Guerry Clegg

Guerry Clegg: Don’t expect anything from Falcons, good or bad.

Those of us who have witnessed all or most of the first 50 years of Atlanta Falcons football have learned this much of each new season. Expect nothing. We’ve learned to hope for the best, but make alternate plans for the second half.

That’s not to say expect losing, although there is that, too. Their .434 winning percentage ranks fourth-worst of all existing NFL franchises, behind Tampa Bay, Arizona and Houston.

Rather, by “expect nothing,” I mean that quite literally. Expect neither bad nor good. Seldom has their performance over the course of a season aligned with preseason expectations.

This year’s team, which opens the season today at home against the Buccaneers, might be the hardest one yet to read. If ever there’s a time for hope, it’s now, when the record is fresh and clean.

There are reasons for optimism, albeit mild.

This is Dan Quinn’s second season as the head coach, so he has had a full season to evaluate his players.

The offense has a nice mix of playmakers with receiver Julio Jones, running back Devonta Freeman, tight end Jacob Tamme and now receiver Mohamed Sanu. The offensive line finally seems stable, especially with the addition of center Alex Mack.

Then there’s quarterback Matt Ryan. Sure, his star has lost some luster in the last three seasons. But he’s still capable of playing winning football. Several teams would love their Super Bowl or at least playoff chances if they had Ryan. Denver, Minnesota, Dallas and Los Angeles come to mind. More on Ryan later.

The defense should be better with Vic Beasley having a year of experience and hopefully healthier and the addition of Dwight Freeney to boost the pass rush in spots. They actually made strides last year, improving from being one of the worst units in the league to simply being average.

Given all of that, it’s reasonable to think the Falcons could improve on their 8-8 record from last year and make the playoffs.

That is, if they can survive the first half of their schedule. After today, the Falcons have back-to-back road games against Oakland and New Orleans, then play Carolina at home before going back on the road against Denver and Seattle, two of the toughest places to play.

That’s followed by home games against San Diego and Green Bay. A 4-4 start would be an accomplishment. Anything better would be dreaming. A 2-6 start is very possible.

All of that makes winning today’s game essential.

This is a pivotal year for the Falcons for many reasons. It’s their last one in the Georgia Dome. The Falcons can ill afford a fourth consecutive disappointing season before heading into their new dome, Mercedes-Benz Stadium. They need to boost enthusiasm.

It’s also a pivotal year for Ryan. They need their franchise quarterback to play better than he has the last three seasons. He needs to get back to the level where he was in 2012, when he led the NFL in completion percentage (68.6 percent) and set career highs with 4,719 passing yards and 32 touchdowns. He hasn’t exactly been bad, contrary to what some critics believe. In fact, at times he has actually been very good. He’s averaged 4,600 yards and has 75 touchdown passes over the last three seasons.

But he has also thrown 47 interceptions and has been sacked 105 times. This is his ninth season and he’s 31 years old. Time is running out on the prime years of his career.

“I think every year you have a great sense of urgency because you never know. You just never know how things are going to shake out,” Ryan said. “Obviously we won a lot of games my first five years and that hasn’t been the case the last three. But none of that matters. What matters is this season.”

“And for me, is there extra motivation? I think your motivation continues to build the longer you play in your career. I think you become more motivated to be great, to play at a high level and to win more games. At least that’s the way it’s been for me. I’ve become more and more competitive the longer that I’ve been around and I think part of the reason is you know what it takes. You know how hard it is, and you know good it feels when you do win. And that’s what it’s all about for me.”

Guerry Clegg: sports@ledger-enquirer.com, @guerryclegg

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