Falcons achieve winning culture, Heat lose just in time

           Tradition, pedigree, culture…all these concepts, though less than completely tangible, always seem to count in sports. In the NFL, teams like the Steelers and Patriots forever appear near or at the top of the standings by season’s end. In the NBA, it seems like, no matter their luck, the Lakers, Celtics and Spurs always find a way to contend, if not win it all. Winning big, and expecting to win on a consistent basis, starts at the top with the Owner and General Manager, and their plan for success must then be skillfully reinforced and implemented by a team’s head coach.

            The aforementioned franchises have figured this winning formula out.  When I moved to Atlanta in 2007, the Falcons hadn’t. Michael Vick and Jim Mora Jr. were on their less-than-illustrious ways out of town, and so was support for and faith in the team’s championship cause. Of course, the national perception and opinions of the franchise around the league weren’t much more favorable. Then, in 2008, Arthur Blank formed what is now an inspired threesome, brining in Thomas Dimitroff as GM and Mike Smith as head coach, and the turnaround has been remarkable. Since then, the franchise has made the postseason in all but one year and, with guys like Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Sean Weatherspoon roaming the sidelines, appears to be setup well for the future.

           Entering the 2012 playoffs, however, people both in and out of Atlanta still lacked respect for the Falcons. Whether they weren’t winning by enough points or hadn’t yet won big, the faith just didn’t seem to be there among most. With a postseason victory and a prosporous summer, though, all that seems to have changed. After more than five years of quality leadership from the top down, the transformation feels complete. The City of Atlanta believes in the Birds more now than ever, and the league has certainly taken notice. The importance of outclassing other top teams to land major free-agent veterans like Steven Jackson and Osi Umenyiora, guys too old and established to sign with anything other than a contender, should not be overlooked or undervalued, and locals have now adopted a championship-or-bust mentality.

         Whether those expectations are realistic doesn’t matter. What does matter is that said perception marks an arrival. The arrival of a new culture at Flowery Branch. A culture that, like with the Yankees or Lakers, attracts big-name free agents looking to win now. A culture that inspires fans to expect a win every Sunday. A culture created and reinforced by management that’s never satisfied, by management that will do everything its power (like trading up to pick Julio Jones) to bring a title to Atlanta. From a personnel standpoint, the Falcons might actually be good enough to win a Super Bowl in 2013. More importantly, though, the franchise, City and league now actually expect it to happen. 


            Everyone by now knows, the Bulls topped the Heat on Wednesday night, putting an end to Miami’s historic 27-game winning streak, six shy of the mark set by the Lakers of 1971-72. I should acknowledge that I never thought Miami would actually top the 33-game mark, and was sort of shocked to see the Heat keep it going for so long. But not for the reason most would assume; Miami is indeed noticeably better than just about every team it faces, so winning a bunch of games in a row never seemed impossible for this Heat. There is, however, a reason no defending champion (which Miami is) had ever won so many games in a row, and I think it has a lot to do with mindset.

            Past champions are usually driven by one thing only: more championships. Once a team or player has won a title, they tend to adopt more of a big-picture approach, caring little about other lesser milestones. After championship runs, teams like the Lakers and Celtics have famously coasted through the first half of regular seasons before rounding into shape just in time for the playoffs. Greg Popovich and the Spurs are notorious for sacrificing regular-season victories in an effort to rest key veterans with the playoffs in mind. The Heat, though, were surpisingly special in their approach, adopting and chasing a cause only achievable in regular-season play.

            This distinction highlights a hugely important question: from a philosophical perspective, was Miami wise to chase regular-season history? The argument here against the chase is that the Heat would be better off rested and healthy heading into the postseason, chasing another title, and that battling, fighting tooth and nail to capture a somewhat meaningless regular-season record could potentially compromise that greater goal. It’s an issue teams in all sports have grappled with for ages. During a nearly perfect 16-0 regular season in 2009, Peyton Manning and the Colts had to deal with a very similar predicament: to play or not to play. And while the threat of injury is not the same in basketball as it is in football, I truly believe Miami, and all its championship aspirations, was better served in Wednesday night’s history-crushing loss to the Bulls.

          What do you think? Does chasing 34 consecutive wins or a perfect 19-0 season compromise a team's championship aspirations and, if so, is it worth it?