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The Falcons enter training camp with 2021 fortunes still very unclear

It’s worth remembering how little we know about Atlanta’s plans for this year, something training camp and preseason will reinforce.

NFL: JUL 28 Falcons Training Camp Photo by Todd Kirkland/Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Heading into the 2008 season, demoralized Falcons fans were happy to have a change but weren’t necessarily expecting anything spectacular from the team. You had a new front office, coaching staff and franchise quarterback trying to shake off a 4-12 season where the team cratered and some red-faced skunk of a coach with fully packed marsupial-like suitcase pouches that allow him to bolt in the dead of the night...bolted in the dead of the night. I personally forecast something in the range of 7 wins that year, and I was not alone in doing so.

Even the most optimistic fans that year probably didn’t think the team was getting to 10-6 and the playoffs, but that’s what happened, and Atlanta would go on to enjoy the best regular season stretch in franchise history under Mike Smith. Expectations, whether they be dismal or lofty, are often defied by this profoundly weird football team.

Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

We’re back in an age of uncertainty for the Falcons. That’s far better than the near-inevitability of 2020 being a mediocre year—the only real surprise was that it was so bad given the many jobs on the line—but getting jazzed for a new era in part requires faith that it will be better than the old era. That’s easier in the long term, when the team will presumably have more free agency dollars to play with and a couple of years to build the talent base meaningfully, than it is in the here and now. That’s because the holes on the team are so identifiable, the dollars to fix them so limited, and the team’s frequent refrain that they won’t make short-term sacrifices that could hurt long-term success. That all indicates that this team is very much planning to make the best of 2021 rather than thrive in it, which I guess we can all relate to.

I was thrilled with the Terry Fontenot hire and quite happy with the Arthur Smith hire, but the offseason was a story of pinched pennies, the trade of a franchise icon and a general vibe that contention this year is going to depend on coaching and a significant leap forward from disappointing and/or young players. I’m reasonably optimistic that’ll happen to the extent that Atlanta will be competitive this season, but it would certainly be a huge surprise if they were great. But all of that, from the success now to what we hope is success later, is deeply uncertain.

We’ve all filled that great void with something, be it a protective force field of “awesome, this team is screwed forever” resignation or a cloud of impossibly optimistic “you know, with some slight adjustments I could see Mike Davis picking up 1,500 yards on the ground.” Hope and dourness spring eternal, depending on where you stand, but the thing we should probably all admit to ourselves now before football-like content springs up is that we have no real idea what’s ahead for this team.

Training camp and preseason are going to be chiefly useful for telling us (and obviously the coaching staff) who is going to be on this team, with performance to be determined. We’re not going to see much Matt Ryan, Mike Davis, Cordarrelle Patterson, Calvin Ridley and potentially even Kyle Pitts outside of practice, given how essential all those players will be in 2021, and we already know that preseason records don’t tell us a whole lot. The position battles are going to bring quite a bit of clarity once they’re resolved, but good luck figuring out how good this team is going to be based on, say, whether Jalen Mayfield or Josh Andres wins the left guard battle. We haven’t been in a position to see this team undergo such sweeping changes in well over a decade, after all.

In the end, I do expect this team to enjoy a solid campaign in 2021, owing to the strength of the offense and an increasingly depleted Saints team/Sam Darnold-led Panthers team being part of the NFC South picture. Heading into training camp and with a long offseason in the books, though, it’s okay for us to admit that everything’s going to be guesswork a little while longer.