't get a lot of credit, but are just as important to our success.
If I had to put together my offense, I'd look to build it from the inside-out. The two key positions to doing that are center and fullback, and James Stone and Patrick DiMarco are building block type players that you need at those positions in pro football.
James Stone was probably the most impressive player on the team to me this season. He's a very bright spot to come out of 2014-15. For an undrafted guy who probably wasn't even expected to last in the NFL to start in a number of games and be successful — he's already defied the odds right there.
A lot of people don't understand that a center has a huge responsibility in the offense. When our first and second string centers went down, Stony stepped up on and off the field.
On the field, he has to set the protections, especially when there's a sliding protection. He has to be able to read a defense, be it a standard 4-3 defense or a 3-4 defense. He has to be able to dissect the personnel in a matter of seconds, get the protection called and then get the ball back to the quarterback.
He also has major responsibilities for the team during the week. Each week, we have running game meetings and protection meetings that are generally run by the center. Somebody had to run that running game meeting with our veteran center going down, and it would been easy for me, being in the NFL for 11 years, to take over. But I didn't because I thought it was important for Stony to know that I trusted him, and had confidence in him.
That allowed him to show people how smart he is. He's a very quiet, southern guy with a deep drawl, and sometimes he's hard to understand when he talks, but I knew he was smart. I knew he had the capability to run the meeting, and I thought it was important for him to get that experience because that's what his job title calls for him to do as the center. Just because he was an undrafted free agent, I didn't feel we should take that opportunity away from him.
I think all of us showing that confidence in him probably played a huge role in the way he played. When you play the game of football week in and week out, and you're going to win some battles, and you're going to lose some battles. But knowing that you have the trust of the coaching staff and the respect of your team, it really helps you bounce back if you have a poor performance.
Being up close and being able to see Stony's growth over the year with Coach Tice, I think he has a very bright future. I believe that not only his intelligence, but his ability to pass protect and run block will keep him around the NFL for a very long time.
I'm excited about the improvement on our offensive line as the year went on. We had a ton of injuries up front, but by the end of the season we had a set offensive line that had played seven or eight weeks together, and you could see the difference it made. It really showed that once a group of five offensive linemen get a chance to gel and play for a while, you can be effective — especially when you have the backfield that we have, with very dynamic, very different, very capable runners.
Like Stony, our fullback, Patrick DiMarco, doesn't often get the recognition he deserves. He's played in the NFL for a while, and understands the intricacies of a running game, especially runs between the tackles.
When you talk about blocking, it's really like a pulley system. You really have to be able to work together, and DiMarco and I work very well together. He knows my running style, and he can just tell from looking at the defender's eyes what I'm doing. It sets up his run angle, and allows him to complete the block.
Having a complete fullback like him is very important because he can catch the ball out of the backfield in the flat. A lot of defenses don't want to protect the underneath routes, which typically includes the five yards from the line of scrimmage, sideline to sideline. Secondaries choose to take the deep ball away. When you can have two receivers out of the backfield as outlets for the quarterback, it's huge.
CORE IN PLACE
Our defense also has the building blocks to be a special defense in the league.
Paul Worrilow has done a really good job. I think he finished in the Top 5 in the NFL in tackles. He's another guy that went undrafted, but has had a very impressive two-year run. We've got William Moore over the top, and anytime he's on the field, I look for the big hit. He's probably the mirror image of me on the defensive side of the ball. He's the tone setter. He's a guy that is very spirited, and plays with a lot of passion. I enjoy watching him anytime that he's on the football field.
I don't think you can break down our defense and not mention Jonathan Babineaux. He's been very consistent over his tenure here in Atlanta. He's played interior d-line and outside on the d-line, and he does a really good job of leading that group.
You have to have a core players on all sides of the ball, and I think those three are guys that we can lean on in this organization.
We've built from there. Last year, we brought in Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson to stop the run. Then you have the growth of some of the players in the secondary. You could see it in Desmond Trufant, his confidence and his natural skill set as a cover corner taking over. If you add a couple more stones to the fire to get after the passer — with the growth of our DB's, I think we could be a very good defense. That's just a matter of one or two additions and tweaks.
THE NEXT CHAPTER
As a player going into my 12th season and playing for my eighth head coach, two being interim, I've seen a lot of different coaching styles.
It's important for a guy to come in not only with credibility but also exuding confidence. You want somebody whose presence you can feel before they even walk into a room. I think that's extremely important in an NFL locker room. If you have those intangible qualities, you can lead and convince young men to follow you, and they'll be willing to run through a brick wall for you. That is a guy who could be very successful in Atlanta, where we already have a first-class owner and a fan base that's excited about football.
The potential of this Falcons team is scary good.
The next head coach is going to inherit a great mixture of talent between veteran and young star players. We already have established a core nucleus of guys with an extreme veteran presence, who understand the level of excellence and the level of commitment that is needed to reach a championship level of success.
Whoever comes in won't have to worry about teaching a winning mentality or changing the culture. It's going to be more about tweaking, and putting in the right person that has the right schemes.
We don't need a rebuild. We just need a tweak.
Watching the game against Carolina, their overall mentality — especially on the defensive side of the ball — was that they were going to come in, beat us up and bully us. And we allowed that to happen. That is something we looked at, we acknowledged and we vowed to ourselves that it wouldn't happen again. The Atlanta Falcons will continue to be the high-flying team we're known as. But we have to be more than that, and I can tell you right now: getting pushed around the field is something that we just won't stand for or allow to happen any longer.
The game of football is really won when you're the team making fewer mistakes, and you're being consistent week in and week out. Some of that consistency started to happen for us in December. With the offensive line having played a couple of weeks together, they were really good in pass protection. We started running the ball more and became a more balanced offense, which made us more effective and efficient at running the ball.
I'd love to see a offensive play caller who is more committed to the run, and emphasizes a 50/50 run to pass ratio on offense. I believe that would allow us to take advantage of play action, which then allows our receivers to make plays in one-on-one situations on deep balls. The more efficient that you can be, the more it allows all your playmakers to make plays.
If you get a whole offseason of that, and you get guys buying in to a scheme and into one another earlier, it helps you roll into the fall with a lot more confidence. It allows you to start fast.
We have such a great, high-flying receiving corps, but you have to also show a defense that you have a tough mentality. You have to have a running game so that you can not only run inside, but you can run outside the tackles and impose your will on that defense.
We have to become a more consistent running offense. That helps take a lot of pressure off our defense as well as our passing game.
Running the football is an art that I believe is being lost, and I take great pride in showing that it's actually a much needed tool in the offense and on a team. As you get deeper into the season and into the playoffs, the teams that can play good defense and run the ball are the teams that typically win. We have that element here in Atlanta with myself. That's a mindset I thrive in.
I wish that I had the opportunity to touch the ball more, but that's something that all playmakers and all successful individuals wish. I've always said that it's more likely for me to have a stellar game the more I touch the ball, which allows me to establish a rhythm. I believe in being the pacemaker and tone-setter for the team. When you're able to have that, it becomes no different from a one-on-one matchup for a receiver. You tend to lean on that guy that you know you can depend on.
Age is not a circumstance you have to worry about with me. I don't even think about having a lot of wear and tear, or losing a step. It's a matter of just being used effectively and in the right way, Midway through this past season, the last coaching staff caught onto that. I would like to keep that going, and have an even bigger role in doing that for the incoming coaching staff.
I want the fans and front office to know: They've got the same Steven Jackson I was early in my career. As the game goes on, as the season goes on, my running style and mentality only get tougher. The longer the fight, the stronger I get.