There is no shame in the Atlanta Falcons missing the playoff this year.
The team entered 2022 with most feeling they had bottom-feeding aspirations, with no clear path to excel on either side of the ball and a roster that looked more XFL than NFL in some spots. Matt Ryan was gone, the dead money was piling up, and the actual, painful rebuilding process had to finally get underway.
Through 12 games, the 2022 Falcons know who they are and what they can do. They can play with just about anybody in the NFL, but they just aren’t talented enough to always match with the laudable effort and effective play calling.
It’s not on one player. It’s not Marcus Mariota’s fault he can’t really escape his inherent limitations. It’s not on Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot that they only had so much money and draft capital to get their roster in playing shape for this season. It’s not Dean Pees’ fault that his defense only has so much talent to spare. Things just are the way they are.
The 2022 Falcons have exceeded and outlasted the expectations placed upon them before the season. Atlanta is a franchise trending in the right direction. They’re not guaranteed long-term success, but they’ve shown enough this year to make you think they can get there. Possibly soon.
There are issues aplenty going ahead. The team has to figure out its future at quarterback since it’s not likely it’s Mariota’s job after January. They have to find the best ways to use the windfall of cap space headed their way next spring. They have to continue to draft well. These are givens, but they’re givens that can’t be given much time until after the season.
That’s the bugaboo with the Falcons right now. They’re just not where they want to be, and there’s only so much you can do in-season. Swapping out Mariota for rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder might make Sundays a little more interesting and give us insight into how Ridder is devloping, but it won’t just sprout wins. Ridder needs some time this season if he’s a viable option going forward. Even then, those would be 2023 audition games for him to really factor into the team’s future.
The defense really needs more pass rushers and real work in the secondary. There is promise on that side of the ball, but real questions, too. There are promising young guys like Arnold Ebiketie, Richie Grant and Troy Andersen, and reliable veterans you don’t need reminders on, like Grady Jarrett and A.J. Terrell. The better defense hopefully comes later, but later would also ideally be soon.
Games like Sunday add to the halls of sadness in devastating Falcons finishes. They also shouldn’t be so surprising. Contending teams find ways to win those one or two plays that help them get out of close spots. Sometimes, coaching can patch the gap. Sometimes, it’s the talent. You could argue common sense would’ve helped the Falcons get a win on Sunday, but hindsight is 20/20 and fumbles are also very possible. You just don’t know.
The Falcons aren’t talented enough right now to win all of these close games. The fact that they’re in so many close games to begin with should inspire some legitimate hope for the future. Smith seems like a quite good coach who stands to get better, and the roster has some clear momentum that can be built on.
The 2022 season, well, it doesn’t look bright. As much as this team might want to fancy itself a playoff contender, it’s a bit more of a technicality than a probability. Yes, they are technically alive in the playoffs, but it also might technically snow in Los Angeles this Christmas. It’s not likely on either account.
The Falcons need to take the next five games and really get some run for the young guys. They need to try to win, sure, but maybe see more from guys like Ridder, Nate Landman, Frank Darby and Ryan Neuzil. Keep the spirit of competition in the locker room, but also consider that 2023 might start now if you really want Ridder especially in the lineup next fall.
There aren’t always easy answers, but there are foregone conclusions. The Falcons have a lot to look forward to down the road. They shouldn’t let 2022 define them, but they also shouldn’t let 2022 keep them from getting everything out if it they can for the future.
They playoffs probably aren’t happening this year, but even if they somehow are, 2023 needs to continue to be the focus. That’s the sweet spot. This is just the buildup.