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Despite tough loss, Falcons can build on Sunday’s performance

Look, it wasn’t pretty, but it was something.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There’s an eternal debate that goes on in sports about the validity of a moral victory.

To some, a moral victory is tangible and worth celebrating, akin to puking on a roller coaster but still having a nice day at the amusement park. To some, a moral victory is worthless, empty fodder that doesn’t mean anything, akin to puking on a roller coaster and it setting off a chain of events that gets you banned from the park for life. Either way, you still puked on a roller coaster, but it’s the way you handle what’s next that that matters.

The Atlanta Falcons puked on the roller coaster Sunday. There’s no other way to put it. The soaring highs and the crushing lows were bountiful, and the turbulence of cheering for this team will make anyone queasy.

After an uneven start, it seemed like the Falcons were still playing with a lot of stink. Somehow, though, the team scored 15 unanswered points in the third to close a 28-10 gap, something that never used to happen in the Dan Quinn days. Back then, when you got your ass kicked, you got real upset about it and then blew a lead. During the very, very, very early Arthur Smith days, it seems you put up a fight, get close and then see the seat harness on the roller coaster fling open on a loop-de-loop and send you to your doom.

You’re more than in your right to be deeply angry about where the franchise is right now. The Falcons are 0-2 and are clearly veering toward another playoff-less year, barring a striking turnaround the likes of which this roster and coaching staff are probably incapable of pulling off right now. The franchise is at the bottom of the NFL pecking order with a potential quarterback change on the horizon. It’s more than fine to feel like crap about the Falcons, or even be disappointed that this new coaching staff and front office hasn’t fixed the team overnight. For all that’s gone wrong with the team lately, it’s fair to expect more.

Perspective and pluck

The challenge, when a team is at the bottom, is to acknowledge when things do go well, even in a loss. The Falcons, to put it mildly, had no business getting within a field goal of a superior Tampa Bay Buccaneers team Sunday. The Tom Brady Bucs are Super Bowl champs and might be the favorite to go back. The Falcons are in a soft rebuild. For a minute there, they looked evenly matched, showing the kind of resolve that keeps teams in a fight.

Maybe that’s the Arthur Smith effect. Maybe Smith, who doesn’t seem like the type to put up with much and takes a much different route to inspire than Quinn did, got his team to the point Sunday where they could make a game of it, even when it didn’t go well. Maybe it was just dumb luck, or the Bucs just hit a lull there after halftime and the Falcons took advantage of it.

After watching the team flounder on the deck against the Eagles, a truly abysmal effort that likely led to some broken televisions, the Falcons got right back up and took a hell of a beating from the Brady Bucs and still got within striking distance late. No, the game imploded when standout corner A.J. Terrell went out with injury and the Falcons’ shaky offensive line fell apart, but the final score does and doesn’t reflect what happened Sunday. Yes, the Falcons lost. No, the Falcons didn’t thoroughly get their asses kicked for four quarters like in Week 1. As much as it might be hard to admit, that’s progress.

It may pour like molasses this year, dripping silent plops onto the plate as another silent January awaits. The wait is the hardest part, but Sunday was the first time I saw a bit of what Smith really will bring to the table as a play caller that we didn’t see the past two years: creativity in the red zone, a balanced attack, an ability to spread the ball around, an ability to maximize talent out of guys we didn’t expect making an impact (hi, Cordarrelle Patterson). Sure, he made some weird mistakes (that Matt Ryan sneak on fourth was beyond me), but he’s not the type of play caller we’ve had since Kyle Shanahan. He’s also quite green to Atlanta and should only get better with time. He’s still learning the ropes, but there’s promise.

What about the other side of the ball?

The defense isn’t talented, but wily old Dean Pees threw some nice coverages at Brady Sunday and kept him on his toes for the duration of that game. Losing Terrell and spotty coverage gave them the cushion at the end to really close things out, as did to wild pick-sixes by a random Bucs player I’d never heard of that were just plain old Falconing at its best. That ending makes you think this team is still capable of mind-numbingly stupid things, but that third quarter makes you think they really might be onto something.

That’s the point of a moral victory. On AppleTV+ television hit Ted Lasso, the titular coach, a chipper football coach thrust into the world of professional soccer and his bearded assistant coach have a conversation about these moral victories. They’re farther along in the season than the Falcons are in their fictional world with their fictional soccer team, and Lasso’s empathetic culture building has been paramount in cementing any sort of success for this fish-out-of-water coach. Though, Coach Beard (yes, that’s his name) challenges Lasso that, unlike the college ranks where they hail from, moral victories don’t matter as much to professionals. It’s not good enough; they want to and expect to win, no matter the circumstance. Losses are still losses, and they, eventually, put jobs in jeopardy.

No, the 0-2 Falcons probably aren’t toasting the moral victory of punching back at the Super Bowl champs. It’s a bitter taste in their mouths as much as it is ours. Though, once the bruise heals, you’ll see the growth in the muscle. We may not think of Sunday’s game right now as anything more than another embarrassing loss, but I’ll challenge you to think what you think of this game a year or two from now. This might be the game we first saw the glimpses of a much better team, the true starting point of Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot’s vision for this franchise.

I don’t know what’s going to happen with this regime of the Falcons. I know I’m accustomed to things never going well with this franchise. Maybe that’s the problem. When you lose so much, you begin to blur the lessons from your losses. The pain of losing begins to clearly outweigh what you take away from it. For us, this is a decades-long dance with doom that never seems to end. For this new coaching staff and many of these players, it’s a second step into a long journey. For us, it’s same old Falcons. For them, it’s muscle memory.

There’s a silver lining for Sunday’s game if you look hard enough, a clear-cut moral victory this team can build on for the future. It might take a while to get to the Promised Land, and we might take plenty more lumps on the way. We might never get there. Professionals expect to win, and their fans have a right to uphold them to that expectation. But don’t let the pain of cheering for a cursed team prevent you from seeing glimmers of something actually working. Believe it or not, for a minute there, it seemed like the Falcons were a good football team. With more complete games like this, they just might be day.