The Atlanta Falcons have played a lot of bad football in their history, and they’ve played some very bad football this year. When they clawed their way to .500, it was easy to feel some hope that the Week 1 drubbing against the Eagles was as bad as it was going to get in 2021, even though the schedule was getting tougher. The underlying metrics, the team’s inconsistent on-field performance and the combination of a first year coaching staff making questionable decisions with a limited roster still made it clear this team had a ceiling, but Atlanta felt like they could still give us some fun games and at least a couple of wins in the second half of the season.
Maybe that’s still on the table, and maybe there is some wand waving that Smith and company can do to get this team back to at least being competitive, but we’ve arrived in the land of doubt. The Falcons, in the span of two weeks, have gone from a bad fun team capable of some pleasant surprises to historic ineptitude, and it is not a coincidence that they were playing terrific teams both those weeks. These last two games, which the Falcons dropped by a combined score of 68-3, showed us that the team is absolute toast when attrition stacks up, that their starters and depth alike can’t really hang with really good teams, and that their coaching staff just doesn’t have enough answers to overcome any of that.
Of course, the team can’t and won’t say that. Arthur Smith said, for the second straight week, that he has hope the Falcons can turn it around in the here and now and vowed they will, per Josh Kendall at The Athletic.
“Because we’ve done it before,” he said. “It feels ugly right now and in this moment you feel pretty poor. We have to fix things and we’re going to get them fixed. We’ll get them fixed in a hurry. We’ll get out of this hole because we have to, and we will because we’ve got the right guys to do it.”
“We’ll get them fixed in a hurry” just feels such a hollow promise, even if a week-and-a-half and the Jaguars are likely to at least make this team look more competent, and even if I understand that he’s not going to stand in front of reporters and call the season over. The Falcons will get Cordarrelle Patterson back, but they just don’t have the pieces to consistently be successful on offense against good teams, and the offensive line has been an active liability the past two weeks in pass protection. The line has also been a liability all year in terms of run blocking, with a consistent inability to even give this team’s backs the courtesy of letting them get back to the line of scrimmage. The defense did some encouraging things against the Patriots but cannot consistently do anything well, and all the team’s personnel shuffling in the face of injury and ineffectiveness can’t solve that. The coaching staff has looked, for stretches and particularly in the past two games, green and stubborn with the route combinations, run plays, or personnel usage they’re rolling out.
Swapping out Matt Hennessy for Drew Dalman or Jalen Mayfield for Josh Andrews or Kaleb McGary for Jason Spriggs might offer some small temporary lift, but that’s far from a lock and the team seems heavily invested in their young interior offensive line. There is no magic bag Smith can reach into to fish out more productive running backs or receivers who can take heat off Kyle Pitts, and Pees isn’t going to be able to pull up a consistently productive pass rusher off the practice squad. This team sort of is what it is, and while I welcome change if it’s remotely productive, pulling levers and hitting buttons and turning dials is not going to put out the fire in the control room.
One of the arguments that has raged and is set to rage the rest of the season concerns talent versus coaching, which is a fair and urgent argument given that this team is going to ask us to believe in Smith and this staff next year with a hopefully more productive offseason under the team’s belt. But I do think picking a side risks zeroing in on only part of the picture, because the roster is limited at many positions and the coaching hasn’t consistently done anything to lift that talent. It’s fair to worry that this team is going to have to improve in so many ways just to really be competitive in 2022 and this regime isn’t up to making that happen, but we also do have to remember that Arthur Blank is going to give them a minimum of three years to get this thing turned around. Coaching improvement and lineup changes are the most concrete things the Falcons can do besides getting healthier, but again, we are now acutely aware of how low this team’s ceiling is and there’s no way to jack that up with pennies worth of cap space.
We’re going to dive in to some of the ways this team might improve over the next week or so, but anything resembling a real “fix” will likely have to wait until this season is over. After the past two games and with seven contests left on the 2021 slate, it’s time to make peace with the struggles and save your hope for the future, if you weren’t already there.