In the movie A Bug’s Life (Pixar’s riff on Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai), an intrepid ant is tasked by his colony to find a team of warriors to help ward off the evil grasshoppers who steal their crop every season. Flick, as you’d recall, ventures into the bug downtown to find out what’s what and stumbles upon a team of circus performers.
Flick deduces he can trick his colony into thinking this gaggle of oddities (including, yes, a clown or two) is a band of warriors to save his skin once he arrives back in the little grass place the ants live. Of course, this team has no way of warding off evil grasshoppers who steal food from ants, at least not right now. Not to spoil a movie that came out in 1998, but Flick and the circus bugs eventually find some sort of way to save the day, not without plenty of mishaps, headaches and family-approved gags about a portly caterpillar named Heimlich.
If you’re wondering why I just recounted the plot to a 90s Pixar movie while writing about the Atlanta Falcons and their 2021 season opener, I invite you to find yourself in the story. If you were expecting a brand-new Falcons coaching staff and realigned roster to roar in and wash away the remnants from the collapse of the House of Dimitroff, then you are the ants in the colony. You are trusting Flick, the ant who makes all the weird inventions and doesn’t seem to have any friends and in this metaphor traded away Julio Jones, and a band of pretend warriors.
It’s not to say your faith won’t be rewarded one day. Eventually, if all goes well, Fontenot and Smith will be the ones to right the ship in Atlanta and help get this franchise back to winning ways. It’s just, right now, we’re at the beginning of the journey, we don’t have much to lean on in terms of whose defending us from the grasshoppers and we’ve got a ways to go before the final credits. It’s just the first act.
On Sunday, no, the Atlanta Falcons weren’t the happy ants at the end of A Bug’s Life who celebrate the removal of the evil grasshoppers (the main evil one gets eaten by a bird — it was very graphic for a Disney movie). Far from it - they were more like the movie’s poo-poo platter, or that stupid bug who flies into the bug zapper thinking it’s a giant light.
Sunday’s loss was ugly. After a few promising drives, the team fizzled out, slowly but surely falling to its eventual place collecting dust on the floor. It wasn’t like you could pin the game on one player (Jalen Mayfield, please stay off Twitter). No, it was a communal failure in the second half after a decent-enough first quarter and change. The team wilted after a wishy-washy penalty on Calvin Ridley negated a promising drive that might’ve gotten the Falcons closer to the Philadelphia Eagles’ 15-6 lead. The team just lost its grit and ability to make anything happen at some point.
They were doing some things we hadn’t seen in a while. Running the football! Getting some sort of pass rush going! They were starting to do things we knew all too well, too. Letting random players look like Pro Bowlers! Giving up huge chunks of yards! Casting poor Matt Ryan out to be eaten by the pigeons like a collection of breadcrumbs!
It was, too briefly some of what we longed for and more enduringly a lot of what we feared would return after Thomas Dimitroff and Dan Quinn were let go from the team last fall. The Quinn identity shifted from tenacity and that fast and physical catchphrase to messy fundamentals, boneheaded play calls and empty tanks. To even vaguely assess a Smith identity would be a poor disservice to the former Titans offensive coordinator in what was just his first game as a head coach.
That’s the trick with this season-opening loss. When the team got spanked by the Seattle Seahawks last year, it was more than fair to break out the skeptic’s ruler and swat down the optimism you might’ve had, if indeed you had any. The team went 0-5 before Arthur Blank fired Quinn and Dimitroff, following three seasons of abject disappointment, years of personnel blunders, a roster in decline, a deeply dated scheme and an abjectly inexcusable 2020 season start to support his decision. The Falcons were dead in the water and Blank scooped out the goldfish, but not before they had really started to stink.
It’s fair to quibble about if Smith should’ve given his players a bit more experience in August, but it’s, by no means, fair or proper to try and gauge much of anything about this new regime by one game. Did this team look ready to compete? No, it did not. Might this game hint that hoping for a quick turnaround with this roster and green coaching staff might be a fool’s errand? Yes, it really might.
Does this mean Smith is a failure as a coach, quiet first-round pick Kyle Pitts is now a bust, Mayfield should be exiled to Siberia, Fontenot was a bad hire as a general manager, the Falcons should cut Matt Ryan, the stadium should be condemned and turned into the world’s biggest Subway and the franchise is eternally cursed? I mean, maybe, but relax. We’re not there yet.
Sunday’s defeat wasn’t what any of us hoped would happen with the Falcons’ opener. But remember this: this is a Falcons team that fired its head coach and general manager, is in salary cap hell, traded away its best player, retooled half its roster, picked fourth-overall in the draft after winning only four games, didn’t play many of its starters in preseason, features a head coach whose never presided over an NFL regular season game and won’t field two of its marquee free agent signings from March because neither of them are still on the roster.
In other words, the Falcons being bad right now shouldn’t come as some sort of huge surprise, even if many fans and some writers here have held a bit of optimism close to their hearts. They’ve roundly sucked since 2018, and all the offseason moves in the world don’t guarantee you an easy out. This team still has a ways to go to get where it wants to go: Smith and Fontenot came in with a plan, and none of us can expect them to have it completed after the first week of their first season. That’s just irresponsible fandom.
Do you have a right to be frustrated about Sunday’s loss? Of course you do. The team’s penalties, mental mistakes and overall digression from its first few drives is fair game to critique. Smith himself said they didn’t do a good job Sunday and placed the blame square on him. Though, I challenge a loss now doesn’t mean nearly what it meant a year ago. A loss then was a foreboding sign that the old guard wasn’t cutting it anymore. A loss now gives a brand-new crew an opportunity to iron out wrinkles and get better for the future.
This is a team in transition. 2021 might not be a banner year for the franchise; it might be more of a bridge year for Smith and Fontenot to build the foundation for days to come. Ryan might be, gulp, a bridge quarterback for the next guy to come in sooner than later. Who’s to say. The one guarantee is that this team isn’t promised easy answers or quick fixes, and that there is still much more hay to be put in the barn. It might mean for some boring Sundays and some wall-punching growing pains. For that, you may wail and gnash teeth.
Patience is never easy, but it’s how we’re all going to get through the early days of a new team. The 2008 Mike Smith Falcons got off to a very hot start after a horrible year. The 2015 Dan Quinn Falcons beat the Eagles in Week 1 en route to five-straight wins and then a midseason, six-game collapse that had us all wondering what the hell happened. The 2021 Arthur Smith Falcons got pantsed by the Eagles and then who knows what.
Nobody knows anything for sure, but stay patient and manage your expectations. There is still so much more this team can achieve with fresh perspective, but it’ll come with time. I know it sucks to not be able to guarantee your Sunday afternoon won’t be a waste when it comes to watching this iteration of the Falcons. I just invite you to give still this team a chance, even in the ugly moments. Eventually, those clowns might just prove to be warriors after all, and if they aren’t your willingness to lower your expectations and hunker down will help you get through it.