At 6-8 and with the playoffs more of a joke than a realistic destination, it’s fair not to be very excited about the immediate future of the Atlanta Falcons.
Despite some fun wins and some individual performances worth praising, the team has been too streaky, too unable to hang with superior competition, too unable to consistently slam the door shut on bad teams, to be really anything more than a mediocre team outperforming its talent threshold due to some respectable coaching and guys making opportune plays.
In short, the Falcons are, as you might’ve guessed before the season, a team in a delicate transition, one not ready to compete in a meaningful way but also not one that’s so stinky it claims the number one draft pick. The Falcons are apparently 32nd in DVOA, which means smart football analysts weigh them as the worst team in the NFL. You’d think with teams like Detroit, Houston, Jacksonville, both New York outfits, Carolina and Chicago, ranked higher in this set of evaluations, that the Falcons would be primed for the top pick.
It’s not so. With two winnable games ahead against the Lions and Saints, the Falcons might end the year 8-9, and out of the top 10 in the draft entirely. Even if you’re not a football expert, sometimes the plain old record will tell you more than all the analysis in the world.
The record says six wins. If the Falcons really are this bad, how, y’know, are they not?
The coaching has to take some credit for this, particularly with the man at the top. Arthur Smith came into Atlanta with astronomical expectations given his offense in Tennessee, but a game in, the hot seat was already brewing. Since Smith was absolutely the first coach in NFL history to lose his first game, some folks were down on the fact that he wasn’t able to magically make a 4-12 football team beat the brakes off a pretty solid Philadelphia Eagles squad.
It’s never really mattered to some corners of the internet (a place we all recommend you stay far away from, unless to read The Falcoholic, of course), that Smith was in his first year as a coach, that he inherited one of the worst rosters and cap situations in the NFL, that he was missing the top two receivers the Falcons had in 2020 and before for most of the year, that his offensive line wasn’t keeping his aging quarterback upright, that his defense couldn’t rush the passer if the fate of the world depended on it, that he himself was having to figure out the ropes as a head coach for the first time after just being a tight ends coach in 2018.
As badly as we all wanted a quick turnaround, 2021 isn’t what Arthur Blank invested in. He’s a smart guy, and we’re guessing he knew his football team wouldn’t be any good. Having a football team at the end of the year with a decent chance of being close to .500? You’ve got to feel good about the future if you’re Blank — he hired Smith for his long-term potential, and a coach with a chance at 7-9 wins by the end of the year is the beginning of that investment.
Progress is what you expect with a coach like Smith, not perfection. Is it really that shocking that, every now and again, he makes a bad call? What did you expect? Smith hasn’t always made the best decisions, but rarely does a first-year head coach go through his first season without some speed bumps. This inability to just accept the fact that Smith has his hand tied around his back and is still, somehow, fielding the 12th-best rushing offense in the NFL in the last three weeks, is beyond comprehension.
The Falcons don’t have a lot to work with in my humble opinion, and thus any coach would struggle. Matt Ryan is a really nice veteran option, but Ryan needs protection, particularly in his later years. He has had none. Can you blame the coaching? If you’d like, sure. Though, Smith didn’t build this offensive line, and even if Jalen Mayfield has been through the grinder, it was never likely on a “rebuilding” team that he would be willing to bail on a rookie that, despite what some will tell you, has flashed some potential to be a long-term guard this season.
Even if the Falcons lose out, it’s hard to take much of anything away from Smith’s first year outside of the fact that he’s been pretty good with limited resources and would probably be a lot better with more experience and more of an offense he can shape and mold. It’s hard to call plays with a team that’s got less talent than the opponent, as you’d imagine, so maybe give the guy a break as he navigates the last three games of his rookie year.
The Falcons don’t need some drastic magic to make the Smith tenure worth it. Smith doesn’t need to turn into the greatest offensive mind in football to be a successful coach. That’s just silly. What Smith needs is cap flexibility and draft picks to build his offense and more time to learn from the mistakes of his rookie season. If he doesn’t learn from them in the years ahead, we’ll have more to talk about and a better reason to put him under the microscope.
If we’re 2-11 at this point in the year in 2022 and Smith has gotten substantially worse, you’ll have a right to throw the tomatoes and more. With the progress the team has made this year and the promise Smith has shown as a play caller, do you really think, barring disaster, that’s likely? Give the guy some time. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Smith sure as heck wasn’t going to be able to pull the Falcons out of the bog and find the best version of himself as a coach under these conditions.
The Falcons, and Smith, aren’t there yet, but we’ve seen absolutely nothing to suggest they won’t get there in 2021. Giving up before this has really begun feels pointless to me.