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The Falcons are in the middle of a slow motion exorcism

Atlanta’s latest loss proves, again, that a lot of time and effort is going to have to go into fixing this team.

Atlanta Falcons v Miami Dolphins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Nearly two weeks ago, I wrote I felt it was a mistake for the Falcons to insist they were contending in 2021. I was basing that on a godawful Philadelphia loss and an overmatched Falcons team trying and ultimately failing spectacularly at hanging with Tampa Bay, and while I hope I made it clear that I’m bullish on the new front office and coaching staff over the long haul, I wondered online how much worse things would get before they got better.

The record since then is just 1-1, but the progress has felt real and encouraging. Atlanta’s offense had brief flashes of competence against the Giants and put together a fairly complete, strong effort against Washington on Sunday. The defense is still miles away from where it needs to be, but Isaiah Oliver (pre-injury, at least), Dante Fowler, Grady Jarrett and even Erik Harris have made strides even if Washington wound up finding beating them frustratingly easy. They look, with each passing week, more and more like a capable football team even if the results aren’t entirely there, as I detailed in my recap a little that’s coming up shortly.

That progress has served two purposes: It’s made me feel better about where this team is going, and it has underscored how far the Falcons have to go. It has made it clear that those of us who expected Arthur Smith and company to get to Atlanta and deliver even moderate 2021 improvement were banking on doing more than just improving the roster and coaching. We were counting on this new crew to be exorcists and banish the worst habits of a team that has built them up over a decade-plus, and I for one am willing to admit that more than any win or loss expectation, that’s where my optimism was most misplaced.

The Falcons are full of ghosts. They come howling out of the red zone, they barrel in between a Falcons defender and the man he’s trying to tackle, and they wrap themselves around the hands of capable receivers like ectoplasmic butter. An offseason of roster churning, a new front office and a new coaching staff might have been able to vacuum a few of those ghosts up, but most of them are still very much here and not particularly interested in leaving.

These are just the Atlanta Falcons, and this is just how the Atlanta Falcons operate. It’s bigger than any one player or person in the organization and has, over time, become so inevitable and unbelievable as to be farce. Atlanta finally played to their abilities on offense in this one and were undone by uncharacteristic drops, a 101 yard kickoff return, missed tackles and multiple missed opportunities for interceptions. They lose, if not in this exact way, in a way very much like it on a regular basis. They are not literally haunted so much as they are deeply accustomed to finding the most crushing and frustrating way possible to lose, though I’m not sure there would be much difference if they really were plagued by ghosts.

And that’s the enormity of the task ahead of this new regime. They have to add and develop talent, sure, and they have to both call and scheme a more effective game and avoid putting themselves into situations where the inevitable worst case outcome comes to pass. But they also need to take a team and demoralized fanbase used to losing in this fashion and convince them better things are possible, the way Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff were able to do for a brief shining window from 2008-2012. That’s why I do approve of getting down into the dirt and asking why Smith is calling three conservative plays in a row with a two point lead and plenty of time on the clock, but I also think the bigger tell for the future of this team is how quickly and decisively the Falcons stop doing things like that and start being a disciplined, smart team almost all of the time. It feels so status quo, but it’s worth remembering that nothing says the Falcons have to be this way.

The Falcons will, Football Gods willing, eventually find they can play and win without being haunted by their many past mistakes. No matter how much improvement and progress they manage in the coming weeks, though, 2021 will not be the year they banish them all. Remembering that will keep us all a little bit more sane in the weeks ahead.