It’s hard not to watch a long-suffering team like the Cincinnati Bengals reach the big stage and conjure images of another long-suffering team following in their footprints.
The Atlanta Falcons, like Cincinnati, lack a Super Bowl, but when a team like Cincinnati does well for themselves, you wonder if it’s possible if the Falcons can finally shake off years of ineptitude and finally get back to any sort of postseason relevance. It seems like aeons ago they were there, but it wasn’t that long ago.
It’s easy to come up with reasons for the positive as it is for reasons to come up with for the negative.
The positives: you have a former MVP as your quarterback, you’ve got young talent on the roster that can improve, you’ve got what I feel is a promising coaching staff and front office who made some inspired moves last offseason, you’ve got a changing division that you might be able to seize sooner than later, you’ve got a third-place schedule going into 2022, paupers become princes overnight in the NFL all the time, you never know when guys will break out and when draft picks will hit quickly and give you an unexpected edge.
The negatives: the team’s quarterback is on a sizeable contract and could fall off at any time, the roster has too many holes to fix even two offseasons, you’ve got a head coach who disappointed compared to his offensive output he was hired for, you’ve got -$6 million in cap space at the moment, you’re unlikely to re-sign your 2021 breakout player in Cordarrelle Patterson, you’re likely going to have to trade or re-work contracts for players like Calvin Ridley, Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones to free up cap space to make requisite moves to have any sort of veteran talent infusion in free agency, you’re still in a hyper-competitive NFC where you are deeply behind the eight ball in terms of contending against the likes of the 49ers, Packers, Rams, and Cowboys.
The bottom line: The Falcons may have a better situation than they did a year ago, but they’re still not looking at a lot of money. The Bengals had a plethora of cap space last year and added multiple impact players in March that helped spark their return to prominence. They also have a young, surprising quarterback and quickly got run out of their draft picks. The Falcons, y’know, don’t have any of that right now. Heck, Ja’Marr Chase outperformed Kyle Pitts in year one, and while there are a variety of factors behind that, welcome to your usual low buzz of anxiety.
The Falcons can’t be like a team like the Bengals because, despite the similarities in bottom-dwelling, the Bengals had much more going for them going into the 2021 offseason. That doesn’t mean the Falcons can’t be good, but their situations aren’t comparable.
Atlanta’s got some hard decisions to make in order to have any chance at all to add meaningful talent before the draft. The Patterson re-signing conversation may become moot when, right now, they’re going to need to do some work just to re-sign one of Foye Oluokun or Russell Gage. You can make some cuts (Tyeler Davison, Mike Davis, Kendall Sheffield feel likely), and you can restructure some deals (Matt Ryan, Jake Matthews, Deion Jones) or, the uncomfortable conversation, you can make some trades (Calvin Ridley, Grady Jarrett, Jones).
The money isn’t there for the team to move the needle much at all right now, and trading a player like Jarrett to free space would almost cancel out who you add. You could almost argue the team’s financial situation right now will make the team worse if players like Patterson, Oluokun and Gage walk for deals elsewhere, too. For the team to embrace its soft rebuild fully, trading players like Ridley, Jarrett and Jones (if they can with Debo’s contract being so hard) will be necessary to even add any meaningful talent at all.
I’m not going to be Eeyore and suggest the Falcons are doomed, because a savvy offseason will have them at least turning in more consistent (and dare I say) enjoyable performances in 2022. The reality, though, is that it’s apples and oranges when comparing a team like Cincinnati and Atlanta, or any of the other recent surprise stories who took a big, unexpected leap forward. The road for the Falcons is going to be a lot harder than it was for those teams. even if that road in any no way, shape and form impossible to navigate. The Falcons may lose some of what helped them scrape together seven wins in 2021 because of the dire salary cap situation, and that might not help the team steady itself to add to the win total.
I’m not going to end this piece by saying this team won’t surprise, but the facts on the ground for the Falcons mean it’s going to be quite a bit harder to squeeze immediate success out of this squad. It’s life in Atlanta right now, but here’s hoping the team can still find a way to be one of the NFL’s most pleasant surprises sooner than later.