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Atlanta’s contention they’re contending is proving contentious

The Falcons look like they made an unforced error telling fans they planned to contend.

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David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

You don’t necessarily need to abandon ship if there’s a little water in the hold. Maybe it would be even more absurd to suggest that you shouldn’t look into, you know, why there’s water in the hold in the first place.

The Falcons told us they were seaworthy. I wrote earlier this summer that this was a deliberate choice, a bit of swagger from Terry Fontenot after a spring of carefully noting that the Falcons would not make decisions in 2021 that hurt their chances of contending in 2022 and 2023. That was a bold stance, considering Atlanta was rummaging in the discount bin for free agents and moved a generational wide receiver in Julio Jones, but there was enough headliner talent here and a coaching staff most of us agreed looked like an upgrade over Dan Quinn and Dirk Koetter, at the very least. Fine, was my thought process, let’s see it. I wound up settling on an 8-9 prediction, something I still believe the Falcons can achieve if they get their act together, as a recognition of their limitations and a nod to the improvement I expected.

Our socks are getting wet, though. The Falcons’ effort against Philadelphia was so bad and so discouraging that it immediately raised real questions about this team’s level of preparation and ability to contend, particularly when Arthur Smith pinned that lack of preparation on himself. While Tampa Bay was in its broad contours the sort of improvement that might actually get this team somewhere, it was still a story of the Falcons clawing their way back into a game they frittered away and then...frittering it away again. Atlanta’s offense has been mostly anemic, the defense has been somewhere in the proximity of where it was a year ago, and the sloppiness has been real and pronounced on both sides of the ball. Arthur Smith looks like a rookie head coach in a way that other rookie head coaches haven’t, and the holes on the roster look deeper and more treacherous than they did before the season started.

I don’t know if Fontenot and company truly believed—and hell, maybe still believe—that they’re not a rebuilding football team. If they do, they have a fairly short time in which to prove they’re not before the season is lost and another tough offseason is looming. If the intent was to help hype fans for a new regime, it was a plan that had a very limited shelf life, given that a couple of losses after the last three seasons was going to shake the confidence level of the fanbase significantly. The absolute worst possible outcome for those outside the building was that this team would say they planned to contend, not come close to doing so, and invite doubts about whether the plan was any good or if the Falcons got trapped trying to walk a line too fine to walk in 2021. The Athletic’s Sheil Kapadia, among others, are already wondering just that, pointing out that sticking with Matt Ryan suggests trying to win now, while trading Jones emphatically does not. If you do keep your franchise quarterback, as the Falcons did, it would be ideal not to waste another year as he continues to get older.

Both The Falcoholic’s Everett Glaze and Cory Woodroof are right that patience is going to be a requirement with these Falcons and improvement is what we really need to be looking for, and Everett smartly set himself up with zero expectations for this year. For years and years, we’ve talked (argued, but that’s a form of talking) about the importance of not buying Super Bowl tickets or burning jerseys based on a couple of games. But expecting less and not getting caught up in the frustration of the moment is a lot easier when, as Aaron Freeman noted, the team isn’t talking about rebuilding in a way that encourages fans to dismiss it.

I thought Ben Grazebook’s writeup on why this regime deserves criticism even if you believe, as he does, that Arthur Smith was a good hire is worth considering. The crux of his argument is that “it’s early” is valid as far as it goes—as Everett and Cory have both written, this roster is going to change a lot in the coming weeks and months—but that Atlanta’s weird situational play calling and anemic offense, as well as a mostly quiet return for an important draft class, deserve scrutiny because of how shaky this team has looked. When you publicly state you intend to contend and you spend 6-7 quarters of your first two games looking like the 2007 Falcons minus the world’s most awful being as a head coach, there’s not much you can do in the way of hand-waving.

Arthur Smith is a good coach and he was the right hire but much like when training a new puppy, it’s cruel to be kind. To not call out this rookie regimes shortcomings feels like [a] mistake, and frankly, with a fourth losing season already on the horizon it’s understandable that patience is growing thin.

And that’s it: We’re right to be short on patience, or out of it entirely. Many of you were out of patience as early as 2017, and that compounded with each passing year. Those of us patient and/or foolish enough to feel Quinn and company should get another shot in 2018 and waited to see how the coordinator shakeup would play in 2019 were still done with the old regime ahead of 2020, but we still had to watch that particular disaster play out last year and reverberate into this year. That left the new front office with a mess to clean up and a new coaching staff with players they weren’t necessarily delighted to work with, and thus far that’s playing out like the worst case version of that situation.

If the Falcons looked at the roster they were able to build and felt 2021 was going to be a rough year, they didn’t need to cut the knees out from underneath the ticket sales and marketing teams by saying they were going to stink. They just needed to look Falcons fans who were sick of losing in the eyes and tell us that this wasn’t a one-year fix and they’d do everything they could to deliver us a fun year while setting themselves up to succeed in future seasons. We’re running low on patience, but more than that, I think we’re running low on energy for hearing familiar promises and excuses that prove to be vapor.

If I’m being sanguine, as I guess I often am, I still think the Falcons made good hires this offseason. I still think over the long haul, the duo of Smith and Fontenot will be able to coax more out of the group they have and add enough talent to get this team back to contending, however painful some of the changes to the roster may be for those of us with long-standing attachments to stars and key role players.

That’s a long play, though, one that requires the bedrock faith of the owner to play out, and the owner would very much like the fans to be on board and along for the ride. That requires a level of buy-in that you jeopardize by looking like your plan isn’t a very good one in the first place. When you’ve played two games and you look like you’re figuring out everything on the fly, the criticism and frustration is going to mount. For most fans who are eager to have something to hang their hat on, the simple fix is progress and a reassuring sense that the Falcons are finally, belatedly moving in the right direction. If we can’t get that in the coming weeks, fans will either check out or intensify the already-active arguments about whether this team has a talent problem, a coaching problem, or both.

Nobody’s abandoning ship just yet who hadn’t decided not to go for the ride in the first place this season, because I think we all understand that this team needs time to enact a vision, and Arthur Blank is certainly not the kind of owner to throw out two carefully-chosen hires because this year goes sour. It is fair, as early as it is, to wonder how much lower in the water this thing is going to get before someone starts bailing it out.