Even when the Atlanta Falcons win these days, it still feels like a loss, at least if you have a Twitter account.
If you don’t, spare yourself from the ninth level of Dante’s Falcony Inferno. If you’re just watching the game itself, you reasonably see a Falcons team in transition, one that can flash and frustrate in equal measure. They’re not world-beaters, but they can win games. They’re not ready to compete against the best in the league, but they’re not bad enough to lose to the Jacksonville Jaguars. They’re figuring things out, but they’re not there yet.
It’s not to suggest the gripes against this new regime are invalid — the team is struggling to run and pass the ball of late, the defense is prone to letting up explosive plays at the drop of a hat, the team is sitting on its hands when it comes to adding free agents to help its depleted receiving group, even if it would only be to steady the passing game until the end of the year.
The two monstrous losses to the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots didn’t really do much to endear the fanbase to the new guys, and beating a lowly team like the Jags won’t move the needle much. It’s, in the end, irrelevant to the team’s fortunes what its fans think of it (unless they en masse protest attending games, which has never happened), but it sure does make life a lot easier if we all just have a “Come to Freddie Falcon” about where this team is right now and why it’s okay that they’re not always okay.
There needs to be a coolant sprayed on the anger right now at the fact that the Falcons aren’t really a good team. They’re streaky and mediocre, held back by some mixed coaching and a roster that’s not ready to really go blow-for-blow with the NFL’s best. Trying to suggest that new head coach Arthur Smith isn’t making mistakes would be silly; of course he is. From his strange use of Feleipe Franks as an offensive weapon to his occasional situational blunder, Smith is a flawed coach figuring things out in his first year on the sideline.
Dean Pees, the wily veteran defensive coordinator, isn’t getting much run out of a very aggressively average defense with few consistently bright spots. Expectations set Pees as the savior of the Falcons defense, but even he can’t do much about the talent drop-off from his previous stops. Those “quick fix” hopes probably were a bit unfounded despite Pees’ pedigree.
The roster is a sore spot. Unless Cordarrelle Patterson is healthy, opposing defenses can key in on Kyle Pitts and leave the Falcons offense relying on one of the weakest position groups in football, excluding Patterson and Pitts, of course. The offensive line is inconsistent despite sound play from Chris Lindstrom and Jake Matthews. At this point in his career, Matt Ryan can only do much if pass rushes are collapsing in on him and guys aren’t open.
The defense? Well, you know. A.J. Terrell’s emergence as one of the best corners in football, Jaylinn Hawkins’ breakout season and the surprise of Anthony Rush are positive storylines, and you knew Grady Jarrett would ball out. Other than that, you’ve seen some good, some bad, some in the middle. It’s not the worst defense in football, but one held together by youth and financial restriction. That dire cap situation the team was in this spring shows when the defense looks so uninspired, and Terry Fontenot’s drafted players are taking the time they need to learn on the job. No one’s hitting the ground with ease on defense.
All of that shows why this team isn’t producing at the level anyone would hope. They’re not ready yet. When you pick in the top-5 of the NFL draft in the spring, you rarely are hyper-competitive in the fall. Why can’t this regime get some time to figure things out? Why do the hot takes have to spread like wildfire? Clearly, Arthur Blank is too smart to read much into what’s happening right now, and despite some galaxy-brained aggressions, this coaching staff and front office will definitely be there next year, and probably for the next few years at least.
Even if the team isn’t great right now, suggesting they’re no better now than they were last year is silly. Arthur Smith’s offense is in its first year, can execute in the red zone and is sorely limited in personnel; Dirk Koetter’s offense was dated and jaded. This team was and continues to be hamstrung by the failures of yesterday, failures that won’t get fixed overnight.
To suggest this team is stuck in the snow with no way of getting out is just not it. If you’re hoping that the team cleans house this winter, you’d best put your hope in them cleaning out an equipment room closet. This iteration of the team is already better than last year’s in the win department and is showing the growth that seemed impossible in the last regime.
The Falcons are “playoff contenders” in the same vein that Zaxby’s is “fried chicken.” Yes, in name it is, but to anyone who’s actually had real fried chicken, it just doesn’t meet the cut. The Falcons sneaking in for a late playoff spot is fool’s gold; they’d be a quick exit under most circumstances. That doesn’t mean really anything for the future; it’s just an indicator that they’re a fringe contender in every sense of the phrase. They’re a mediocre squad that has a lot of things to grow on in the future.
Are there hard decisions to be made? Sure there are. Are there mistakes to be made? Probably, it’s the NFL. Can this team get back to being a real playoff contender? You betcha. Will it happen in the window of instant gratification? It never does.
The best thing of all of us is just to focus on the positives, be fair in our critiques and just hope for the best. This new group seems to be building to something better down the road, so the best plan of action is just to hope that the flashes become sustainable in 2022 and beyond. There’s been nothing shown in 2021 to suggest they can’t.