For about a week, the 2021 Atlanta Falcons were a playoff team.
It was never a serious indication; only a mathematical courtesy to a team that sat at .500. The Falcons, despite flashing some promise throughout 2021, are not a playoff team. To be a playoff team, you must be at least somewhat consistently good. If you’ve watched the Falcons in 2021, you know that consistency escapes this version of the team. Dallas proved that Sunday with one of the loudest spankings we’ve heard this team get in years.
It’s not the end of the world, though. The Falcons getting their asses kicked by a roundly better team might sting in the moment, but when this team inevitably falls out of playoff consideration (or, somehow, gathers enough good luck and close wins to earn a final seed in lieu of a quick exit), life will go on. The Falcons brass will have the same mission as it did when the year started: continue to get this roster into competitive shape.
This roster is not in competitive shape. That they’re not one of the abject worst teams in the NFL and more languishing in the middle is kind of impressive considering the talent deficiencies on both sides of the ball. For how thoroughly ugly as Sunday looked, Arthur Smith’ offense has has, up until Sunday, Matt Ryan playing as one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks. The team seems to have struck gold in Kyle Pitts and has reinvented Cordarrelle Patterson into one of the league’s scariest offensive weapons.
The offensive line hasn’t been a dumpster fire and the depth at receiver hasn’t completely fallen apart in Calvin Ridley’s absence (except for Sunday). The running game leaves a lot to be desired, but you wonder what happens if the team decides to draft a fresh set of lets in 2022. The Mike Davis experiment might not be working out, but Patterson looks solid when he’s being unleashed as the NFL’s strangest running back success.
The problem with the Atlanta Falcons hasn’t been offense this year. The defense is allowing nearly 30 points a game this season (29.2 to be exact). Dan Quinn helped beat the Falcons on Sunday, but it wasn’t just his impressive effort scheming his own team. The remnants of the defense he and Thomas Dimitroff tried and failed to build in Atlanta is still largely intact, and Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith weren’t going to be able to undo that overnight.
It’s why some of the blame this season has to be put on the past for why the Falcons aren’t ready to contend yet. It’s more than fair to critique the new guys when a bad play is called or when a new draft pick/free agent isn’t working out as hoped, but you cannot lose sight of the miserable shape this team was in when the new guys got here. While the cap situation isn’t nearly as dire as you’d think in 2022 and improves dramatically in 2023, the team still has a bit of work to do and some tough decisions to make to get this team looking stout on defense again. It’s not going to be this year by any stretch, but it can still happen.
Fontenot needs to look to what New Orleans did to help revamp itself after years of lean. The team took advantage of having a veteran quarterback, a stout offensive line and some reliable offensive weapons and poured into its defense. It nailed some key draft picks and spent money to help patch up holes elsewhere. Outside of this year, the team glided through Drew Brees’ twilight, even though (lolz) they never got to the Super Bowl.
Clearly, we all want a different result with the Falcons, and we have no idea how long the team will ride Matt Ryan into his twilight years. He’s still playing largely excellent football, and with this year’s quarterback class not looking like a gem, it might push the Falcons to spend the 2022 offseason really fortifying the trenches to give him his best chance at success while he’s still running Smith’s offense well.
Patience is hard when you haven’t won in a while, and you’re right to be frustrated at how badly the Falcons played Sunday. The team has got to avoid games like these in the future, but you already knew that. Trying to parse through the team’s immediate future might not be fun, but please know that losing like that Sunday only means the climb is still uphill like it has been all season.
Before you light up the torches and raise up the pitchforks for this new regime, please consider the deck they’re playing with. Smith is still a rookie head coach learning how to balance dual responsibilities, his offense doesn’t have quite as much firepower and trench success as he had in Tennessee and his defense is not running well at present time (Grady Jarrett, AJ Terrell, Jaylinn Hawkins and honestly, Anthony Rush, excluded). Fontenot had pennies to spend to patch over a roster with a litany of holes. The team was set up for failure.
There is still a ton of progress the team needs to make now, and tons of work to do in the offseason. We’re not guaranteed anything, but you’ve seen enough flashes this year to feel hopeful for the future (if you let yourself). While Sunday’s game might’ve thrown water on the flames of Falcons hope, just wait. The blunt reality is nobody knows the future of anything in the NFL, and some of the highs we’ve seen this year can genuinely be built on.
It’s probably not going to grow overnight, so you might want to brace yourself for another football-less January. Though, for how awful this team looked before the season, part of you has to be pleasantly surprised you had a team to get your hopes up for in the first place.