In 2017, Kyle Shanahan inherited a mess of a San Francisco 49ers team.
The highly respected offensive mind was the gem of the 2017 hiring cycle, and the onus was on him to fix the roster and bring his Falcons offensive momentum to the Bay Area. In his first year, the team went 6-10, but you could see Shanahan’s potential. Was it perfect? No, of course not. But the plan eventually paid off in 2019 when the Niners won the NFC.
Shanahan is still one of the premier offensive play callers in the NFL, and he’s cemented himself as a head coach who can coach his way out of gaps on the roster. He can elevate guys to glory (see Garoppolo, Jimmy) and maximize the pieces he has to dominate other teams. Just look at what he did with Deebo Samuel this season.
Arthur Smith might not be quite as prolific as Shanahan, at least not right now. But the time for his ascension is now, as it’s going to be his brain, combined with the prowess of wily defensive coordinator Dean Pees, that’s going to decide how the Falcons fare this season.
You can stress about the roster all you want to, but in theory, you can get around a lesser roster with a coach who can outsmart the opponent and a quarterback who can run the scheme well. The 49ers in 2019 weren’t perfect, but they made the most out of what they did have. On the way to the top, and like he did in Atlanta, Shanahan consistently found diamonds in the rough who could contribute in his scheme (and, sometimes, only in his scheme). Sean McVay is the same way, ditto the other offensive masterminds in the league.
Does it help to have great players? Of course! Just look at what Shanahan did with a 2016 Julio Jones. But the coach, like the rising tide, can sometimes lift all boats. It’s time for the tide to roll in for Art and company. The Falcons are going to have to coach their way out of a roster that certainly looks like it’s going to need a pick-me-up to contend in 2022.
The team is going to create cap space, sign some free agents and draft some guys. The roster is clearly going to look better going into May than it does in mid-March. There are so many variables that play into things with each team that it’s virtually impossible to predict how things will go (see the Cincinnati Bengals almost winning a Super Bowl last month).
Even if the Falcons still don’t field a great roster in the fall—and let’s be clear that the chances aren’t great for that sans a miracle—the team can still win games with a so-so roster and capable coaching. The team has a veteran quarterback in Matt Ryan who can run the system well, at least judging by how he hung in last season despite the crumbling going on around him. We’ve seen Smith elevate guys like Cordarrelle Patterson and Olamide Zaccheaus, good players like Jake Matthews and Chris Lindstrom didn’t fall off in his system, and Ryan did his best with a depleted group of options. Remember, Smith was just getting started in Atlanta, too.
If he improves as a play caller and a situational coach this year, the Falcons are going to have a much better chance to actually do something impactful, no matter who is on the roster. If he learns to position his players better, create some impact guys through scheme and gets more creative with his play calls, we could really be cooking with gas. No matter what those who gripe about Art say, he showed promise in his first season. With better pieces and more experience, who knows what he could do. Even if the pieces aren’t that much better, a sharper Smith really could make the difference we’re not factoring in right now for the team’s future.
Pees will have a defense with a year in his system, too, and with stars like Grady Jarrett and A.J. Terrell, risers like Jaylinn Hawkins and Marlon Davidson and second-year players like Richie Grant, Adetokunbo Ogundeji, Darren Hall and Ta’Quon Graham who could take a leap, the team’s continued investments in its defense could make for something much more cohesive.
Don’t bury the Falcons yet
The team is going to make adjustments to its personnel, even if they’re not the splashes you’d hope for. Patterson obviously wasn’t a splash last spring but wound up being one of the best free agents of the entire class. The team seems to be wanting to duplicate this as much as possible with its free agent strategy, and bully for them. The need for this coaching staff to continue to find successes like Patterson and improve as a whole is vital for this upcoming season, as well as the future of the franchise under this regime.
Don’t believe people who tell you the Falcons are already cooked for the fall. Stories like the Calvin Ridley gambling suspension stink, and they make you feel bad about the future of the team. The lack of cap space (right now, but it changes by the minute), the lack of 400 draft picks, the lack of bonafide talent on the roster, Ryan’s age...there are reason to worry. You can’t go out and buy Super Bowl tickets right now, but you don’t have to give up hope of this team being competitive or perhaps even more interesting than that, especially before the team has even done anything to build for the fall.
A big reason you shouldn’t be too, too invested in the personnel transactions is that the biggest moves this offseason won’t be made in public. They’ll be made behind the scenes as Smith and his coaching staff work to reach their potential. If Art makes the progressions coaches in his shoes can make and that syncs with the roster moves and the guys already under contract, the team really might find itself back in playoff contention. It still seems like a stretch for 2022, but stranger things have happened to this team.
That’s definitely an if. The question is just how big of an if it will end up being, and it comes down to whether you believe there’s brighter days ahead for the Falcons head coach, as I do.