We have to be careful what stories we tell about ourselves, because our perception of our own abilities—of our successes and failures—is not always an accurate one. That’s doubly true of NFL teams.
Franchises are full to the brim with wealthy, powerful people who can come to smell roses whenever someone in the board room farts, and that can lead to those teams sinking into years of mediocrity or worse. There’s the way Dave Gettleman and Joe Judge talk about the putrid Giants, the seemingly endless trials and rebuilds of the Jets, and the extremely slow motion immolation of the Seahawks. Then there are, of course, the Atlanta Falcons, a team that last sniffed the playoffs in 2017 and talked themselves into a very doomed 2020 based on exactly the kind of story I’m referring to.
No storybook ending
You don’t need me to rehash what happened with the Falcons, but suffice to say a 6-2 second half of the 2019 season told Arthur Blank something he had likely already partially talked himself into: This was a team that had Figured It Out. They were On the Rise. Dan Quinn’s decision to surrender control of the defense to Raheem Morris and Jeff Ulbrich had fueled a turnaround, and new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter just needed another year with Matt Ryan to make magic happen. One more offseason for Thomas Dimitroff, even one with limited cap space, might let this team build on their momentum and deliver the season this team had been waiting for since 2016. I don’t know the process that led to that decision, but I do know the costs of it.
All of that was a mistake, and it was pretty clear at the time that it was. Internal power dynamics in the Falcons organization probably doomed Quinn and Dimitroff before the team’s performance did, but after a brutal 0-5 start they were both out and the Falcons burned a year before starting over. New hires Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot inherited a team with a difficult cap situation not helped by a lame duck front office trying to compete, several squawking albatross contracts, and a need to sort through all that in very short order.
We’re about to put a bow on that year, with the Falcons competing hard, winning seven games and, as Steve Wyche wrote recently, discovering a few foundational pieces that they’ve added and that Thomas Dimitroff thoughtfully left them. A Falcons team that spent years telling itself the wrong story—we’re a couple of pieces away, we have to lock up this nucleus, a coaching change will get us on the path to 2016 again—now must look in the mirror and choose a new one for 2022 and beyond. At a broad, abstract level, it’s the most important thing they’ll do all offseason.
2021 was a success
The first story is the rosy one, the triumphant one. This is the Falcons thumping their chests over 7-8 wins, pointing to their ability to grit out close games and handle lousy teams with a far-from-complete roster, and feeling confident about their growth potential. This is a team choosing not to ship out any of its big contracts or familiar faces this offseason minus maybe Calvin Ridley, whose future with the team is deeply unsettled, and to make moves like Grady Jarrett and Matt Ryan extension to keep the nucleus intact and pick up more money. They’ll look at the lumps Jalen Mayfield, Richie Grant, Deion Jones, Darren Hall and Adetokunbo Ogundeji took, among others, and count on growth from them in 2022.
This path would suggest that the Falcons are not concerned that they had one of the worst point differentials in the league and were barely competitive against good teams, choosing to view that as the growing pains associated with barely filling out a roster, losing Ridley for most of the season, and having a first-year coaching staff trying to figure this thing out. They’ll use the 2022 offseason to add to known weaknesses—the receiving corps, the pass rush, etc.—and look for a step forward. This is the path of a team that believes they can push for the playoffs next season.
The risk here is obvious. The Falcons just told themselves nice things about momentum heading into last season, and they failed catastrophically and set the franchise back at least a year as a result. If Atlanta adds to this roster on a relative shoestring budget with no major changes and they are worse next year against a tough schedule, 2023 becomes a potential year of reckoning and the team’s ability to contend before the middle of the decade becomes a big question mark.
2021 was a mild success
This is sort of the middle course. The Falcons will look at themselves and be frustrated they didn’t make the playoffs but recognize they did make progress in some ways, ones that they can build on. They will also recognize that their roster is deeply a work in progress, some of the players they evaluated in 2021 aren’t long-term roster fits, and the coaching staff has to find a way to improve situational play calling and decision-making.
The moves the Falcons could choose to make in this scenario are myriad. They could keep Ryan with an extension but move either Deion Jones or Grady Jarrett to free up cap space and give a young player like Mykal Walker or a rookie a chance to step up. They could flip Ryan to Pittsburgh, a popular potential landing spot in wild trade speculation, and try to build up the roster around a quarterback they like from this class. They could trade Ridley if he simply wants a fresh start and rebuild the receiving corps, but not touch anything else. The second move seems less likely if they’re reasonably happy with this team and Ryan, but the point is that there will be 1-2 big moves aimed at bolstering this team’s weaknesses.
Atlanta’s schedule is setting up to be tough in 2022, so the offseason will be aimed at staying competitive next season while continuing to build for 2023 and beyond. It means something less than a teardown, but certainly enough moves to give them the cash and draft capital they need to make multiple positions younger, more talented and more effective both now and in the future. They’ll shoot for the playoffs in 2022, but if they fall short they’ll still feel like they’re on a timeline for success.
2021 was not a success, but it was expected
Here, Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith look at this team with its win and triumphs that they’ve commented on and see a lot of warts. They used this year as an evaluation opportunity, and they found this roster to be lacking more or less across the board. A total teardown isn’t in the cards, but the team may emulate the 2018 Bills and trade away most of their most expensive contracts in favor of draft picks, younger players and new stars that fit their vision better.
This would not necessarily mean punting 2022, but it will be a tacit acknowledgement that this core has gone as far as it can go. The Falcons would likely try to move 3-4 of their biggest names, which could include Matt Ryan, Calvin Ridley, Jake Matthews, Grady Jarrett, and Deion Jones, and accept that 2022 is a year to eat dead money and build toward a big year in 2023. Buffalo did something similar effectively—which is not to say it’s easy to pull that off—with Josh Allen taking his lumps, a slipshod roster struggling through a so-so year, and a huge infusion of cash and talent the following year.
The challenge here is multi-layered. From a marketing perspective, taking a potentially big step backwards from a 7-8 win season and a lot of talk about contention is going to create (even more) angst in the fanbase, and it will be the fifth straight season where Arthur Blank is confronting a losing team with stadiums that are far too quiet owing to team success and PSLs. From a team-building perspective, flipping players you know are skilled for the uncertainty of draft picks and free agents comes with baked-in risk, especially if you plan to start over at quarterback for the first time in nearly 15 years. It is, unquestionably, the closest thing to a fresh start we’re going to get.
I suspect I know the story the Falcons will tell, which is one of a scrappy team and a solid core that needs substantial work and another difficult year before they can really push for bigger and better things. Atlanta brought in Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith with the hope that they’d be clear-eyed enough to make the decisions that have to be made to get this team back to contention, and this year revealed enough cracks in the foundation to think an offseason of substantial change will be on the way. It’s really a question of how they view the roster, but I simply don’t believe that the no-longer-new Falcons braintrust will look at this year and be fooled into thinking they’re close to much of anything.
For too long, the stories the Falcons told themselves were fairy tales and long-dead historical epics. May 2022’s story be an honest one, and one that finally helps turn this Atlanta team into a sustainable winner.