It feels just like yesterday that we were all optimistic about the Atlanta Falcons and their future.
After the Jan. 2018 NFC Divisional Round loss to Philadelphia (just run it, once!), the feelings were bullish. Even I, your humble Falcoholic writer, felt that the franchise was in great shape, the kind of shape that sustains itself.
But, of course, the second you get comfortable around these parts, someone throws on third down. The same old rigmarole we’re used to started up again - slow starts, depth deficiencies exposed by injuries, questionable coaching, unlucky bounces, embarrassing defeats, bizarre rallies toward the end of the year that only count toward keeping jobs and worsening draft status, wasted years for franchise-great players.
It gets old. But historically in the Thomas Dimitroff/Matt Ryan era, there’s an uptick after lean years. Usually it’s when we least suspect it, when optimism is low, when schedules are intimidating, when roster questions abound, when you want to fire the offensive coordinator (well, it’s true).
Football is like the weather. You can do your best to predict what’s coming, look at the forecast intently, look at weather patterns in the past and just go outside and put your finger to the air and guess. We like to think we know where things are going, but it’s often hard to be completely sure.
Saying Patrick Mahomes II will be good is like predicting rain in Seattle; you’re going to be right most of the time. Saying Tom Brady will lead the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl is like guessing when winter will end in Tennessee, in that it’s less certain. The truth is that while it feels like the Falcons have a couple of juggernauts in their division, those juggernauts rarely materialize quite teh way you think.
When it comes to the Falcons, this is one of the first times in recent memory where it just doesn’t seem like anyone is sure what’s going to happen. The 2019 team was a quagmire of frustration and frivolities, a team that shot itself in the foot so many times, yet still found a well of ability and pride in an excellent second half.
It’s easy to be pessimistic about another slow start and too-late rally, just as it’s easy to be incredibly hopeful about whatever the team showed to beat teams like the 49ers and Saints in the second half of the season.
It reminds me a lot of 2015 and 2016, to be honest. The trajectories were quite different in terms of how the season went, but they both had dispiriting slumps that seemed franchise-wise. That 2015 team really wasn’t very good, with a 5-0 start fool’s gold easily exposed by better competition and the quick end of a honeymoon phase with Dan Quinn.
But there was that Panthers win. A scrappy Falcons outfit took down the high-flying 2015 Panthers at home; Julio Jones had an incredible touchdown. That team would go to the Super Bowl and lost. Mimic the 49ers game, which Atlanta won on the road. Jones had an incredible touchdown. The Niners would go to the Super Bowl and lose. No, you’re wearing a tin foil hat to hide your lack of a haircut.
The offseason are pretty similar, too. Rather than sit on their hands, the Falcons went out and signed some big-ticket free agents in Dante Fowler and Todd Gurley and traded for Hayden Hurst - big changes. Just like in 2016, when the team went out to get Alex Mack and Mohamed Sanu.
Okay, the similarities kind of stop there, other than the Falcons have one of 2020’s toughest schedules and everyone wanting to fire Dirk Koetter (who, to be very honest, wasn’t all that bad last year, and could be good here with the right pieces). If the 2020 draft class somehow produces three-to-four quality starters, go buy some lottery tickets during the Week One game against the Buccaneers they’ll lose.
So maybe they’re good now. The team looks mostly better on paper than it did in 2019, particularly if it’s healthy. At least to me, the defensive line is improved, the defense has a promising play caller at the helm who some in part credit for the ‘19 turnaround, the offensive line might actually be pretty strong if the guard spots pan out (Chris Lindstrom feels like a sure bet, Matt Hennessy and the gang less so), the offense will have a year under Koetter to iron out mistakes, the secondary gets Keanu Neal back and may well switch over to a coverage scheme rookie A.J. Terrell and returning corners Isaiah Oliver and Kendall Sheffield are more comfortable with, I can keep typing reasons. Really, I can.
Of cousre we don’t know how all these seeming positives will pan out, or if there will even be a 2020 season. All we know is that things are looking up and the team might not be finished with offseason signings quite yet, which is a nice thought.
All I know is that there is a rebuilding Carolina team and two old quarterbacks in New Orleans and Tampa Bay, and the years where we’ve been down on this team tend to be the years where they bounce back. Join me, if you will, in believing this team really does have better days ahead.