The Falcons had an opportunity to knock the Saints out of the playoffs entirely with a win on Sunday. They chose, instead, to remind us of how much work needs to be done to make this team better in the coming offseason.
Atlanta didn’t just lose to the Saints, which would have been tough enough given that it was a game against their eternal rival. They lost by a lot, ultimately pulling within 10 at the end of the game after a mighty drive near the very end of the game. While the Saints happily didn’t make the playoffs, it was no thanks to a Falcons team that turned the ball over multiple times, saw drives stall out and couldn’t stop Alvin Kamara and Trevor Siemian at all. The Falcons saw an opportunity to prove they had made real progress in 2021 and squandered it, leaving us to face a transformative offseason with a bitter taste in our mouths.
Perhaps that’s the way it ought to be. Atlanta showed us time and time again in 2021 that they were capable of triumphing over bad teams but utterly incapable of beating lousy ones, and we said repeatedly this fall and winter that it felt like the sort of limitation only an offseason could fix. A win over the Saints might have tempted some in the organization to look past those flaws and focus on the positives—you’d prefer to think that wouldn’t be the case, but the 2020 offseason was proof that happens—and the lopsided nature of this loss probably prevented that. There were real positives from this season, from Kyle Pitts to Cordarrelle Patterson to A.J. Terrell, but it would be a mistake for the team to get as wrapped up in those as we do as fans. We can enjoy the seven wins and the good moments from this season, as well as the building blocks, but you want a front office and coaching staff that is going to see tarnished metal where we see silver linings. That’s how you get this thing improved.
The mission for this front office and coaching staff is to build the kind of team that won’t lose to the Saints—or anyone else—like that all that often. It’s a mission that involves rebuilding lines that can’t block and can’t make stops, rebuilding a running back and wide receiver corps that didn’t deliver often enough this past year, and just generally bolstering a defense that was easy to prey on. That’s not a quick and easy job, but anything less than legitimate progress in fixing this team’s biggest issues is going to make the 2022 season very tough. We’ve had more than enough of tough seasons and tough losses, so progress would be welcome and a lively offseason is just the potion we need for this loss.
On the final set of observations for this season.
- Need points? Call Younghoe Koo, who hit one in the first quarter and then tied his career long with a 54 yarder in the second quarter to bring the Falcons within one point. He also delivered a big special teams tackle right after making the second field goal, whi9ch is a testament to how great he is. If the Falcons let him walk this offseason, it’ll be a criminal offense.
- Matt Ryan isn’t 100% locked in to this Falcons roster in 2022, but reports indicate he’s a pretty sure thing. It was one of his worst statistical seasons ever and the Falcons have to build up his supporting cast, but he still delivered some darts in this one and looked good during those stretches of the season where pass protection was not a nightmare. There’s always a concern that he’ll drop off significantly and/or that the roster won’t improve around him, but Ryan’s still good enough to win football games on a good team. The question is when he’ll have that good team again.
- Qadree Ollison gave the Falcons a faint spark of hope in the third quarter, evading one tackle attempt and showing both physicality and speed en route to a big touchdown to bring the Falcons within 24-13. Ollison has been trying to push his way onto this roster and into a major role all season, and it’s nice to see him leaving the coaching staff with a memorable finish to the 2021 season.
- Russell Gage has had his hiccups, from fumbles to drops, but mostly what he’s done as the team’s top receiver is deliver. Sunday was no exception, as he cashed in nine catches for 140 yards and a touchdown, ending a slow-starting 2021 campaign with 66 grabs, 780 yards and 4 touchdowns, all numbers that are in line with his 202 breakout. At times, he was the sole productive receiver this team had.
He won’t come back as the team’s top option, obviously, but Gage did more than enough as a receiver and blocker in 2021 to return to Atlanta if the team can afford to re-sign him. For what it’s worth, he sounded optimistic that he’d be back after the game.
- Olamide Zaccheaus feels like a no-brainer re-signing as this team’s fourth wide receiver in 2022. He made a couple of nice grabs in this one, is a factor on special teams, and generally has played admirably for a player asked to fill in as the second or third receiver on a team with a desolate wasteland of receiving options. It was good
- A classic game from Grady Jarrett, who blew up multiple plays in the backfield while chopping his way by an offensive lineman with what looks from afar to be minimal effort. There are big questions around this team’s top defenders this offseason, especially with Jarrett needing an extension if he’s going to stay in Atlanta, but even in what looks like a down season from a distance, Jarrett was consistently delivering as this team’s most impactful non-Terrell defender. The team owes him a better supporting cast, and I hope he gets one.
- I am an avowed Darren Hall fan, so I’m not going to pretend I don’t have a rooting interest in him doing well. That said, he was sharp and physical in this one, preventing catches and making a couple of big tackles against this team’s most hated rivals. I think, as inconsistent as he has been, that Hall will prove to be a true asset for Atlanta sooner than later.
- Let’s cap this off with praise for A.J. Terrell. The 2020 rookie endured an up-and-down season on a losing season, playing quite well all year with some bad stretches and taking his lumps from the fanbase for it. In 2021, he was nothing short of a revelation, playing like and being recognized as one of the league’s best cornerbacks. No matter what the Falcons do on defense in this coming offseason, they can be assured that Terrell will be a phenomenal building block, and that is a victory and a testament to the hard work he put into perfecting his craft.
- The Falcons tackling on the opening drive would have been hilarious if it wasn’t so sad. Deion Jones had an absolutely brutal sequence there, and it’s fair to wonder whether he’s simply adjusting to a new role or on his way out of town. In fairness to Jones, he was hardly alone, as the Falcons repeatedly missed opportunities to bring down ballcarriers in this one.
- Throw the pass rush away, too. Atlanta finishes the 2021 season tied for their all-time franchise low in sacks despite the addition of Dean Pees and the presence of Dante Fowler, which is really an indictment of what this team put on the field. A talent upgrade for the defensive line and linebacker corps is urgent, as otherwise we’re going to continue to get games where Taysom Hill and Trevor Siemian look like very good quarterbacks. Absolutely nobody outside of New Orleans wants to see that.
- Matt Ryan not blocking for Cordarrelle Patterson but blocking his progress on a screen play in the first quarter was deeply baffling. The Falcons are already undone by blocking errors on a regular basis, and they don’t need that. It’s always the weirdest plays that stick our in your mind.
- Mike Davis did not have the caliber of year I expected from him given his extremely encouraging 2020 season in Carolina, but a lot of that had to do with the awful blocking he received. There were no such excuses in this one, as Davis fumbled twice and lost both to New Orleans, accidentally doing a lot to ensure the Saints won this one. Considering he fumbled twice in six seasons prior to this, that feels like a major fluke, but it is a deeply frustrating one.
Davis is under contract next year and is a capable, well-rounded back, but that was a nightmare ending to this season and the Falcons may rebuild their backfield a bit in 2022. We’ll see what happens with him going forward.
- That Dante Fowler third down penalty late in the second quarter was lame. I don’t really have anything more to say about it than that.
- The penalties on Fabian Moreau, on the other hand, felt more fair. Moreau has mostly turned in a solid season after a somewhat shaky start, but he was flagged twice in this one and both proved to be costly. It wasn’t an ideal finish to the 2021 season for the impending free agent, but the Falcons won’t
- The end of the first half was everything that’s wrong with this Falcons team. Matt Ryan under pressure settled for a checkdown to Mike Davis, who fumbled before hitting the ground, which gave the Saints the ball and a relatively easy touchdown just before time expired. Atlanta just made too many mistakes in this one to stay in it, even against teams with far less talent than the Saints, and that habit of poor execution and poor results will have to be left in 2021 and January 2022.
- Arthur Smith and company had an opportunity to end this season on a high note, but instead they elected to ensure 2022 improvement would look miraculous. Smart move.
The Falcons called a shovel pass to a reserve running back on 4th and 2. They dialed up a third down run up the middle on 3rd and 4 on the play before that. Too often in this one, the Falcons simply didn’t seem to be putting their best foot forward, something that proved to be a limiting factor for this Falcons team throughout 2021 even with the shaky talent on hand. An offseason of roster upgrades won’t mean as much as it should unless the coaching staff can take a step forward in terms of creativity and pressure-packed situations, but I’m honestly confident they can.
I’m giving it to Younghoe Koo, who effortlessly hit a pair of field goals that helped the Falcons stay close until...they couldn’t stay close any longer. He’s been a terrific kicker the past two years and will be crucial for what I hope is a better Falcons team in 2022.
All the talk of this team needing to retool the roster and improve existing coaches and players under contract heading into the 2022 season was and remains accurate. The question is just how much of that can happen in a single offseason, and for better or worse, we’re about to find out.
The offseason, and we’ll have plenty to talk about in the weeks and months to follow. Be sure to hang out with us for free agent thoughts,