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Making sense of 2021 expectations for the Atlanta Falcons

Are we finally going to learn if coaching or talent was holding back the Falcons the past few years?

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Falcons are on the verge of a new era under head coach Arthur Smith as they kick off their 2021 season in a few days, which should shortly provide answers about which direction this team is headed in.

But trying to figure out where exactly expectations should be for this year’s team has been more difficult than usual for me this offseason.

At the end of every offseason and before the start of the season, dating back at least seven years, I like to ask myself a simple question in order to anchor my expectations for each season’s Falcon team.

Is this team more likely to finish 6-10 or 10-6?

The answer to this question can often be a guiding principle when trying to figure out a team as tumultuous as the Falcons have been known to be.

It began in 2014 when I was considerably lower on that Falcon team heading into that season than many others. Since then, there have been other years, including 2020, where I had low expectations of a six-win team entering the season and the team similarly struggled. There have also been seasons such as 2017, where I had the high expectations of a 10-win season and the team managed to meet them.

There have also been plenty of years where I’ve been completely off the mark, including years where you seemingly got both ends of this exercise such as 2015. Considering my high expectations for the debut season of former Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, that year’s 5-0 start made it seem like they were definitely poised to go 10-6 that year. But then their subsequent six-game losing streak during the middle of that year led to an 8-8 finish, putting them smack dab between the two poles.

And there have also been plenty of years such as 2018 and 2019 where I was higher on the team than I should have been based on their finish. So yes, I have no problem owning the fact that I was completely off the mark in expected the Falcon’ 2016 Super Bowl squad to finish that year with a record closer to 6-10.

Clearly based on these results, this exercise doesn’t always lead to the most precise forecasts where I’m concerned since its accuracy is about on par with that of a coin flip. But nonetheless, I still feel it’s helpful.

However, trying to repeat this exercise and ask this same question for the 2021 Falcons has hit two snags.

Major changes

The first is obvious due to the expansion of the regular season to 17 games instead of 16. Yet the solution to this problem is fairly manageable, leading me to tweak the records. The resulting question becomes:

Is this team more likely to finish 6-11 or 11-6?

Yet, the second issue stems from the answer to this question itself. After all, my response would have been different based entirely on at what point during the offseason you had posed this question to me.

Several months ago, I would have quickly answered 11-6 given the presence of a trio of playmakers on the roster spearheaded by wide receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, alongside rookie tight end Kyle Pitts. This was a trio not seen in Atlanta since their 2012 season, when it was Jones, fellow wideout Roddy White, and veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez.

Like this year’s 2021 Falcons team, that 2012 squad was not blessed with a strong rushing attack, offensive line, pass rush, or secondary, but the power of that trio quarterbacked by Matt Ryan was strong enough to overcome the bulk of those issues.

But three months ago the Falcons traded away Jones, and as I’ve wrestled with my shifting expectations in the time since, now if asked the same question I would veer towards the opposite pole and say that this team is likely destined to finish closer to 6-11.

Those other concerns just appear far too conspicuous, and I’m not sure the duo of Ridley and Pitts alone is good enough to prevail. After all, the duo of Jones and Ridley was not enough to prevent this team from having three consecutive losing seasons.

Never before have I had to deal with such a curveball at a time at the end of an offseason when things normally are settled and clarity expected.

A coaching question

Yet now given the months I’ve had for reconciliation, it has prompted a new concern to worm its way into my mind. If this outcome proves true and the Falcons’ final 2021 record does veer closer to a six-win season than an 11-win one, what does it tell us about Smith’s coaching ability, as well as that of his predecessor Quinn in conjunction with the talent level currently in Atlanta?

For months, we’ve heard the narrative that the primary reason for the Falcons’ lack of success in recent years has been due to a failure on the part of the team’s coaching under Quinn’s regime.

To be clear, that’s a narrative I have certainly subscribed to for the most part. After all, we often assume that teams that overachieve despite not having elite talent do so because of superior coaching with the opposite also being true: teams underachieve despite having the talent to play better because of inferior coaching.

And the story we have told ourselves over the last year or so is that the Falcons fit firmly into the latter group. But if the Falcons struggle in 2021, does that narrative require revamping?

Let’s make two assumptions to illustrate this point. Let’s first assume that Smith is indeed a good coach and will get more out of the talent than his predecessor. Secondly, let’s also assume that the team does wind up with a final record that is closer to six wins than not.

If the Falcons were to finish say 7-10 and our initial assumption is true that Smith’s coaching staff was able to able to get more out of the talent than an average coach would, that would suggest that the team’s talent is that of a five or six-win team (or less).

And if that statement is to be believed, it would also mean that the team’s 4-12 finish a year ago under Quinn and his interim replacement Raheem Morris was less a sign of how poorly coached that team was, but rather an indicator that their talent level has fallen far below the general perception.

That perhaps becomes a reflection on the team’s front-office failings under former general manager Thomas Dimitroff, rather than Quinn himself. I won’t profess this thought to be particularly profound, as I’ve heard many express these exact sentiments over the past year since Dimitroff found himself fired alongside Quinn.

But it certainly would suggest that new general manager Terry Fontenot carries a lot more of the burden for this team to get back to their winning ways than Smith does, as a talent infusion would sorely be needed in the near future.

Yet again, that of course is assuming that Smith is indeed a good coach. That’s something we don’t know yet, and will only discover as the 2021 season unfolds.

Now, of course, things change if Smith succeeds in exceeding my expectations and guides the Falcons to a result closer to 11-6. That would marry nicely with the pervasive narrative that coaching, rather than talent, has been the main thing holding the Falcons back from success.

For clarity’s sake, my prediction for the Falcons record this year is in fact 8-9. Still closer to six wins than eleven, but good enough that exceeding that win total won’t be a total shock. After all, three months isn’t that long ago when I was somewhat optimistic about this 2021 group.

But I’ll leave things there, asking more questions than necessarily giving answers about this year’s Falcons squad. We’re only days away from beginning to unravel these many answers when the Falcons host the Philadelphia Eagles to kick off the Smith Era.

The one thing I do know, as many a Falcon fan can attest to, is hope springs eternal.

Where do you stand on the outcome of this 2021 season? Will the Falcons’ finish be closer to 6-11 or 11-6? And do you think the team’s most recent shortcomings lie at the feet of the coaching or the front office?