So many Falcons seasons seem to start off like a freight train. The team has tried to address their biggest problems, confident those fixes can bring Atlanta back to the playoffs. Fans start to see whether the off-season optimism is warranted during the preseason games. Only then is when the problems with the freight train become a bit more apparent.
We have seen those problems addressed before. Steve Sarkisian struggles against top defenses? Boom — he’s replaced with a veteran play-caller. Vic Beasley a bust? Don’t worry, because Dante Fowler is here to give Takkarist McKinley some help. Austin Hooper may be too expensive but Hayden Hurst could be an upgrade. Was Mike Smith too subdued and reserved to motivate players? His replacement is fired up. Was Smith’s replacement too friendly for players to be held accountable? OK, we have another replacement who brings energy and makes it clear players must earn their snaps.
The Falcons chug along with eyes on the post-season.
Will this off-season’s changes finally be the right ones? With preseason in the rear-view mirror, you may finally have an inkling if the team effectively replaced or upgraded over last year’s embarrassment. However, new head coach Arthur Smith kept most of the team on mothballs prior to Week 1 of the regular seasons. It is a bold move considering the new players, schemes, coaches, and limited training camp.
At the very least, preseason gives the fans a warning about the upcoming season when they can start feeling the unusual shaking right as the locomotive leaves the station accompanied by a slight smell of smoke.
Has preseason helped answer any questions? Arthur Smith and Co. have a better idea on how players perform through camp. However, it would be tough to put too much stock into low-contact camp and a handful of scrimmages against the Miami Dolphins.
Looking back, the same questions remain. Can Matt Ryan bounce back and be the quarterback of the near future? Can the offense manage without Julio Jones? Was Kyle Pitts worth the draft pick? Can Smith build a consistent run game with the current players? Do the Falcons have decent wide receiver depth? Will a coaching change improve the pass rush? Can the secondary hold together against a decent passing game? Can the offensive line do more than block light?
The answer to those questions means the season is either over in a matter of weeks or the Falcons are competitive late into the year.
With all these issues, is the train starting to run worryingly fast? So far, we have no idea. Smith has prevented nearly every single established starter from taking snaps this preseason. No Matt Ryan, Grady Jarrett, Jake Matthews, Calvin Ridley, or Erik Harris, with no touches for presumed starting back Mike Davis and one touch for fourth overall pick Kyle Pitts.
It would likely help if those players had more time together with each other and the new coaches, learning the intricacies of the new schemes and hitting the ground running. There is something to say about keeping the team as healthy as possible especially with a 17th game. Certainly, Smith understands the need to keep his players healthy. There is no question the Falcons are short on depth and money to replace injured players. Yet, this feels excessively conservative and certainly out of the ordinary.
The Falcons offered no insights. No understanding. No fun. No excitement.
The train is almost certain to lose its brakes and catch on fire in no time — we have seen that year after year in some spectacle or another. But will that be in September or the playoffs? No one will have a good sense on the answer to that until Week 1 of the regular season, if not later.