The Atlanta Falcons just suffered their worst loss since the 2004 season. Atlanta was obliterated on offense and defense, falling behind 36-3 to the Dallas Cowboys at halftime and ultimately losing 43-3 after the starters for both sides were pulled before the 4th quarter. It was one of the most pathetic, disheartening, and flat-out boring games for Falcons fans in recent memory. It’s also, in the grand scheme of the 2021 season, really not that big of a deal.
For starters, the Falcons losing to the Cowboys wasn’t a surprise. They were 8-point underdogs, according to Vegas, and Dallas is one of the best teams in the NFC. The Falcons were completely outclassed by a legitimate playoff and possible Super Bowl contender. What was a surprise was Atlanta’s offense completely collapsing against what is ultimately a below-average pass defense, but even that is understandable to an extent.
The offensive weapons were simply not there this week, as Calvin Ridley is on the NFI list and Cordarrelle Patterson left the game early with an ankle injury. That left rookie Kyle Pitts and a bunch of guys to catch passes from Matt Ryan and win a shootout with the loaded offense of the Cowboys. Russell Gage has been a massive disappointment, while Tajae Sharpe and Olamide Zaccheaus are meant to be WR4/5 complementary pieces—not primary options playing a ton of snaps. Sharpe had the second-most snaps among receivers, while Zaccheaus was third.
Really, this loss illustrates what many of us believed heading into the 2021 season. Based on the moves made and the state of the roster after the preseason, it was pretty clear to me that Atlanta intended this to be a transitional or “stepping stone” season. They’d hope to compete, win some games, and possibly contend for the 7th seed—but seriously contending was not a realistic goal.
If you look at The Falcoholic staff’s record predictions heading into the year, all but our ever-optimistic Evan Birchfield (love you Evan) predicted between 7 and 9 wins for the Falcons. For reference, here’s what I thought the season would look like:
I’ll start out with the positives: I think the Falcons are going to be a much better-coached team under Arthur Smith and Dean Pees. That coaching advantage will translate to better play than their overall roster might suggest, but I still don’t know if it’ll be enough to overcome the lack of depth (and proven starters). Despite what Terry Fontenot and Smith are saying about competing now, this team is a 2-3 year project. I think they’ll be competitive every week and possibly even contend for the final Wild Card slot in the newly-expanded playoffs, but they’re not quite ready to take the next step. The offense is likely to be the saving grace once again, and Dean Pees should at least make things interesting on defense, but 2021 is probably going to be a “stepping stone” season to better things in 2022 and 2023. Record prediction: 9-8
If you were expecting Atlanta to finish around .500, then the team’s 4-5 start is...pretty much exactly on track for that. The back half of the schedule is tougher, on balance, than the first half—very tough games against the Patriots, Bucs, and Bills await, and the team is unlikely to be favored on the road against the 49ers or Panthers. However, a couple of “easier” games should be out there against the likes of the Jaguars and the still-winless Lions.
Considering where this team was in 2020 and the state of the roster and salary cap that Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot inherited, what we’ve seen so far is in line with expectations for me. The Falcons have already matched their win total from last season, and they’ve managed to find ways to close out games that they simply couldn’t win last year. Ideally, you’d still like to see more consistency from the offense and some growth from the defense over the remainder of the season—but on balance, I think this regime has squeezed about as much out of this terrible roster as can be reasonably expected.
If you wanted more from this season, or bought in to the team line that they were going to seriously compete in 2021, it’s fair to be disappointed in the outcome thus far. Atlanta has been one of the most inconsistent teams in the NFL, and they’ve lost a few games by lopsided scores. Arthur Smith’s playcalling and game management have been suspect at times. You could easily argue that Terry Fontenot could have maximized this roster more by trading for players or restructuring more contracts for additional cap space.
But I don’t think seriously competing was ever the realistic goal in 2021. The idea was to get through the season with a cobbled-together, extremely low-cost roster and try to squeeze out a winning record from it. And if you could sneak into the 7th seed at the same time for a playoff appearance, that’d be great. The real goal, however, was to avoid compromising the salary cap in 2022/2023, and to hold on to as many draft picks as possible. So far, outside of borderline-required restructures to the contracts of Matt Ryan and Deion Jones, the team has kept to that goal.
We’ll see where this team ends up after Week 18. Anything less than 6 wins would be a disaster, and would definitely necessitate criticism of the coaching staff. But if the Falcons finish between 7 and 9 wins and are frisky for the playoffs into December? I think that’s a fair first season for Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot.
Make no mistake: the real test for this regime is coming in 2022. This will be a pivotal offseason, and many tough decisions will have to be made. There are a number of players and contracts to deal with, and that could determine just how much draft or salary capital the team has to play around with. The story of the Smith/Fontenot Falcons is just beginning, and this first season is only meant to be a transition. Whether that’s a transition to bigger and better things, or to more disappointment for this franchise, is still TBD.