Victories are meant to give fans the greatest satisfaction in sports. It signifies how much progress your team is making and the type of foundation your organization is building. Everyone recognizes when you are winning. It shows up in the box score, standings, and other notable places.
Winning is supposed to bring joy to a fanbase. For the 2021 Falcons, winning has generated a largely mixed reaction.
The Falcons have surprisingly won seven games this season. They are somehow in the playoff race going into January for the first time since 2017-2018. After three seasons of being out of playoff contention by Thanksgiving, Arthur Smith’s group has scrapped their way towards being in the hunt. It’s not exactly been the most enjoyable experience to this point. The lack of convincing wins and overall player progression has left many wondering about the team’s outlook.
Being outscored by 122 points on the season is a troubling indicator of how badly they’ve been outplayed in certain games. Only the Jaguars, Jets, Texans, and Lions have a worse scoring differential this season.
As Arthur Smith said recently, the team’s ethos consists of finding a way to win to create a culture of winning and playing smart, situational football. That’s a strong philosophy any team without realistic Super Bowl aspirations would look to establish within their organization. To have a 7-2 record in one-score games after going 2-8 in those games last season shows how much progress Smith is making in shaping the team’s culture. His message and team performances speak volumes based on how the Falcons notoriously found the most preposterous ways to lose close games over the past several seasons. Besides losing to Washington in the most excruciating manner, the Falcons are making plays when it matters most in highly competitive games.
For all the progress, there have been quite a few non-competitive games. That’s where the backlash begins when assessing the Falcons’ season. Outside of both divisional games against Tampa Bay, they have been destroyed in every game against the upper echelon of the NFL. San Francisco, Dallas, and New England made them look like they didn’t belong on the same field. From getting abused in the trenches to not being able to score points to not generating any semblance of pressure, those three games proved the Falcons don’t belong with teams that are ready to make a playoff run in January.
The other aspect of the Falcons not getting the plaudits for their wins comes from their on-field showings. There are plenty of areas the team struggles in. Not many quarterbacks are getting hit more often than Matt Ryan. Despite Cordarrelle Patterson and Mike Davis forming one of the most unorthodox fun running back tandems ever, they haven’t been able to find sustainable success behind a fragmented offensive line. The defensive line is somehow in worse shape than ever before, which is mystifying considering how bad the Falcons’ defensive line has played at times over the past decade. According to Pro Football Focus, the Falcons are generating pressure at a league-worst rate at 20.2%. Hiring a highly-regarded defensive mind in Dean Pees can’t save a unit largely filled with journeymen and underachievers.
Rising above the limitations
It was always going to be an uphill battle for an organization in the midst of being in cap hell. The years of going all in to improve a roster ready to win now blew up repeatedly in the faces of Thomas Dimitroff and Dan Quinn. It fell on Smith and Terry Fontenot to pick up the pieces and put together a respectable effort in 2021. That’s something they have proudly done this season, with plenty of individual performances of merit throughout the year.
No matter how ugly wins were against the Giants and Lions, they managed to come out victorious at the last minute. Younghoe Koo has firmly solidified his status as one of the NFL’s few elite kickers. His game-winning field goals against the Giants, Dolphins, and Saints have played a pivotal role in the Falcons’ success. Foye Oluokun’s game-sealing interception against the Lions came on a highly-instinctive play where he read Tim Boyle’s eyes and closed in on a potential throwing lane. After a difficult start to the season, Oluokun is starting to look more comfortable in the MIKE linebacker role. He has become the Falcons’ iron man by playing a team-high 951 snaps, which puts him ninth in most snaps in the league.
One of the most important steps in a rebuilding process is winning the games you envision the team winning, the kinds of games the Falcons would’ve lost in years past. Besides home losses to Washington and Carolina, the Falcons have exactly done that. They have handled their business against lower-tier teams. Although it’s not always been impressive, big plays were made at opportune times to pull out important victories. Franchise cornerstone players have been developed in the process of these hard-fought wins. A.J. Terrell is developing into a lockdown corner. Chris Lindstrom has been progressing into one of the top right guards in the league. The pre-draft hype on Kyle Pitts is starting to become more and more understandable as each game passes by.
While more players have to emerge as difference-makers, it’s encouraging to see highly-regarded players live up to high expectations and be counted on to be the best players at their respective positions.
The steady progress will take time in the rebuilding process
The Falcons have one more opportunity to beat one of the top teams in the league this Sunday. Regardless of the outcome, this season will hopefully be locked back as a positive one. It’s no secret that the Falcons have one the most talent-deficient rosters in the league. It’s evident they need to upgrade in several key areas. They have a long way to go in competing with the likes of Green Bay, Dallas, and Arizona.
What can’t be disputed is the importance of winning games. On a rebuilding team, you need young players to develop and learn how to win games. For a player like Jaylinn Hawkins to blow up a gap and make a huge stop on third and short in the fourth quarter as he did against Detroit does wonders for his confidence. It creates self-belief in knowing you have players that can make crucial plays to win close games. The Falcons are slowly building a more youthful roster. They need those players to learn how to win close games. That’s something they’ve done numerous times this season.
The struggle of grinding out wins and winning by any means can be incredibly exhausting. It leaves everyone questioning if regression is going to hit the team hard in the next season. Can winning close games be sustainable knowing you can’t depend on the opposition to be as weak as it has been at times for the Falcons this season? That’s something that will be answered in 2022.
It’s what the Falcons will consider this offseason, as they know they must drastically improve their roster. For now, they have worked around several obstacles to put together a commendable effort in being competitive and unified. The players believe in Smith. They will fight for him and each other on the field. There is still plenty of work to be done in building a contender in Atlanta, but the foundation is being built with close wins and genuine togetherness.