The Atlanta Falcons have been a lot of things since Arthur Blank bought the team. They’ve been a gritty, run-first squad with the most dynamic quarterback in NFL history and a strong defense. They’ve been a pass-first dynamo with a shaky defense and some of the brightest stars in the NFL. They’ve been, often for years at a time, a bad football team, though obviously never by design.
These Atlanta Falcons are better than the Atlanta Falcons that came before them in almost every metric that matters, but at best they have always been Achilles being dipped in the river Styx by a well-meaning mother holding too tightly to the heel. There is always a fatal flaw for this team, and that flaw always dooms them in NFC Conference Championships, Super Bowls, or sometimes even just regular season games. They have been on the cusp of great multiple times and were agonizingly close to truly great in 2012 and 2016, but when the dust settles there’s always an arrow sticking out of a foot. Part of that was a consistent lack of a fully coherent offensive identity, something the Falcons consistently did better than anything else, and an ongoing lack of any real kind of defensive identity at all.
I write this to illustrate the weight of the history for this football team, which is now truly starting over for the first time in over a decade. Thomas Dimitroff and Dan Quinn are gone, Mike Smith is long gone, and only Arthur Blank and Rich McKay are hanging around from the early days of Blank’s tenure as owner. They’re about to hand the keys to the franchise over to a new head coach and new general manager who won’t have any existing attachments to the franchise’s most marketable and familiar stars, the Matt Ryans and Julio Joneses and Grady Jarretts of today. The road ahead will see some of those players heading elsewhere and may involve a slow but steady march to an entirely different roster, coaching staff, team-building philosophy, and ultimately team identity.
That’s why the simplest, most unknowable question at this moment is also by far the most urgent one: What exactly do the Falcons want to be?
As Jeff Schultz at The Athletic wrote the other day, this team is not truly walking into a tabula rasa situation, not with McKay and Blank still in charge of everything and the Falcons bogged down by a number of pricey contracts. A new regime is going to inherit certifiable young stars like Calvin Ridley and Chris Lindstrom, plus a raft of promising recent draft picks like A.J. Terrell, Kendall Sheffield, Foye Oluokun, Marlon Davison, and Kaleb McGary, and unlike the Texans they’ll have a full complement of draft picks and at least one compensatory selection to play with. They’ll also have to report in to an owner and CEO who have been active in football decisions in the past—McKay was the GM from 2003-2007 and took on a more direct role on the football side of the house in 2019—and dig out of a nearly $30 million-over-the-cap problem. It’s an attractive landing spot for coaches and executives who want to rebuild a franchise because there are the pieces here to at least try to contend in 2021, but over the long haul this team will have to be remade into something new.
The question of identity is one that has plagued Atlanta for a long time. The closest they’ve come to having a coherent identity all these years is an elite passing attack or a borderline elite one, something they’ve achieved intermittently since 2008 and was a consistent focus for Thomas Dimitroff, who nailed so many skill position picks but was never able to get all the pieces of a great line in the door at the same time. They’ve tried their hand at a ground and pound attack keyed by a young quarterback (roughly 2008-2010), a “tough” defense that stops the run first and foremost (2009, 2014), and a “fast and physical” defensive team paired with that top-tier passing attack (supposedly 2015-2020, but in actuality like 8 games in that span). If your best answer for the Falcons’ identity was “I dunno, Matt Ryan and Julio Jones?” over the past decade-plus, it’s because Atlanta’s identity never stayed the same all that long, and they rarely distinguished themselves as a great anything for more than a season or two in a row. It is not that Dimitroff and Quinn and Smitty lacked visions for this football team—Quinn made his philosophies very clear and Dimitroff often spoke eloquently about the need for athleticism at every level of the roster—but that those visions only became reality for agonizingly brief stretches. Who knows what this team might have become with a Super Bowl win they were mere inches away from, but we know now what they did not become, and that was a team of phenomenal athletes playing consistently stellar football.
The many brushes with excellence along the way can’t obscure that having a cogent team-building philosophy that showed up consistently on the field would have likely made a difference, and that’s what the Falcons need to have in hand as they open their offseason program in 2021. This is a team that despite its flaws managed to give us a lot of entertaining football and even some great football, finishing out the past decade with the 8th-most wins in the NFL and 4th-most in the NFC, so it is not as though the new regime is going to inherit a roster that’s as barren of talent as, say, the Giants or Jets. What those new decision makers will have to decide is nothing less than what the Falcons want to be, and while no answer besides “a run-first football team” is a wrong one for the upcoming decade, forging that identity and taking concrete steps to move the team toward it will set them up for success they haven’t known in years now.
There is a win-hungry owner here with opinions of his own and contracts that preclude a hard reset in the immediate future, but the best reason to feel optimistic about this team will be if the powers that be install people who have a clear vision of what will make the Atlanta Falcons great and a plan to get there. When we look back at this team in 2030, I hope we can say that the Atlanta Falcons were a great team, and that they were a great team because they chose an identity that tied the whole thing together. For all the treasured memories I have and will have of the past decade, the last thing I want to be doing ten years from now is looking back on an almost with a team that didn’t quite figure things out.