FLOWERY BRANCH — If Roddy White plays as expected when the Falcons open the regular season at New Orleans on Sunday, it will represent a milestone of sorts.
With White in the lineup, the Falcons would have their entire starting offense intact for a game the first time since their NFC Championship game loss to the 49ers last season. Circumstances made the offense a mishmash of players for much of the exhibition season.
By Falcons coach Mike Smith’s count, the team had all of its key offensive starters on the field together for just two days in training camp. That was for practice sessions before tight end Tony Gonzalez went home to California for family time with Smith’s blessing.
Injuries later sidelined White and Julio Jones. White was still out by the time Gonzalez returned to play in the third exhibition game and hadn’t returned to the practice field as of Monday. Fullback Bradie Ewing also missed most of training camp and two exhibition games.
The absence of key players had the offense unsettled during training camp and in exhibition games. But Smith said it’s not an unsettling development on the eve of the regular season.
“That’s not a concern at all,” he said. “I feel like we got what we needed to get accomplished.”
Gonzalez was gone for three weeks and returned to play in the third exhibition game. White suffered an ankle injury during the second game and hasn’t played or practiced since. Jones missed the first exhibition game with tight hamstrings, but put up big numbers in the two games he played.
Like Smith, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said he’s not worried that those key players missed time. He noted that all are veterans, especially Gonzalez (18th NFL season) and White (10th).
Perhaps more of a challenge for Koetter is figuring out what to make of his unit’s performance in the exhibition games. That can be tricky because there were no game plans to speak of and limited use of the playbook.
“I do know what you mean, unfortunately,” Koetter said with a chuckle. “I always think of it as, in the preseason, you are evaluating players, not really evaluating schemes. The preseason is to give younger guys a chance to play.”
For the Falcons’ first-team offense, that mainly meant evaluating center Peter Konz and right tackle Lamar Holmes, two young players who are taking on larger roles. The rest of the offense is dominated by veterans, but the unit’s results were not promising for the three games in which the starters played.
Koetter said the team looks at the same goals during the exhibition season as in the regular season. Those include turnovers, explosive plays (20 yards or more), third-down conversions, penalties and red-zone touchdown percentage.
Among those categories, the first-team offense excelled only with ball security (no turnovers in 75 plays) and explosive plays (five) in the exhibition games. Falcons regulars committed five penalties for 40 yards, converted on three of 15 third downs and scored one touchdown in four trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. In addition, opponents sacked quarterback Matt Ryan five times on 43 pass attempts.
Koetter said “you can’t get overly upset like you would in the regular season” when those areas aren’t up to par. But neither would he say that game-planning and using more of the playbook during the regular season would necessarily solve those problems.
“I don’t want to put it all on that,” he said. “But preseason games are different than regular-season games. Obviously if we don’t produce in the regular season (fans) will be mad at me, and I will be mad at myself.”
The way running back Steven Jackson sees it, exhibition games are “just practice under the lights.” And he said even if all of the Falcons’ regulars had been available for the entire preseason, it’s not as if the offense would be a finished product from the start.
“Teams get better as the season goes on as they learn what they do well and as personnel learn each other,” Jackson said. “That’s the thing about us. We’ve got to continue to get better as the season goes on.”