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Atlanta Falcons' Smith is optimistic about the 2009 schedule


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http://www.examiner.com/x-1778-Atlanta-Fal...e-2009-schedule

Wednesday, as many Americans finalized their plan to pay the U.S. government, the Falcons were busy beginning their plan for the 2009 season after the release of the NFL regular season schedule the prior day.

But before they really get into it, they wanted to take a day off to relax and mingle with the media.

Many professional sports franchises will go out of their way to limit the access to the media that covers their team, but the Falcons appear to be doing just the opposite. Instead they invited many members of the local and national media to join the franchise's staff for a day of golf.

The first annual "Hacks vs. Jocks Golf Tournament" went off without a hitch and while many of the hacks present were trying to muster any details they could (specifically about that Gonzalez rumor) about the inner workings of the Falcons, the only thing head coach Mike Smith and co. were not tight-lipped about was their 2009 schedule.

Smith takes an expected even-keel and measured approach to the first few days of review of a new schedule.

"You take a quick glance at it. And then you mull it over for a few minutes. And then you come back about an hour later after you've digested it and look at it again."

The Falcons coach said he's only begun to examine the true details of the schedule. He believes it generally takes three to four days for everything to come into focus.

The first thing he noticed was opening the season at home. Atlanta will play the first two games of the '09 regular season in the friendly confines of the Georgia Dome; however, their opponents will be 2008 playoff teams.

He also noticed the two national television games for which his team was selected to play. He described it as an honor to play on national television, something that he feels was earned and is well-deserved.

"To have the honor of playing on national TV on Sunday night and Monday night is big. That's something the guys out there on the field earned last year. We earned those opportunities to play on national TV."

They earned those rights by finishing 11-5 last season, but also by featuring some of the more exciting offensive players in the NFC in quarterback Matt Ryan, receiver Roddy White, and running back Michael Turner.

But Smith is quick to point out last year's success only means next year will be tougher. Given what is described as the fourth-toughest schedule in the NFL (based on last year's records), the Falcons have their work cut out for them. Additionally, many of their opponents will have the 2008 playoff team circled on their calendar.

"Really, that's an honor and you should take pride in that. The record that we had last year, we earned that. And we've got to go out each week this upcoming season and earn our wins."

There will definitely be a lot to earn in '09 for the Falcons. 14 of their 16 opponents finished with a .500 record or better last season. But that doesn't necessarily mean it's guaranteed to happen again in the upcoming season. The NFL is an "ever-changing" league, as described by Smith, and injuries, as well as the decline of key players, factor in heavily to how a team performs.

For this reason Smith cautions people to pencil-whip wins and losses on the 2009 schedule. In fact the only guarantee he made related to the fourth week of the season (the bye week). He promised there would be no loss that week.

The bye week does fall early for Atlanta this season. The Week Four bye marks the earliest bye week for the Falcons since the 2002 season. Atlanta will have 13 straight games, excluding any playoff appearances, following that week off, which makes for a long and grueling stretch, but Smith remains optimistic about it.

"You don't know what may happen. You may have some injuries in terms of the preseason and it may come at the right time. You just don't know," Smith said. "Conventional wisdom says you'd like to have it in Week Seven, Eight, or Nine, but you never know. ...That's the hand that's been dealt to us and we've got to go out and prepare with that in mind."

It's a pragmatic approach to looking at the schedule, and specifically the bye week, and one that has come to be expected from Smith, but he did agree that it comes earlier than he prefers.

In a quote included with the official release of the schedule from the Falcons, Smith said "Our 2009 schedule presents a unique set of opportunities. ...It's a solid schedule and our players and coaches will be ready to go."

If it sounds like Smith is grasping for the positives in the midst of what is clearly a tough schedule (on paper), it's because he is. However, for Smith it's a usual approach and it's more accentuating than grasping.

However, if you need more positives, consider this:

After a very tough stretch in the middle of the season where five of seven games are on the road, the Falcons close the season with four-of-six at home, including three straight.

The Falcons clearly have an advantage at home. In 2008, Atlanta was 7-1 at home.

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