BUFORD, Ga. -- Matt Ryan arrived early and stayed late.
While he and his teammates are locked out of the Atlanta Falcons' facility in nearby Flowery Branch, Ga., about 30 of them convened for a player-organized workout at a field 15 minutes away.
|Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud hauls in an interception during a player-organized workout in Buford, Ga. (AP)|
All these guys had to work with were a few footballs, some towels and the sheer excitement of street ball in the neighborhood.
Without the coaches' communication, Ryan is the leader the team is turning to.
"We've all been doing it long enough to understand what's beneficial, how to come out here and get it done," Ryan said. "You kind of put on your coaching hat and work on some of the things you want to work on, which is good. We have some stuff scripted and we'll get out and work on the things we need to work on."
For the past few weeks, Ryan and some receivers have met to practice routes. First-round draft choice Julio Jones has met with his new quarterback to get a head start on learning the offensive system. Jones is still recovering from a stress fracture in his foot, though, and has been unable to run.
This past Tuesday, the defense joined the offense for the first time this offseason to do 7-on-7 drills. It's the time of year when minicamps and organized team activities typically begin. But with the lockout in full force, the players figured it was time to practice on their own so they're not left behind if a 2011 season is confirmed.
"Everything about this offseason has been unique and different," Ryan said. "It's certainly nice to have a couple of years in the league and understand what it takes to prepare to get ready so you can do it on your own and you can do it with these guys."
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The workout was scheduled for 11 a.m., and Ryan was one of the first to show up. Falcons players trickled in as the session began 15 minutes later. Also appearing were a few free agents unsure if they'll be on the squad -- linebackers Mike Peterson and Stephen Nicholas, and wide receiver Brian Finneran. The Falcons front office told Finneran before the lockout began they have no initial plans to re-sign him.
Nicholas turned down a tender the Falcons offered as he hopes to lock up a long-term contract. Reports indicate Detroit and Denver are interested in Nicholas, who lost his starting position to linebacker Sean Weatherspoon in 2010.
The Falcons have shown interest in re-signing Peterson, who turns 35 in June.
"Being in that limbo and not knowing is tough," Peterson said. "But them expressing they want me back, I took the approach that this is where I'm going to be. This is exactly where I want to be."
While Ryan was in command of the offense during drills, Peterson coached the defense. Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton signaled defensive calls, looking smooth for someone who's had offseason procedures on both knees. Wide receiver Michael Jenkins caught two deep passes in the end zone. Free safety Thomas DeCoud, sporting a blue vintage X-Men shirt, shifted momentum in mid-air while twisting his body to haul in an interception. The team practiced for 45 minutes, concluding at noon.
It didn't look like the structured practices usually held at 4400 Falcon Parkway. Given the uncertainty of whether there will be a 2011 season or not, these players looked to be making the most of it.
"The best part is seeing the old faces you haven't seen since we all got out of town," Weatherspoon said. "To get out of here and get some work in together, it means a lot. It shows we're committed to taking another step."
The competitive fire is still there, though. DeCoud said one of the main reasons Atlanta is organizing these workouts is in response to Drew Brees rallying the Saints together. DeCoud was working out with an unnamed Saints offensive lineman who told him he was traveling back to Louisiana to participate in a Brees-organized workout.
"I said, 'OK, we've got to start doing something now because I don't want to fall behind the 8-ball, especially in our own division,' " DeCoud said.
As the workout ended, players slowly filed out to their cars. Fullback Ovie Mughelli, exhausted, walked by reporters carrying his cleats, a towel and a water jug.
"I need my trainers, I need my locker, I need my coaches," Mughelli said. "I need to be back at the facility."
The last five to leave were Ryan, Finneran, Jenkins, cornerback Brent Grimes and third-string quarterback John Parker Wilson. The five ran sprints and other conditioning drills before calling it a day. They walked to the parking lot drenched in sweat.
It's a different feeling for the Falcons, working outside the workplace. But lockout or not, work doesn't stop.
"I think it's beneficial that we are in the same offense, same defense, and there is not a whole lot of new things that we have to go over," Ryan said. "It's kind of like we're tightening up some of the things we've worked on the past couple of years. We'll continue to do that and be ready to go whenever the season rolls around."