The Falcons don’t want to hear that they’re not a good football team, and they don’t want to talk about 2023. Atlanta’s brass knows this roster is still a work in progress, but they’re insisting they’ll be competitive and that things are headed in the right direction, and talk of tanking and rebuilds and generally conceding that this might be a losing squad just isn’t on the table.
We’re all hoping this team is right to wave off that talk, and that Atlanta’s not just better than expected, but just plain good. The Falcons shaking off four straight losing seasons and rebounding with what looks like a half-finished roster and a difficult schedule would be awesome, after all, and a return to the postseason is something we’ve been waiting on for a long while. At the very least, a solid free agency period and what looks like a very promising draft have the arrow pointing up in my mind.
With the exception of the most starry-eyed fans, though, I think there’s an understanding that even the best-case scenario for this team in 2022 probably isn’t greatness, and may not even be lingering in the playoff picture until the end of the calendar year as they did in 2021. They’ll need to squeeze every last drop of quality play out of this roster and stay healthy to make real noise, and while that’s not impossible by any stretch of the imagination, it’s going to be difficult. There’s a reason so much work has been done to set this team up for 2023, and it’s because that’s still the logical time for the Atlanta Falcons to really make strides.
Even so, it’s mildly surprising to me to see where national outlets are projecting this team to finish, which is The latest ESPN power rankings are just a continuation of a theme we’ve seen over and over again this offseason. They’re being given the worst odds to make the playoffs in the entire NFC, the difficulty of the schedule is something everyone has noted, and most of the early projections I’ve seen have them finishing under 6 wins and either in or just above the basement of the NFC South. Given that I’m currently at 6 wins in my irresponsibly early prediction for 2022, “second-worst team in the NFL” feels a hair too harsh.
Here’s a more hopeful note from the power rankings writeup from ESPN’s Mike Rothstein, and before you complain to him, remember that he didn’t craft these power rankings himself.
Jarrett, the Falcons’ top front-seven defender, had little to no help last season. He saw double-teams regularly and sometimes even triple-teams. Atlanta’s approach to the draft — taking Day 2 rushers Arnold Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone — should help the pass rush. And, in turn, it should help Jarrett not face quite as much attention. Plus, Jarrett signed a $51 million, three-year extension days after the draft and celebrated a birthday, so that was a good week for him. — Michael Rothstein
Obviously, power rankings don’t determine a team’s fortunes very reliably, especially at this time of year. What they do is give you a sense of what the perception of the team is, and this tells you that a well-regarded draft class, complimented signings like Casey Hayward and Nick Kwiatkoski, and the recent positive profiles of Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith in national outlets haven’t moved the needle on that perception. Without Calvin Ridley, without a settled quarterback situation, and without the cap space to make big splashy moves that create a lot of excitement, Atlanta’s going to be placed next to the storage bins and spiders in the NFL’s basement until further notice.
You don’t have to be a mind reader to get the sense that Arthur Smith is annoyed by the idea that this team should be written off—you can read a lot more about that and his general annoyance with fans and analysts in Jeff Schultz’s latest from The Athletic—but there’s not much to be done about it in the here and now. Atlanta will have a chance to build hype with head-turning practices and preseason efforts, but the Falcons won’t get the chance to prove they’re much better than national analysts and pundits think until September rolls around. If the games start and the talk of being competitive proves to be the reality, Smith and company may well be able to mock all these spring predictions with gusto in January.