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The Atlanta Falcons and the Expectations Trap

Falcons fans have arrived at an odd place where the franchise is damned if they do, damned if they don't.

Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Fans can endure losing seasons, particularly when they're used to them. If there's something to cling to—the growth of a top prospect, a three-year plan or just encouraging play—you can even enjoy them.

That changes when expectations come into play. For fans of teams like the Giants, Falcons, Buccaneers and Dolphins, there was at least the hope that playoff spots were there for the taking. Now that most of those teams are out of the race or on the fringes of it, fans have to reckon with their expectations, overcome some cognitive dissonance and try to figure out what they want to root for. That's a messy process for even the most stoic football fan.

It has also led us to an odd place. As the Falcons gear up for the Buccaneers this weekend, I've seen the discussion morph into a series of sometimes contradictory points.

  • The Falcons are lousy, they have no heart and they're killing us by not showing up on Sundays...but I don't want them to win because it would damage their draft position. I support the Falcons' brain trust and know they've made mistakes...but you can't criticize them for the way this season has gone.
  • Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith need to acknowledge that this season has gone poorly...but when they do I don't like the way they choose to do it. Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith have done a great job building this team...but it's clear the Falcons don't have the depth and talent to succeed this year. Injuries can't be used as an excuse...but man, things would be different right now with Julio Jones!
  • Matt Ryan doesn't have what it takes to be an elite quarterback and he's taking up too much cap space...but the line is terrible and the weapons around him aren't good enough.
  • The Falcons don't retain talent like the Packers do, the talent they do retain isn't good enough, when guys leave they don't get starting jobs elsewhere, Mike Smith won't play young guys, Thomas Dimitroff hasn't found any young players worth a damn, why are we signing veterans when we could be drafting young players, Thomas Dimitroff isn't any good at drafting.
I know listing these out makes me sound critical of the fanbase, but I'm not. If we never indulged in some contradictory reasoning, if we never delivered verdicts based on the emotion of the moment, if we never criticized the team or sprang to their defense, we wouldn't be sports fans. We'd be robots.

Yet we've still succeeded in trapping this team under the rubble of our expectations. For those who are firmly convinced that Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith are fantastic, the glaring mistakes that have led the Falcons to a 2-7 record are scrubbed away under a tide of "but they've been so good!" and "one year fix, you'll see!" For those who are firmly convinced that Dimitroff and Smith are idiots, their very real successes, the quality players on the team and the injuries that undeniably made the sledding tougher are easily dismissed. We dig in, the discussions get heated and our views don't change, with our criticism or adoration for the team often existing in a kind of vacuum outside of what the Falcons are actually doing on and off the field.

I'll be blunt with you: Based on everything I've heard, seen, read and gleaned from conversations around the team, you're going to see Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff back in Atlanta next year. You're going to see some players cut and other who will walk away in free agency. You will see a couple of coaches further down the chart getting axed for their failings and the failings of the players. You'll see a very heavy emphasis on the lines (some would say at last) between the draft and free agency. You'll see a more competitive team in 2014, whether that translates into a playoff squad or not. You'll see, in essence, some significant changes. They just may not be the ones you're expecting, and as a result, you will probably not be totally satisfied. But until the Super Bowl wins happens, none of us ever will be, and even then that feeling is fleeting.

The fact that this is clearly a lost season gives us a chance to let go of those expectations a bit. Know that it would take a miracle for the Falcons to wind up picking outside of the Top 10 in what's expected to be a terrific draft and just see where they end up. Don't say "the Falcons must win this game" or "the Falcons must lose this game" and, you know, root for them to at least play well against hated opponents like the Buccaneers, Saints and Panthers. Enjoy it when young players who might be a part of the future do well, lob criticism at the guys who don't and know that in seven weeks we'll know a lot more about which direction this team will go in over the off-season. Expect nothing, take in everything.

As always, appreciate your thoughts on what I've written here, and then we're back to our regularly-schedule, Bucs-centric programming. Thank you all for sticking with The Falcoholic even during the rough weeks.

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