It’s sort of fitting that the Atlanta Falcons 2017 season came down to a slip and an overthrow.
It’s been that way all year – Falcony finishes that were too close for comfort, with the team making a habit of trying to get out of Dodge with the loot. Sometimes, you ride off into the sunset. But you can’t always outrun the sheriff. Sometimes, if you give him the room, he’ll make the shot.
Atlanta’s lived dangerously ever since the first 2017 whistle, and living dangerously has its pitfalls. When the Falcons have everything going their way, see Los Angeles. When they don’t, see Philadelphia. They’re a dang tough team, but they’re not always a smart team, or the best team, and to win it all, toughness, intelligence and, well, best-ness, have to go hand in hand in hand.
It hurts to lose a game like that. It hurts like a bee sting on the eyeball. There’s nothing to soothe you fully. Well, at least this go-around hurts a heck of a lot less than the last one. But, it’s over for Atlanta, at least for now.
Let’s get the hard part out of the way.
Why did they lose the game? Well, Philadelphia has a championship defense, and a serviceable offense, even with Nick Foles. They’re well-coached, and toted a fresh QB out there with a chip on his shoulder. They were also extremely well-rested for the long stretch.
The Falcons, on the other hand, were coming off an emotional road win over a young, great Rams team. Like, a really great one, top to bottom. But, that couldn’t be it. They had to go on the road again, in an outside venue, in the elements, against an elite defense. We shouldn’t have been so naïve as to think the exhaustion of traveling wouldn’t be catching up with them. There’s a reason these six-seeds don’t usually do a whole lot.
On offense, the Falcons were too inconsistent, and didn’t have the play calling prowess, or luck with offensive line injuries, to withstand a gauntlet of defensive lines. Los Angeles’ took a toll, Philly’s got the job done. Steve Sarkisian is not Kyle Shanahan. He’s not nearly as bad as everyone will tell you in the days and weeks ahead, but he’s not quite there yet in terms of calling plays to win the big games in crunch time. That’ll come with experience.
On defense, the Falcons have taken leaps and bounds, but they’re still vulnerable against the run, and Philly planned a wise game plan with Jay Ajayi to thrash them early. When the Falcons finally settled in run defense, Foles began to get more comfortable, and got in a groove with short-to-intermediate passing and scored the points they needed to win the game. They didn’t have to be perfect; their defense was playing lights out. It was the worst-case scenario for Atlanta, a week removed from the best-case one.
I don’t blame you for believing after Los Angeles, and I hope you won’t blame me. That was an exciting win, and it inspired a lot of hope. Philadelphia, though, brought the team back down to Earth, back into a scrap, and though they came oh so close, you just can’t win every close fight you get into.
Who was this team? At the end, we now know – a team with wounds that healed in real time, adjustments that didn’t go as smoothly as hoped, and bad habits that ultimately came back to haunt them. It was a heck of a ride, but there were no guarantees.
It ain’t all doom and gloom, though. This team is good – the Falcons are good. Lots of teams would kill to be this good. Lots of teams next year won’t be this good. The Falcons, by all accounts, should be better. But, for 2017, they were good enough until they weren’t. Blame it on the turf, blame it on the play calling, blame it on some unfounded sense of unluckiness that Falcons fans will rail against until the team finally wins a ring. It’s the playoffs, win or go home. You either have it, or you don’t. Saturday, the Falcons didn’t have it. Avenging 28-3 will have to wait for next year. This long crawl of a season finally ends.
But, you know what, forget feeling bad. Forget mucking around, wondering what would have happened if Julio would have not slipped, if Ryan had hit him even if he did, if they had not wasted the third down. What if Shanahan had stayed? What if Sarkisian had been better? What if they’d just finished once or twice more this season? What if they hadn’t blown the lead in last year’s Super Bowl? What if this? What if that? What if … *barfs* … the Atlanta Falcons are doomed! Doomed, I tell you! Why do I do it? Why do we do it? Why is football so cruel? *begins sobbing uncontrollably*
Forget all that.
If I’ve learned anything about life in my short 25 years here, it’s that sitting around and feeling sorry for yourself is a pretty crappy way to live, particularly when it comes to something as trivial as football. Banging your noggin against the table and replaying every missed chance and blown opportunity will only give you a headache. That’s no way to live.
Even when your head wants to hang low, keep it up, and keep hope alive. Look at the positives, look at what one day could be. It’s just football, man.
The Falcons are a good football team with an offseason to get even better, and a third-place schedule awaiting them. Their franchise quarterback has at least five more seasons in him, if not more, their young and talented on defense, and have plenty of talent on offense to rebound back to being one of the league’s best units.
And, look at the top, man. Arthur Blank is one of the league’s best owners, which matters for so much more than any of us could ever imagine. Dan Quinn is sincerely one of the better coaches in the league who will only get better with time. Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli have nailed their Quinn-era drafts, and they no longer go out and whiff in free agency.
Things are good for Atlanta. There is stability. As long as they can maintain it, they’re going to have a shot at the big game every season from here to Ryan’s retirement. Things could be so, so much worse. Do you really need me to point out examples?
The Super Bowl is the ultimate prize, but sometimes, I wonder if it’s really all it’s cracked up to be, y’know, in a grander sense. Sure, for about a month, we’d be on Cloud 9. Nothing could bother us with football. The next season would probably not hurt as bad if it ended without another ring. You get one, right? That’s good!
But, I’ll be frank, ten, twenty years from now, it’s just a memory – and to be fair, not one you had any direct involvement in. It’s not like any of us get fitted for rings. One day, all a win would be is a fun conversation with old friends, a dusty picture in your study, a t-shirt you’ll eventually have to replace.
Look how miserable Dallas Cowboys fans have been ever since their run in the 1990s. How many of those guys do you think would trade their three rings from that dynasty run for just one more to enjoy now, particularly those too young to remember what came before? Or, heck, even the Patriots fans thirty years from now – they’ve got plenty to go around, but they always want more, and aren’t averse to sports sadness.
Winning a Super Bowl would be an incredible thing, and I really do believe with my heart of hearts it’ll happen with this regime. I don’t know when. I don’t know for sure. But I’ll sure as sunshine hope for it, and keep my chin up for it.
But, what happens if we never get one?
What happens if the Super Bowl is never to be had? Will it just be enough to sustain a long run of quality football with exciting players? Will it be enough to enjoy a fall of lots of wins, even if they never end with confetti and ceremonial hats?
For now, there is nothing but questions to be answered, free agents to sign, draft picks to be made and practices to be had for the Falcons. They’ve got to start the climb again, and embrace the suck. But, that’s for the Falcons to worry about. That’s not my job.
I’ll keep pecking away at the keyboard, writing and watching and hoping. But, I don’t know, look around you, at the people you interact with on Twitter, or the buddies around you at the game watching party, or the family members you share in this team with. That’s the stuff that’ll always matter the most, and the stuff that we always take for granted.
My great grandmother was my football buddy. For years, we’d watch football together — she always knew more than any of the announcers, and convinced me not to hide away from seeing the Falcons win the first playoff game of the Matt Ryan era when it looked like all was lost. Oh, that beautiful kick. It’s something I got to share with her, and it’s something that made what was on the screen matter all the more. She died about two years ago, and not being able to share this whole NFL thing with her hurts a heck of a lot more than 28-3 ever will. But, y’know, the last game I ever watched with her was the shellacking the team got in 2015 against the Panthers. I’d love to go back and watch the Falcons get their butts handed to them if it meant I could get one more game with my great grandma.
After all, that’s all football is, really...a game. You either win, or you lose. I can’t make any promises as to what the Falcons will do in our lifetimes. Heck, even if they hadn’t blown the lead last year, you’d trade that championship away one day in a heartbeat just to have one to look forward to in X future season. Don’t fall for the trap of thinking this only matters for a Super Bowl. We will never have enough success. One championship will never quench your thirst. Such is sports, such is life.
Enjoy that we have a great team to cheer for, and more importantly, great people to cheer for them with.
That’s what sports is about, isn’t it? It’s a platform for community – a way we can share in something we love with people we love. Life’s hard enough as it is. Enjoy that we can have that fun, whether the birds hoist the Lombardi or prepare for the top draft pick.
I know semantics and feel-good rhetoric does nothing to get the Falcons to the NFC Championship, or make every pang of sadness about this Philly loss go away.
But, I don’t know, I feel okay at the end of the day, and maybe you do, too. It’s probably because this is nothing compared to what happened last time, but maybe, just maybe, it’s because you can see the horizon, and see who you get to watch it unfold with.
I see the people around me, and the team I get to follow, and boy howdy, do I feel like I’ve won something special.