We all expected something different from this 2022 Falcons season. For some fans, the playoffs were the goal and an attainable one, which means the current situation is a disappointing one. For others, a higher level of success and competence was anticipated, regardless of record. For still others, anything over two wins was going to be a bonus.
With the calendar wrapping up just before the season ends, it’s a fine time to look back at what we expected and what we actually got from our favorite football team. A few members of our staff joined this roundtable to discuss just that. .
Better than expected: The offensive line
Worse than expected: The pass rush
In line with overall expectations? Yes
Setting aside record, I said from the spring on that I felt pretty strongly that the Falcons would be better than a year ago even if their win total didn’t quite reflect that. That’s more or less exactly how things have unfolded, with a team that was outscored by nearly 150 points a year ago just 35 points underwater in 2022. Atlanta’s ground game has improved by leaps and bounds, and while the passing game took a bit of a step back and the defense only marginally improved, this squad has looked more capable all around than they did in 2021.
The offensive line has been a key piece of that, as the run blocking has simply been superb, a credit to the players, Arthur Smith’s scheme, and offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford. The pass rush, meanwhile, took only the tiniest step forward, a bitter pill to swallow after the team used two draft picks on edge rushers and added free agent talent. I expected more from them, and maybe 2023 is the year we finally get it. -Dave Choate
Better than expected: The run game
Worse than expected: The pass game
In line with overall expectations? Avoiding being the worst team in the NFL means the Falcons exceeded expectations.
The Falcons are so tough to evaluate. The team is somewhere in a rebuild, short on talent at multiple key positions. Can Dean Pees still coach effectively in the current NFL? I can’t really tell without pass rushers or corners outside of AJ Terrell. While Terry Fontenot has invested in a few players at each position, we’re clearly in the remove unproductive players part of the rebuild.
We buck that question regarding the rebuild at two spots on the offense.
The first was one spot I thought we would see more trouble: the run game. While we saw some intriguing concepts play out in 2021, I would have expected to see more hurdles with developing one of the league’s best run games. After all, the only changes are replacing Jalen Mayfield with a slew of replacement-level guards and adding Tyler Allgeier (5th round pick) and Caleb Huntley (free agent). Entering 2022, I’d strongly bet the Falcons would have problems at right tackle, center, and left guard, with the result being an inconsistent run game. Kudos to Arthur Smith for turning a bunch of bargain bin players into one of the league’s best.
Where we are lacking is the passing game. After all, Terry Fontenot drafted a tight end and wide receiver in the top 10 of two consecutive drafts. The quarterback position has been in flex since Matt Ryan left, but even with sub-par talent like Marcus Mariota or a rookie like Desmond Ridder (who has not been able to play with Pitts), we have seen an alarming level of inconsistency and questionable play designs. The pass game should be better and it isn’t all on the quarterback.
Did the Falcons meet expectations? I think, despite this being a disappointing season, the Falcons exceeded the expectations that they would be the worst team in the NFL. Beating very low expectations doesn’t feel like a big win. After all, the Falcons are still bad. But they’re a better bad than under the old regime. It may not feel great, but it feels like progress with less resources than under the past regime. — Matt Chambers
Better than expected: The rushing attack
Worse than expected: Kyle Pitts
In line with overall expectations? Mostly
Along with the rest of my colleagues, the play of the offensive line has been impressive and exceeded my expectations. Seeing a team that finished 31st in rushing bring back the same starting five with no substantial offseason upgrades and turn that into a top 3 unit has been astounding.
It appears most of that is owed to coaching and development. The improved run-blocking of Jake Matthews, Chris Lindstrom, and Kaleb McGary is apparent every week. While you haven’t seen a parallel flip in terms of improved pass protection, it is clear that the pass blocking has gotten better as the season has worn on. Those are just a few of the accomplishments seemingly achieved by line coach Dwayne Ledford. Before the year, I basically argued that betting on any substantial growth from the offensive line was a bet on Ledford, and it appears the Falcons have truly hit the jackpot. It has completely rewritten the future outlook for the offensive line into something containing legitimate optimism. That is a stark change from the bleakness of the past decade.
As far as disappointments go, Pitts’ underwhelming year doesn’t seem to be his fault, but rather a reflection of his environment. But nonetheless, expectations were that we’d see continued growth from Pitts into his second year after a historic rookie season. It’s certainly fair to debate if expectations were too high on him given circumstances out of his control such as the changes at the quarterback position over the past year. Yet there’s going to be a lot more scrutiny, and potentially even more heightened expectations surrounding Pitts when he returns from injury entering his third season.
As for overall expectations, I expected the Falcons to be a scrappy, competitive team that would probably not win as many close games as they did in 2021. They have absolutely met those expectations. But thanks in part to the dominance of the ground game, they have in a lot of ways been even scrappier than I expected. Yet part of me wonders how much of that is due to their own inherent grit versus the fact that the NFL as a collective seems to be undergoing a down year. Scoring is down to one of its lowest outputs leaguewide over the past decade. Do the Falcons look better because they’re legitimately better, or simply due to a lot of other teams looking worse? Time will tell, and how much growth the team shows next season will factor into that final answer. — Aaron Freeman