The 2022 season was supposed to deliver another ho-hum offseason and marked improvement for a team with its eyes on truly contending in 2023. Instead, we got another Falcons roller coaster season preceded by one of the most earth-shaking springs we’ve been through as Falcons fans.
It’s worth recapping how we got here at the end of December, so that’s what we’ll do today. Here is a look back at the year we’ve lived through, with our 2021 year in review here if you’d like to look back.
Atlanta was still finishing up the season, and they dropped both of their January games to go from 7-8 to their final 7-10 record. The first was a hard-fought game against the Bills where Atlanta was surprisingly frisky in the snow, while the second was a dispiriting 10 point loss to the Saints. Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot’s first, uneven season came to a discouraging end.
Naturally, expectations were heightened for year two, as we all knew exactly how limited the team was in terms of talent and cap space in 2021. We kicked things off with reports that Matt Ryan was set to return as the team’s 2022 starter, followed by some reserve/future signings and the surprise waiving of Matt Gono, a promising offensive lineman who suffered a serious injury that ultimately imperiled his career. Useful blocking tight end Lee Smith retired, a wave of reserve/future deals for players highlighted by Ryan Neuzil and Cornell Armstrong were signed, and a couple of CFL imports in Brayden Lenius and Dee Alford joined up. It was, all in all, a relatively quiet January, albeit one that saw useful players added to the roster.
The Falcons figured to go into the heart of the offseason looking to move Calvin Ridley, looking to upgrade Ryan’s supporting cast, and spending modestly in free agency to upgrade a shaky roster. Those plans seemed to be on track in February.
The biggest news of February was the addition of Ryan Pace to the team’s staff and the release of Dante Fowler, one of the crown jewels of the ill-fated 2020 Falcons free agent class. The addition of Pace, who was in the New Orleans front office for years with Terry Fontenot, was designed to give the team another experienced personnel executive as they evaluated who to add to the roster, and Pace’s influence would be felt in the months to come.
Otherwise, February was also customarily quiet for the Falcons. March was when everything blew up.
The Falcons had been sitting on some bad news for a while. Calvin Ridley, who had missed most of the 2021 season after stepping away to deal with mental health issues, was suspended for the entire 2022 season after the NFL investigated and found he had gambled on games while he was away from the team. The team was apparently close to a blockbuster deal with the Philadelphia Eagles before pulling back owing to the incoming suspension, which left the team without additional draft capital and Ridley without any hope of playing this season. It’s hard to overstate just how shocking that news was at the time.
In the immediate aftermath of that news, the Falcons put their cap space to work nonetheless. Olamide Zaccheaus was tendered to re-join a re-tooling receiving corps, Jake Matthews signed a three-year extension, and the team added Casey Hayward at cornerback, Elijah Wilkinson at guard, and re-signed Cordarrelle Patterson, Isaiah Oliver, and Colby Gossett, among others.
But while they were busily making negotiating those relatively low-key moves, there was another huge surprise brewing. When Deshaun Watson became available for trade, the Falcons were one of several teams to throw their hat in the ring, with Arthur Blank’s long-time relationship with the former Falcons ball boy looking like a key factor. The team was apparently willing and eager to take a shortcut at quarterback with all the big money extension and draft capital they would have needed to fork over, even though Watson had been credibly accused of disturbing behavior toward more than 20 massage therapists and no team involved in the sweepstakes for the quarterback appeared to look all that closely at those allegations. We never really got satisfying answers about what caused the team to turn its low-key offseason upside down and who was in the driver’s seat here, and we likely never will.
Despite the big, big questions that raised about Atlanta’s process, whether Blank was hijacking it out of impatience, and the cost of snagging him, it briefly appeared as though the Falcons would be the team to get a deal done and make Watson their next franchise quarterback. Insted, the Cleveland Browns emerged at the last moment and made the deal happen. Watson was ultimately suspended for 11 games and just recently returned to the field, looking shaky after not playing for the better part of two years.
The pursuit of Watson essentially ensured Matt Ryan would leave Atlanta after spending nearly 15 years with the Falcons, a stint that included the team’s lone MVP honor, several playoff appearances, and a Super Bowl trip we try to avoid talking about. The team tried to negotiate a trade while they were chasing down the former Texans quarterback, and after the deal fell through it appeared both sides agreed the smart thing to do was move on, an understandable decision given that the Falcons were talking about keeping Ryan in the months leading up to the move.
Ultimately, they flipped the franchise icon to the Indianapolis Colts for a third round pick, taking a massive dead money hit this year in the interest of clearing the books for a big 2023 offseason. Ryan’s season in Indy has gone poorly, with his play regressing and the team imploding around him, ultimately leading to a fired head coach and two benchings. It is, to put it mildly, a bummer of an ending for Ryan’s career if this proves to be it.
In the aftermath of the deal, the Falcons signed Marcus Mariota to be their bridge quarterback, giving them a strong locker room presence and a player who was familiar with Arthur Smith’s offense. The team also brought back veteran safety Erik Harris and added wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge, and both players would have huge 2022 special teams roles down the line.
March might have been one of the weirdest, wildest, and most consequential months in Falcons history. They then had to follow that up with the draft and more free agent signings the next month.
Things did quiet down after that, but the offseason kept rolling. Rashaan Evans joined the Falcons on a one-year deal early in the month, with the team adding defensive tackle Vincent Taylor and long snapper Liam McCullough to the roster ahead of the draft. While the swirling winds of justified controversy swirled around Flowery Branch, the Falcons picked their quietly effective offseason back up as though they had never really deviated from it.
The draft brought home an impactful rookie class including the team’s leading 2022 receiver (Drake London), rusher (Tyler Allgeier), one of their leading sack artists (Arnold Ebiketie), and a promising if unfinished rookie linebacker (Troy Andersen). Even their group of undrafted free agents turned out to be difference makers, with Jared Bernhardt and Nate Landman making the roster and Timothy Horne making it and picking up a larger role the longer the season wore on. That’s all in the future for the purposes of this article, however.
Blessedly, the team finished off the month with a major announcement: They had signed Grady Jarrett to a three year contract extension. The on-again, off-again drama around whether Jarrett would be one of the veterans out the door after the team had moved on from so many thankfully ended, ensuring Atlanta kept its defensive leader around.
The team made a series of moves in May that have not worked out over the long haul, but certainly fit with their ethos of always trying to tinker with and improve the roster.
The biggest by far was the trade for Bryan Edwards. The young Raiders receiver seemed to be a good fit for this offense and the Falcons only surrendered a 5th round pick to get him, landing a 2023 seventh round pick in addition. Edwards was easy to pencil in as the team’s #2 receiver and there was legitimate excitement around the trade, which eventually would evaporate when Edwards became a non-factor. The same day, they cut blocking tight end Ryan Becker and cornerback Kendall Sheffield, and this was also the month they parted with John Cominsky, who is having a productive 2022 in Detroit.
The team also added Geronimo Allison, who along with Auden Tate would get quite a bit of a spring hype but would ultimately not make the roster, along with linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski. The latter has become a core special teamer for Atlanta down the stretch.
One major change that flew under the radar a bit was the shift for Avery Williams from cornerback to running back. That move was made because of Williams’ ability in the open field and the logjam at cornerback, and while he’s only had a small role on offense, he has turned 29 touches (17 carries, 12 receptions) into 158 yards and a touchdown. There’s real promise here.
Also in early May, the team named its Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship selections, which included longtime Falcons receiver Harry Douglas. It will be interesting to see if any of them land jobs in Atlanta down the line.
Finally, the spring was the season of Arthur Smith, Dean Pees, and others bristling at the suggestion that the Falcons might not be competitive this season, with many a soundbite along the way.
The Falcons continued to bolster their roster with the addition of a pair of players who have hung around most of the year. Jalen Dalton is now on the active roster and is a rotational piece for the defensive line, while offensive lineman Jonotthan Harrison has had multiple stints on the practice squad.
Toward the end of June, the team finally settled on its punter, adding Bradley Pinion to the roster.
In between, the Falcons put together their organized team activities (or OTAs), which were an oasis of football-like activity in one of the quietest parts of the NFL calendar. That’s where we saw glimpses of Mykal Walker and Marcus Mariota as starters, as well as learning that Feleipe Franks would be shifting to tight end. All of those moves endured until deep into the season, though we’re still waiting for Franks’ breakout.
The month of the fateful Eddie Goldman signing, which got fans very excited about adding a potential impact defender bouncing back from a bad year. Instead, Goldman retired just a short time after that, leaving the team to scrape together a depth chart on the interior. That problem was made worse when Vincent Taylor was injured.
The Falcons ended up placing Deion Jones, whose future with the team had been the subject of a lot of discussion, on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list in mid-July. We would see Jones briefly in a preseason game, but that was the last time he got game action in a Falcons jersey.
We also got excited about training camp and preseason, which were just around the corner at long last. After an exhausting spring and a quiet summer, it was time to see what the Falcons were really made of. Training camp kicked off the very end of July.
As it turned out, the Falcons made consequential moves in early August. Abdullah Anderson and MyCole Pruitt figured to compete for depth roles, and while both were cut and on the practice squad at different points, they’ve become major contributors. Pruitt is currently second on the team in touchdown catches—yes, really—and Anderson has started six games and is one of just nine Falcons with a sack in 2022.
Training camp was fun as always—review Kevin Knight, Adnan Ikic, and Will McFadden’s live coverage right here—and it cemented that Marcus Mariota was the starting quarterback, Cordarrelle Patterson the starting running back, Drake London and Olamide Zaccheaus key pieces at receiver, and Mykal Walker a starter at linebacker. Then we got into preseason.
The Falcons won their opener, a rare victory indeed, with a 27-23 win where Tyler Allgeier shone, Timothy Horne came up with a huge fumble recovery, and the team showed their penchant for hanging around in close games.
Atlanta dropped their second game against a Jets squad hellbent on playing starters, but they looked really good in the early going before the deep reserves came into the game. They capped off the preseason with another win, a 28-12 victory over the Jaguars, and it was one where we saw Desmond Ridder come into his own despite a pair of interceptions and more encouraging signs from a young team.
After that, it was time for cuts. Promising rookie defensive tackle Derrick Tangleo, Abdullah Anderson, rookie guard Justin Shaffer, running back Caleb Huntley, tight end Anthony Firkser, and defensive back Teez Tabor were among the surprises, though many of those players wound up returning to the practice squad. The team also claimed offensive lineman Chuma Edoga, who would make a start at left guard, and defensive lineman Matt Dickerson off waivers. The team went into the year with a 53 man roster featuring three undrafted free agents, and finally ready to show that all the diminishing of their 2022 chances was foolish.
The Falcons opened the season against the New Orleans Saints, their most hated rival, and lost a wild, close game. After the game, we got a characteristically punchy Arthur Smith telling us not to bury the Falcons.
The second game was against a Ram squad looking to defend their Super Bowl title, though with the advantage of time we know they are actually pretty putrid. The Falcons dropped that one after falling way, way behind and furiously rallying, coming up just a bit short.
That left the Falcons 0-2 and confronting the fact that they might not be able to show the world that they were a far better team than many expected them to be, and from here on out we largely got what I would call a more humble version of Arthur Smith at press conferences. The team also turned things around quickly.
Against a surprisingly competitive Seahawks team, the Falcons squeaked out a hard-fought 27-23 win that featured a lot of encouraging signs from both the offense and defense. Cordarrelle Patterson took home NFC Offensive Player of the Week after simply bullying Seattle, and the Falcons were back on track again.
They followed that up on a more uneven Sunday by dispatching the Browns, with Marcus Mariota truly struggling for the first time and the Falcons leaning on the run to earn a victory and move to .500. As Adnan Ikic wrote, they had a big opportunity to break out of a long slump of not going above .500.
The Falcons then released Anthony Rush. Between Vincent Taylor’s injury, Eddie Goldman’s retirement, the release of Rush, and the subsequent release of Marlon Davidson that we’ll get to below, the Falcons shed four players who might have been major contributors on the interior. It’s a reminder of the limitations they’re working with with that group.
They couldn’t do so, falling in a supremely frustrating game against the Buccaneers that was horrendously officiated. Atlanta’s slow starts, which have doomed them so many times this year, worked against them along with the zebras against Tampa Bay, dropping the team to 2-3.
The next day, the Falcons officially traded Deion Jones to the Browns for a small bag of peanuts, getting a 2024 sixth round pick in exchange for Jones and a 2024 seventh round pick. The team cleared away one of its last remaining big contracts—although Jones’ will linger a bit—and ended the linebacker’s roller coaster tenure in Atlanta. They would also bring Isaiah Oliver back from injured reserve for their next game.
That game proved to be the high water mark of the 2022 season, and kicked off a lot of heightened expectations that sadly never came to pass. The Falcons beat the 49ers 28-14 in a hyper-efficient effort from Marcus Mariota that saw him win NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors, as well as perhaps the most complete effort we’ve seen from Atlanta’s defense all year. This team was back at .500 and appeared to be finding its stride at last.
The sour note was that they lost Casey Hayward, and I think we can now safely say that was for the year. Hayward had been providing at least solid play opposite A.J. Terrell, who was also working through injury in the coming weeks, and his loss had a massive impact on the defense’s fortunes.
Unfortunately, they had to play the Bengals next, and Cincinnati was simply much better than Atlanta. Mariota fell back to earth, the ground game had a rare off day, and the defense was eaten alive by Joe Burrow, who put up one of the most productive days through the air in NFL history as the Falcons lost 35-17. It was still difficult not to be optimistic, given that the Bengals were fresh off a Super Bowl appearance and terrific.
Shortly after this, the Falcons also released former second round pick Marlon Davidson, bringing a once-promising career in Atlanta to an end.
They got back to .500 against the Panthers, but in retrospect that game should have set off even more alarm bells than it did. One of the most profoundly dumb games I’ve ever watched—and that’s saying something—this one featured numerous lead changes, huge miscues and turnovers, and Carolina squandering not one but two chances to win the game owing to missed kicks. The Falcons would triumph 37-34 in overtime and took the lead in the lackluster NFC South, a magical moment, but I wrote at the time that it was hard not to feel uneasy about just how lucky Atlanta was to emerge with a victory. Still, we set our sights on a brighter November.
Ahead of the trade deadline, the Falcons made a series of big moves. They acquired Rashad Fenton from the Chiefs for a seventh round pick, though Fenton has proven to be a non-factor since then, and got a seventh round pick back for Dean Marlowe. Naturally, the biggest move of all was a surprise swap of Calvin Ridley to the Jaguars for a conditional package that includes a 2023 6th rounder that becomes a 5th rounder if Ridley is reinstated by a certain date (we don’t know what it is). The Falcons also get a 2024 4th that can escalate to a 3rd based on production and a 2nd if the Jaguars sign him to a long-term deal. The move gives Ridley a fresh start and the Falcons draft compensation for a player who was never going to set foot on the field for Atlanta again.
They followed up that deadline with a dud. The team lost 20-17 against the Chargers in a game that would herald the new and enduring kind of Falcons loss we’d come to expect in 2022, a close one featuring minimal offense and just enough defense to keep Atlanta in it. This was also the game where the calls for Desmond Ridder began to intensify, leading to a thousand online skirmishes about the Falcons quarterback situation. That dropped the team to 4-5.
Injuries began to stack up here, with Cordarrelle Patterson’s welcome return being contrasted by the loss of Elijah Wilkinson and then Matt Hennessy along the offensive line.
It got worse shortly thereafter. The Falcons lost decisively to the Panthers on Thursday Night Football in the rain, managing a meager 15 points while Carolina bludgeoned them to death on the ground en route to a 25-15 victory. That left Atlanta heading into a mini-bye at 4-6, still in the thick of an awful NFC South hunt, with much to ponder.
There weren’t really any sweeping changes following that loss, with the Falcons insisting they were still competitive and sticking with it. They were rewarded with a narrow win over the Bears by a 27-24 margin, the last time we’d see them score over 20 points in this calendar year. The defense led by Grady Jarrett was superb at containing Justin Fields, the ground game did excellent work, and Cordarrelle Patterson’s history-making kickoff return delivered the last win we’d see in 2022.
The team suffered a major blow right after this game, losing both Kyle Pitts and Ta’Quon Graham for the year owing to injuries. Without Pitts, the Falcons had to operate an already lackluster passing game minus their biggest threat, while the loss of Graham took away their second-best defensive lineman. On top of their other losses and with their struggles, those injuries would prove fateful.
The team would cap off November with an ugly 19-13 loss to the Washington Commanders, yet another example of this team’s profound offensive dysfunction outside of their always productive ground game. The team had a chance to win it late, but Mariota’s would-be touchdown heave was tipped at the line of scrimmage and picked off. The Falcons fell to 5-7.
Still holding on hope in the weak NFC South, the Falcons got a decent-but-not-great Steelers team right before the bye, with a chance to win one and put themselves in a position to contend down the stretch. Instead, the team effectively put the nail in the coffin for their 2022 season, losing 19-16 to drop to 5-8. The passing game once again was horrifically ugly, Mariota threw a game-sealing interception, and it was fair to wonder whether his time as a starter was coming to a close with the bye week on deck.
That was confirmed shortly thereafter. The Falcons promoted Desmond Ridder to starter during the bye, and Mariota (who just welcomed a child) elected to have surgery on a knee ailment that Arthur Smith said had not been a factor in 2022 and was placed on injured reserve. Many arguments about whether Mariota walked away from the team ensued after he wrapped up his 13 game stint as a starter, but it seems clear this will be his only year in Atlanta either way, with all the highs and lows he offered for the 2022 team.
The Falcons looked like the same team against the Saints after the bye week, with Ridder’s debut looking about as underwhelming as possible outside of a huge fourth down throw to keep a game-winning drive going until Drake London fumbled it. They lost 21-18 to their hated, dumb rivals, dropping the Falcons to 5-9.
The team was now looking for some sort of progress as a squad and especially from Ridder, who threw for under 100 yards. They got the latter but not the former, with Ridder turning in a much crisper day against a tough Baltimore defense that still featured the team’s season-low scoring output. That led to a 17-9 loss that dropped the Falcons to 5-10 and officially eliminated them from postseason contention once the Panthers and Saints won their games.
And that brings us to where we are today, almost ready to ring in the New Year and find out what the Falcons will do over their final two games. Then we can look forward to perhaps the most impactful offseason in the past decade—only 2014’s ill-fated spending spree and 2016’s huge free agency and draft come close—and a better Falcons squad in 2023.
In the end, the 2022 season was about the kinds of quiet improvement and future-building the team has long talked about, punctuated by one out-of-character and deeply misguided trade pursuit. The most dour and optimistic predictions about this team’s fortunes fell by the wayside, and the Falcons were what many of us thought they’d be this year: An improved squad, but one that wasn’t necessarily going to win more games.
Looking back, it’s striking how many times the Falcons had an opponent wracked by injuries, but also how profound the impact of injuries were on this team. The loss of key players on the defensive line, Casey Hayward, and ultimately Kyle Pitts leave this season with some lingering what-ifs.
In the end, though, 2022 was a waypoint for this Falcons team, which is hoping a big 2023 offseason catapults them into the stratosphere of actual NFL contenders. Whether we remember this as a hectic but important step toward a brighter future or another year of more of the same will depend on how this coming calendar year goes.