The 2021 Atlanta Falcons might not be an amazing team, but they’re finding ways to win when things get tight.
After Sunday’s last-minute Foyesade Oluokun interception saved the team from a loss to the Lions, a 20-16 victory put the Falcons at 7-2 on the year on games that were decided by seven points or less. Last year, the team was 2-8 in those games.
What does that mean? Does it mean anything? Are we just gasping for silver lining straws in what’s been yet another lackluster season in Falcondom?
What it shows, perhaps, is two things. One, it shows that Arthur Smith’s Falcons do have just enough quality right now to eke out victories against lesser opponents. In the NFL, good teams and bad teams can play close every week, and while the Falcons aren’t a “good team,” they’d be a lot worse if they couldn’t close out these types of games.
Being 7-2 with two games left in the year in close contests in a head coach’s first year shows maybe not toughness, but shrewdness. It means that the team is calling the right plays in the right moments, or that they’re doing well with the type of situational coaching and execution that’s needed to be successful in the NFL. Luck certainly plays a part in that, but as we all know, the Falcons aren’t exactly the luckiest team in the league.
The Falcons are 7-8 right now, and while they’ve not scored any convincing wins, they’ve certainly found ways to win. On a team with a mediocre roster and a new coaching staff, that’s something to build on.
Another thing closing out close games can show is that the Falcons. despite all the blunders, headaches and gripes, aren’t a “bad” football team. It’s not as if they’re immune from the roster woes and coaching mistakes, but they’ve only been soundly beat this year six times (Philadelphia, Tampa Bay x2, Dallas, San Francisco, New England). Two losses, against Washington and Carolina, were coin-flip games arguably. In the wins, the Falcons have grinded out difficult wins against teams roughly as good or lesser than they are. That tends to hint to the fact that they’re middling rather than terrible. They’re not good enough to stomp a team, but not bad enough to post up a loss to a bad team (except against Carolina). Good, bad, happy, sad; it all flows together into the mediocrity of the 2021 Falcons.
What all of this means is that the Falcons, despite everything, are better than they were last year. With that 2019 season looking like a mirage more and more as time goes on, this is the best Falcons team since 2018, maybe even 2017 depending on how these last two teams go. The record is really all that matters in the NFL by the end of the regular season, and the record says, as of now, the Falcons are middle of the pack.
The first year of Smith’s tenure on the sideline is playing out exactly like we thought it probably would’ve. The team is in transition; they made some good offseason moves that have helped the team advance past the doldrums of 2020, and Smith and defensive coordinator Dean Pees have fielded competent enough units to scrounge together seven wins by the day after Christmas.
Typically, if things go well, new regimes improve, and the Falcons, with much more cap space and additional draft picks, will hopefully make the roster much better by next fall. Smith and company will have more of “their guys” by then, and will likely be able to execute their schemes more effectively. Lessons will be learned, too, a bit how like Dan Quinn and Kyle Shanahan learned from the mistakes of 2015 to field a NFC Champion the next year. I’m not suggesting that leap, but if you think these guys are quality coaches, learning and improvement should be a given.
Basically, the Falcons’ ability to win close games in 2021 is proving, despite what you might hear, the team is headed in the right direction compared to where they’ve been this year and in past years. They’re doing roughly as well as this roster would suggest, and the coaching has been about as good as what you’re going to see in the first year of a new regime. The team has been patient with its youth and hasn’t panicked and made any dumb decisions with the roster. Critique the flubs if you’d like, but the team is making progress.
2022 might seem like a ways away, but we’re less than a week until the ball drops. The Falcons have been plowing through the fall to make it to this calendar year, when the money comes back and the grand plan can take more hold of this franchise. In 2021, the Falcons really could’ve been a lot worse. The fact that they’re not, and that they still, somehow, have a chance at a winning record, shows something’s working.
How well will it ultimately work? Only time will tell. For now, though, it’s hard to be too, too disappointed in these close-game Falcons. Perhaps it’ll lead to much more in the future.