The Atlanta Falcons being “good” is not a concept any of us have had a lot of practice thinking about the past three years.
Though it’s been just those three years since their last playoff win, it’s been four years since, well, you know, the big game in Houston with the blown lead and all. The 2018 season was one we were all quite excited about, but it’d be an eventual plunge to three years of deeply terrible football. The remnants of the Steve Sarkisian offense would give way to Darth Koetter’s ignoble return, and the defense would ebb and flow—mostly ebbing—over that span.
The team has had some interesting wins here and there over Super Bowl-caliber teams like the Chiefs and 49ers, but largely, they’ve been miserably mediocre. But you already knew that.
With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers awakening from their slumber to win a Super Bowl every 20 or so years (don’t worry; nature tells us they’ll go back to sucking this fall), it’s hard not to be envious of those stadium-is-a-pirate-ship dorks. While the Falcons will not find happenstance with signing the greatest football player of all time (gag), could they pull a Buccaneers (gag again) and turn things around in 2021?
It’s not that uncommon, after all, in a division of musical chairs. A changing of the guard nears for the NFC South, with longtime scourge Drew Brees looking like he’ll finally retire, Tom Brady turning 44 in August and poised to lose to Father Time eventually and the Panthers seeming ready to move on from Teddy Bridgewater.
Carolina could be a year away from losing Joe Brady, the Saints don’t have a plan at quarterback that figures to be as good as the old man they’re losing, and while the Bucs certainly won their Tompa Bay gamble, they don’t have a concrete plan for what happens if (when?) a 43-year-old man’s battle against time goes south.
The NFC South will open up again, slowly but surely. Can the Falcons capitalize?
While doom and gloom are our roommates in this journey, it’s fair to wonder if the team is already well on its way. For the first time since 2015, the team will have a fresh set of eyes on the sideline calling the plays, and for the first time in Matt Ryan’s career, the team hired the hot offensive coordinator candidate to run the show. Also, for the first time in Ryan’s career, the team will have someone other than Thomas Dimitroff making personnel decisions, someone whose tenure in New Orleans overlapped with some pretty great teams being built.
Going from Dirk Koetter to Arthur Smith in playcalling is a ludicrous boost, and while Raheem Morris and Jeff Ulbrich did mostly solid work last year on defense, veteran coordinator Dean Pees could be a major improvement over both. That’s not to say it’ll translate immediately, but you have to wonder if the ramifications of this will be bigger than we realize right now, with the stink of 2020 still fresh.
What good coaching does is elevate a roster. Tampa Bay hasn’t been discussed as having a good roster since George W. Bush was in office, but now they’re the belle of the ball. Why? Coaching, that’s why. They’ve got a lot of good players, and have had a lot of good players for some time now. But they consistently came up short because the play calling was static and unimpressive (plus, Jameis Winston was erratic and unrefined). A good quarterback and a good coaching staff can do a ton of good, and Tampa Bay got both with Bruce Arians’ staff and, well, Brady.
The Falcons have a good quarterback in Ryan, but they’ve been poorly coached since Kyle Shanahan left town. Dan Quinn had his virtues aplenty, but his vices and blind sports would eventually overwhelm his time at the helm. He didn’t know how to find good coordinators after Shanny bolted for the Bay, and his style of coaching only blossomed when you had a tactician minding the shop on field. Everyone loved DQ except for the results, which is why we’re here.
We haven’t a clue how effective Smith, new GM Terry Fontenot and company will do, nor do we have any idea what their game plan is for the future. The Falcons could very easily run with Ryan for the next few years just as easily as they could draft his successor in April. Nobody knows anything, which is as exciting as it is nervy. This has the potential to be a huge boost to the team, but it could not be the winning combination.
But it’s that combination of coaching and quarterback I can’t get out of my head. When you try to handicap what makes a football team tick, people circle so many ideas and try to find common denominators. Good trenches and disciplined play are usually brought up, and of course they are. But if your coaching is on point, it usually means those two are firing on all cylinders. If your quarterback is playing well, you’re not often losing games.
If the Falcons get the consistent play we all know Ryan is capable of in the fall and the coaching improves, watch the narrative around the team change. It won’t be how talent-bare the Falcons are or how fall they’ve fallen since 2016; it’ll be folks finally noticing players like Chris Lindstrom or Foye Oluokun, how perennially great Grady Jarrett is on the emergence of A.J. Terrell as a top corner or [insert rookie here doing good things].
If the coaching improves, who knows who the next great Falcons we’ll be talking about will be? It could be someone in-house or not. Good coaching lifts all boats.
It’s why I’m bullish on the future of this team. They seem, at least on paper, to have assembled a heck of a coaching staff and front office. They’ve got both the availability to run with a former MVP and potential Hall of Famer for a couple more years or start fresh at the position in 2022 or 2023 (Ryan will start this fall barring an all-time shock).
Though the cap space situation will take some leg work, good quarterback play from Ryan and much better coaching can get the Falcons back on the saddle for playoff contention in 2021. Mediocre teams turn it around in an offseason all the time. The Falcons can be next if they play their cards right, if only because anyone can in a parity-driven league like the NFL.
Will they? It’s anyone’s guess. But the foundation laid down in place for the future inspires hope, and as long as Matty Ice keeps chugging along for the next year or two, the Falcons might be back on your television in January sooner than you realize.