With the benefit of a little time and distance, we'll all be better equipped to sift through what this season actually meant for the Falcons. Even then, we won't really know until we see what all those game reps did for Vic Beasley and other young players, and what a second year in Kyle Shanahan's system does for Matt Ryan and the passing game. There are plenty of changes, in other words, and plenty of maturation before this season can be appreciated as anything but a sometimes-promising 8-8 mess.
For all that, though, there were legitimate triumphs alongside the failures, and it would be unfair of us not to recognize both. I've also peppered in a little 2016 outlook at the end, so you have some predictions to laugh at when we get to November of next year.
- The passing game regressed mightily, unless you count Julio Jones' huge step forward. Matt Ryan threw fewer touchdowns and more picks, there were no great secondary options to throw to, the pass protection came and went, and Kyle Shanahan got justified heat for an offense that seemed to wilt frequently in the red zone. Considering this was one of the team's core strengths from 2008-2014, the regression hurt.
- The receiving corps needs work. Jacob Tamme was a fine starter, but he's slow, struggles to get open at times, and can't block, so hopefully he's not the starter for much longer. Roddy White is regressing, even if he's still capable of quality stretches, and Justin Hardy is growing but not ready for a prime time role. With Devin Hester injured and not contributing and Leonard Hankerson turning in a disappointing year, the cupboard looks pretty bare unless this is the year Levine Toilolo takes a leap forward.
- The Falcons thought they had found some reasonably low-cost scheme fits for the interior of the offensive line, but it turned out the incumbents were by far the best players on the unit. Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder largely thrived, while Mike Person blocked well and failed miserably snapping the football, which means he could be headed to guard. Andy Levitre was a notch above a disaster through most of 2015, and Chris Chester was (and we appreciate it) average.
- The pass rush was still punchless most of the year, and I just don't think the Falcons had the talent to do much more. A still-learning, injured Vic Beasley wasn't the game changer we hoped he'd be, Adrian Clayborn and O'Brien Schofield were largely pretty quiet, and players like Jonathan Babineaux, Ra'Shede Hageman, and Kroy Biermann didn't offer up much more than they have in years past. The team needs to add talent across the board to the defense, but they're still searching for legitimate pass rushers.
- The linebackers just needed to modestly improve for the Falcons' defense to be more successful, and they kind of did. It's just that they threw a fair amount of money at the problem and wound up with one injured guy who never looked right (Brooks Reed), one frequently injured guy who seemed to get worse as the season went on (Justin Durant), and one three-year starter who puts up huge tackle numbers and is capable of making big plays, but is clearly stretched as an every-down player (Paul Worrilow). Nate Stupar was the team's best linebacker for stretches, and Philip Wheeler was at other times, and considering one is a special teams ace and one was a street free agent partway through the season, that's pretty damn damning. This is the unit most in need of a talent upgrade in 2015.
- The secondary boasts one stellar corner (Desmond Trufant), one very good one (Robert Alford), and a surprisingly effective young safety (Ricardo Allen). Phillip Adams was mediocre this year, however, and Jalen Collins barely developed as the season went along. Akeem King could be a factor here in the future, but he got very little playing time and will need nurturing.
Safety has talent, especially if you like Kemal Ishmael and Robenson Therezie, but William Moore appears on his way out of Atlanta, and the Falcons won't have a long-term top-flight option unless Therezie winds up being something special. There's a need to upgrade here.
- The coaching staff couldn't overcome this team's personnel weaknesses, and they made plenty of mistakes of their own. Dan Quinn's San Francisco field goal boneheadery, his weird insistence on playing guys like Worrilow every single snap despite their obvious limitations, and the lack of tangible in-game adjustments hurt, and there were plenty of people beefing with Shanahan's play calling and his indefensible message to Roddy White to open up one game.
- At the same time, there were just so many mistakes! The Falcons were a heavily penalized team, and those penalties tended to be costly. There were also plenty of drops and turnovers, from Matt Ryan to Devonta Freeman to Tevin Coleman, and some of those were the backbreaking sort that legitimately cost the Falcons games. There were many reasons the Falcons failed in 2015, but if you want a reason for optimism, it's that they probably won't screw up at the same alarming rate next year.
- How long has it been since the Falcons had a legitimately scary ground game? Was it 2011? Regardless of the time elapsed, Kyle Shanahan installed a run-friendly scheme, picked up some run-blocking linemen, and Devonta Freeman wound up flourishing. He's probably not as good as his red hot start suggested, but Freeman is a valuable runner, pass catcher, and quality fit for this offense, and Tevin Coleman showed flashes of being a special player, as well. The Falcons can run the ball at last, and that's maybe the greatest success story here.
- Kyle Shanahan promised he'd feature Julio Jones, and you can't quibble with the results. Julio finished with the second most yards and receptions in NFL history this season, frequently punishing defenses even when they went out of their way to cover him effectively. It was fun.
- Jake Matthews in particular and Ryan Schraeder to a lesser extent took real steps forward, and Matthews now looks like one of the best left tackles in the NFL. If the Falcons rebuild the interior of the line, that becomes relevant in a hurry.
- We saw flashes from young players who will be featured next year. Beasley had a couple of legitimately terrific efforts despite his torn labrum, Ra'Shede Hageman occasionally tossed two linemen aside like so much chaff, Grady Jarrett looked like the draft steal everyone thought he'd be, and Justin Hardy came on very strong over the last few games of the season. That's not mentioning Ricardo Allen, Nate Stupar, Robenson Therezie, and others who were contributors this season, and will be counted up next year. There's something to build on here, even if it's not as robust as any of us would like.
- The run defense was stellar until late in the year, when things started to go sideways. Credit Paul Soliai, Tyson Jackson, O'Brien Schofield and Kroy Biermann, who were very valuable run stoppers this year, and the defense for effectively scheming to stop opposing ground games.
- The secondary, for all its concerns, remains a core strength. Trufant and Alford are already very good, and Collins and Allen have the potential to be excellent. That's 3/5ths of a great secondary right there, and when your pass rush isn't likely to be fixed overnight, that (again) matters.
- Special teams is still a tremendous asset for Atlanta, and Matt Bosher had a legitimate Pro Bowl year. Go, Matt Bosher.
- We saw enough from this team to think there's a kernel of potential that can be turned into something greater. The early season wins, the win over Carolina, the sudden blossoming of formerly so-so players under Quinn...they add up to make me feel like 2016 will be a more successful year, even if I don't have greatly heightened expectations. I felt like I had to see enough to think this team wasn't a total lost cause, at minimum, and they cleared that low bar.
The 2016 outlook
This team isn't one piece away, but getting several quality pieces will help. Add multiple linebackers, an effective receiver or tight end (or both), and an upgrade on the interior of the line and this team will be legitimately improved. If they coax growth out of Beasley, Collins, and others, they'll take another step forward. And so on.
The schedule already looks tough and projecting a tremendous leap forward would be irresponsible, so I'll just say this: A good offseason puts this team on the path to contention, likely gets them a slightly better finish than they "enjoyed" in 2015, and sets them up to do something special in the new stadium in 2017. I'm getting impatient with the lack of success, but hopefully 2016 will show us that things are changing in Atlanta.