In a year where almost all of us struggled to get through circumstances beyond our control as successfully as possible, so did the Atlanta Falcons. Saddled with the burdens of past mistakes both on the roster and especially on the salary cap, these Falcons had to hire a new head coach and general manager in a hurry and try to put together a team that could at least try to contend this year.
We’re now on the final day of the 2021 calendar year, with two games left to go, and after all the tumult and triumph the Falcons are at 7-8. It was a consequential, long year, and we’re rolling into an offseason that will tell us a lot about how the Falcons intend to build this team going forward. Before we get there, let’s take a look back at 2021 month-by-month and some of the biggest stories we followed this year.
The Falcons capped off a 4-12 season by losing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 44-27. and it was a year fans were only too happy to leave in the rear view mirror. With the loss, Atlanta sealed up the 4th pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and set about finding and hiring a new general manager and head coach, having fired Dan Quinn (who had coached the team since 2015) and Thomas Dimitroff (who had run the front office since 2008). Prior to making new hires, the team signed a raft of players to reserve/future contracts, with T.J. Green, Willie Beavers, Chris Williamson and Elliott Fry winding up sticking around for quite a while. Beavers is still here, in fact, on the practice squad.
While Rich McKay and Arthur Blank downplayed the severity of the cap problem—I fondly called it a “cap heck” rather than a cap hell, which I think they would have preferred—it was evident the Falcons were in for a bumpy offseason. Their search for a new general manager took them to three finalists, the experienced former Texans general manager Rick Smith, the longtime Saints pro personnel executive Terry Fontenot, and Rams director of college scouting Brad Holmes, and they wound up hiring Fontenot.
The head coach search was a wider net. The team interviewed interim head coach Raheem Morris, who did a nice job with a tough situation after taking over from his good friend DQ, as well as former Jets head coach and current Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, and Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady. While the fanbase was pretty sharply divided between Smith, Bieniemy and Brady as top candidates, the team went with Smith, while Saleh landed in New York with the Jets and Brady wound up being fired midseason by the Panthers.
The new GM and coach outlined their plans for the franchise, with Smith saying he believed the Falcons had talent and that the Falcons were his top choice, while Fontenot spoke of building a sustainable winner and drafting by a best player available philosophy. The team set out to fill out a coaching staff and front office, snagging longtime Washington personnel executive Kyle Smith and locking up their coordinator spots with Dave Ragone and Dean Pees, among other moves.
While the team geared up for free agency and the draft, they also made some significant roster and front office moves. A cap-strapped team let go of stalwart safety Ricardo Allen, rotational defensive lineman Allen Bailey, and fan favorite backup quarterback Kurt Benkert. Then also hired Chris Olsen, who spent a long time with Houston, to try to whip their sorry cap situation into shape, and added longtime Ravens scout Dwaune Jones to help them get ready for the draft.
Expectations for the draft were pretty low
The team kicked off the month with some no-brainer re-signings, including Younghoe Koo, Jaeden Graham (who would later unfortunately land on injured reserve), Jacob Tuioti-Mariner (who would mysteriously be cut later), and the immortal Christian Blake. They also made their first ever free agent signing, punter Dom Maggio, who would compete for the starting punter job but lose out to Cam Nizialek. He’s currently on the practice squad.
They also pulled off the first trade of the new era, a 2022 conditional 7th rounder to the Bills for blocking tight end Lee Smith. Then we hunkered down to wait for the excitement of free agency.
To no one’s surprise, Terry Fontenot earned his reputation from years of rummaging through the discount bin and coming up with useful players for the Saints, signing the likes of Brandon Copeland, Mike Davis, Erik Harris, and Fabian Moreau. Davis, Harris, a freshly re-signed Steven Means and Moreau would start, while Josh Andrews and Copeland would slot in as reserves.
The team also signed Barkevious Mingo, who would be cut in July after he was arrested and charged with indecency with child sexual contact. Mingo’s representation sharply criticized the Falcons for releasing him following the news and maintained his innocence, and that case was dismissed about two weeks ago. Mingo will be looking to get back into the NFL in 2022, but it’s extremely doubtful he or the Falcons would be interested in a reunion.
The Falcons also made a rolling series of contract restructures and adjustments to help them carve out cap space, even if they reportedly weren’t fond of doing any of them. Those moves included adjustments to Deion Jones’ contract, Matt Ryan’s deal,
Finally, we got plenty of draft speculation, with a fanbase that hasn’t agreed on anything since 2010 dividing into pro-Micah Parsons, pro-Kyle Pitts, pro-Penei Sewell and pro-quarterback (Justin Fields, Zach Wilson and Trey Lance, mostly) camps. There was a lot of civil discussion.
The most pivotal signing of the offseason didn’t happen until April 10. The Falcons added safety Duron Harmon on that day and he’s been a full-time starter since, but that signing has been overshadowed by Cordarrelle Patterson. We didn’t know it at the time, but Patterson would do far more damage on offense than on returns and would break out in huge fashion in this Falcons offense, becoming the team’s most reliable and dynamic weapon.
Ahead of the draft, the buzz continued around the possibilities for Atlanta with the #4 pick, with many heated arguments about whether the team would consider Matt Ryan’s long-term successor or whether they’d try to shore up tackle or tight end with Sewell or Pitts. Our staff was pretty divided on that, but Kevin Knight’s final mock draft (and many final mocks, period) had the team going with Pitts and that’s exactly what the Falcons did. The team landed a class that has turned out to play quite a lot in year one, focusing on versatility and upside. Nearly half of fans we polled gave it a snap grade of a B.
Fontenot did say the team would add more quarterbacks to the roster with only Matt Ryan under contract, which ended up foreshadowing free agent addition A.J. McCarron and undrafted free agent Feleipe Franks. Out of the team’s well-loved crop of undrafted free agents, Franks, guard Ryan Neuzil, linebacker Dorian Etheridge, running back Caleb Huntley, fullback/tight end John Raine and wide receiver Austin Trammell are still around and will be looking for roster spots in 2022.
May tends to be a relatively quiet month, and this was no exception. We got a fun rookie minicamp and the team made a pair of signings that would make a difference this season, with former Titans tight end Parker Hesse (who is now on the practice squad) and Tajae Sharpe (who has been starting most of the season thanks to Calvin Ridley’s absence) joining up.
It was also a month for rumors, though, and those proved to be anything but quiet.
The Athletic’s Jeff Schultz was pretty lonely on the “Falcons may trade Julio Jones” beat for long time, but he laid out his strongest statement and case for it in May. He suggested several things that proved to be prescient, including that the Falcons only saw two ways to create cap space (a Julio trade and Grady Jarrett extension), that Julio’s health would prove to be an issue in 2021, and that the Falcons wanted to make a deal. That deal would wait until June.
Julio Jones is the best receiver in Falcons history, and as much as many of us didn’t want to see him go, the Falcons had determined trading him was the best path to cap space they needed to sign their rookie class. Rumors had been swirling for months that Jones wanted out of Atlanta, with reports growing in frequency and intensity that he had asked for it early in the offseason. In early June, the Falcons pulled the trigger on an offer from the Titans, nabbing a 2022 second round pick and 2023 fourth round pick in exchange for Jones and a 2023 sixth round pick.
Fans who had salivated about the possibility of Jones, Calvin Ridley and Kyle Pitts sharing a field were sorely disappointed, but the return has looked better and better for the Falcons with Jones struggling through injuries all season and appearing in just nine games with 26 catches, 376 yards and zero touchdowns to this point. It was the big move of the offseason in so many ways, setting up Ridley and Pitts to command a huge target share and making it clear that no one in Atlanta was untouchable. In the aftermath, the Falcons signed their rookie draft class in fits and starts over the rest of the month.
We also saw June’s mandatory minicamp, which featured Arthur Smith making some prescient comments about versatility being critical for the offense and some Qadree Ollison hype that took a long time to deliver any results.
This would end up being an impactful month. The Falcons placed Matt Gono on PUP, robbing the team of a legitimate contender for the left guard and swing tackle spots, and he was joined there by Kaleb McGary. McGary’s absence meant Jalen Mayfield spent a lot of time at right tackle before being pressed into action at left guard, a move that still feels like it cost him valuable preparation time. The team signed Jason Spriggs and Emmanuele Ellerbee, and both have had roles this year, with Spriggs getting a start in relief of McGary during the regular season. The loss of Gono in particular has been a factor in this line being such a problem all year.
At the end of the month, the team also surprisingly waived Sterling Hofrichter with an injury designation and placed him on IR, one year after Hofrichter had been selected in the draft and had handled punts and kickoffs for the Falcons throughout the 2020 season. He would not return to the Falcons, who went through multiple punters before recently settling on Thomas Morstead.
We also got the early days of Falcons training camp, where it became apparent Kyle Pitts was pretty special and that Matt Hennessy had essentially already locked up the starting center job.
The month that brought this fanbase Rosenmania. The team signed quarterback Josh Rosen and there was some excited chatter about what he might bring to the table, but after settling in as the backup coming out of the summer, Rosen has struggled in games when he’s been asked to step in for Matt Ryan in blowouts and appears to have been passed on the depth chart by Feleipe Franks.
Rosen was only signed because A.J. McCarron got hurt in preseason. McCarron, the runaway favorite for the backup job despite some shaky in-game and practice moments, suffered a season-ending injury but could very well be back in 2022 given that the Falcons clearly liked him.
The month also brought a small handful of interesting signings that wound up being impactful down the line. Atlanta would claim guard Colby Gossett off waivers and he’s stuck around as a reserve, but they also somewhat surprisingly cut Qadree Ollison in favor of Wayne Gallman, though they’ve since flip-flopped on that. They also added former Bears linebacker James Vaughters to the practice squad, and Vaughters has put together some of the best games of any Falcons pass rusher in 2021. Those moves came after the Falcons cut down to a 53 man roster, with speedy rookie running back Javian Hawkins, tackle Willie Beavers and cornerback Chris Williamson ranking among the most surprising cuts.
Of course, August also brings preseason, and preseason was extremely non-competitive. The Falcons lost all three games against the Browns, Dolphins and Titans by a combined score of 79-30 as they largely sat their starters throughout preseason. The wisdom of that decision was hotly debated (and still is debated sparingly) as the Falcons kicked off their slow start to the season, which we’ll get to in a minute.
Before the season began, we got the news that Josh Andrews had been placed on injured reserve, which set up rookie Jalen Mayfield to start at left guard. The Falcons are getting a full season look at Mayfield and it’ll be interesting to see whether he remains the starter in 2022 despite a year of struggles.
After an offseason of the Falcons insisting they intended to compete in 2021 despite the Julio Jones trade and a relatively low-key free agency period, they opened up the year with an absolute dud of a game against the Eagles, one that would remain the low-water mark of the season for almost two whole months. That 0-1 record would swiftly transform into an 0-2 one after the Buccaneers handily beat Atlanta despite an impressive rally by the Falcons.
At this point, all the talk of contending rang pretty hollow, and it was clear the Falcons would need to start winning immediately to rescue hope for the season. They did so against the Giants with a strong day from the defense and a shaky one from the offense, overcoming some hiccups that foreshadowed Atlanta’s late-season offensive ineptitude to finish the first month of the season at 1-2.
Unfortunately, the team lost Isaiah Oliver in the process. The veteran had settled in at the nickel and was playing terrific football over the first three weeks of the season before he was lost to injury, a devastating blow for both player and team. The Falcons also lost punter Cam Nizialek and elected to replace him with 39-year-old veteran Dustin Colquitt, who had spent most of his career with the Chiefs.
Oh, and earlier in the month the team signed defensive tackle Anthony Rush to the practice squad. Rush, of course, has gone on to become one of the team’s more effective run stoppers up front.
Cordarrelle Patterson’s breakout season was just beginning.
This month did not start off with a bang. Maybe the most frustrating loss of the season came against Washington, which hung on to win 34-30 thanks to a second half kickoff return, some brutally bad defense and a tough ending of the game for the offense. The Falcons dropped to 1-3.
Fortunately, they were headed to London the next weekend to play the Jets. Kyle Pitts broke out en route to a seven point win over a very hapless football team, and the Falcons improved to 2-3. That game was also noteworthy because Calvin Ridley missed it, as it was announced he would not travel with the team to London for personal reasons.
That turned out to be a one-week absence, as Ridley returned to play against the Dolphins the next week. Miami is one of the hottest teams in the NFL now, but they were 1-5 and struggling mightily and Atlanta was able to squeak by them. Ridley had four grabs for 26 yards and a touchdown as the Falcons moved to 3-3, but it would be the last game he played in 2021 for the Falcons.
Ridley would also miss the Panthers game, it was announced shortly before kickoff, and would later release a statement announcing he was stepping away from football and the team to focus on his mental health. The team placed him on the non-football injury list, and there have been no updates about his return or status since then. We continue to hope he’s doing well.
The Panthers game, meanwhile, ended up being another bitterly disappointing loss. Carolina smothered the Falcons offense and held them to 13 points, Sam Darnold ran all over them, and the team failed to get above .500 for the first time in a long time. Atlanta finished October 3-4.
Cordarrelle Patterson kept his breakout season going.
On the first day of the month, the Falcons brought Qadree Ollison and Anthony Rush up from the practice squad. Rush has been one of the team’s more reliable defenders up front since then and Ollison has had his moments, as well. The team also surprised the hell out of all of us by releasing Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, who still remains one of the team’s sack leaders in yet another depressing year for the pass rush. No one has offered a good explanation for that one yet, though the team has leaned more heavily on Adetokunbo Ogundeji and James Vaughters since then.
The Falcons got my favorite win of the season in their first effort out in November, though, capping off an up-and-down day with a thrilling win against the dumb Saints. That moved them back to .500 and had us feeling pretty good, given that the Saints had mostly played well even with Jameis Winston on the shelf. Things would turn ugly for both franchises almost immediately after this.
Atlanta’s next two games were the low-water mark of the year, as well as some of the worst football I’ve ever seen this team play over two consecutive games. The Falcons got smoked by a gleeful Dan Quinn and the Cowboys, who thumped them 43-3 in a game where Atlanta couldn’t pass the ball, could barely run it and couldn’t stop anything. It was the first time the gap between the Falcons and one of the NFL’s better teams was laid bare quite so brutally, but it wasn’t the last.
That’s because the Falcons also lost to the Patriots 25-0 on Thursday Night Football following that, which was a better defensive effort and somehow an even worse one on offense. It was the worst two-game stretch of Matt Ryan’s career and a humiliating blow for the entire team, which had made it clear they couldn’t come close to beating a good team if the situation called for it. Atlanta was now 4-6 and things were grim.
That day was also noteworthy because the Falcons signed Thomas Morstead, the longtime Saints punter who would go on to be the NFC Special Teams Player of the Month for December.
Fortunately for Atlanta, they had the Jacksonville Jaguars next on the schedule. The hapless Jaguars were the perfect antidote to the many woes of the Falcons, who won 21-14 and were able to rinse the awful taste of failure out of our mouths a little bit.
Atlanta would finish the month of November at 5-6 and with uncertain fortunes with the Buccaneers on deck. Cordarrelle Patterson’s breakout season was still going.
The month started off with an expected dud. The Bucs are simply too good to let the Falcons beat them, and once again a lackluster day on both sides of the ball doomed Atlanta. They lost 30-17 and dropped to 5-7 on the season.
Their rematch with the Panthers went much better. Darnold was out, replaced by a Cam Newton and P.J. Walker platoon, and the Falcons played one of their crisper games of the year to beat Carolina 29-21. It is, to this point, their sole victory of the year by a margin greater than seven points, and it was a legitimately fun game to watch. Atlanta was back at 6-7 and knocking on the door of .500, but they unfortunately lost starting safety Erik Harris for the season.
It’s worth noting that playoff hopes were alive here, as long ago as it already seems, with a victory over their next opponent giving them a real shot at the postseason. It was the latest the Falcons had even been near playoff contention since 2017, and as such we spent a lot of time talking about it.
It would not last, though, not with the 49ers on deck. Atlanta got smoked 31-13 by Jimmy Garoppolo and company, once again failing to do much of anything on offense while the defense foundered. The Falcons dropped to 6-8 and are down to the slimmest of slimmest postseason hopes, which many Falcons fans were content with given the way this team has performed against the better squads on its schedule. It was a fun dream for a short time, at least.
Of course, Atlanta didn’t make it easy, but they did earn their seventh win of the season against the Lions the next week. Thanks to Foye Oluokun’s last minute interception, the team moved to 7-8, where they find themselves today.
Unfortunately for the Falcons, the end of December leaves them in a spot familiar to several other teams around the league: In the midst of a COVID-19 breakout. The team currently has 12 players on the reserve/COVID-19 list, and none of them are certain to return for the first game of the New Year against the Buffalo Bills.
And yes, Cordarrelle Patterson’s breakout season is still going.
That leaves us here, at the end of another year. The Falcons have a long and important offseason ahead once they get through this week’s road matchup with the Bills and their home finale against the hated Saints, so enjoy these final two weeks and then we’ll have a lot to talk about as we take stock of a deeply weird, deeply up-and-down year. Atlanta will need to decide how to go from here to being one of the NFC’s true contenders and how long it will take to get there, but being 7-8 at the end of the year despite some ugly blowout losses and significant losses to the roster is probably better than any of us thought if you had outlined everything that happened above to us back in March without the final scores and records spelled out.
What were your favorite moments from the past year in Atlanta Falcons football?