The Atlanta Falcons might actually not suck this fall.
Now, please don’t mistake that for a Super Bowl prediction. In an NFL where “any given Sunday” is an assumption at this point and pumpkins turn into carriages and vice versa on command, it’s hard to really glorify or doom a team without seeing a few games in September, at the very least.
The Buffalo Bills are Super Bowl favorites, but what if they take a step back with Brian Daboll gone? Can the Los Angeles Rams find another great season in Matthew Stafford, who is dealing with a concerning ailment? Is Joe Burrow a one-hit-wonder or the next great thing? Is Tom Brady finally going to be old? Please?
Sure, you can make predictions. but the football gods laugh the more you type. The real truth is that nobody on Earth knows how any given NFL season will go, and you can cash that advice at your nearest bank. Even knowing that, I get this weird feeling about Atlanta, one that makes me think they won’t actively suck this year, that they’ll be...decent.
With the trade of Matt Ryan and failed pursuit of Deshaun Watson, it’s fair to not expect much from the Flowery Branch guys this fall. They’re clearly in the midst of a rebuild, might enter a season where they start two quarterbacks and were not nearly as good as their mediocre record suggested last fall. Losing your franchise quarterback to a trade usually signals a changing of the guard, and those usually take some time. Mahomes wasn’t built in a day, so to speak. It’d be perfectly understandable if the Falcons were quite bad this fall.
While it’s easy and fair not to expect much, the Falcons have very quietly been building a decent-enough roster and have had some promising glimmers in training camp about the team they’re putting together. For example, Richie Grant seems to have gone from being a missing man on the field to being one of the only Falcons defenders who can go toe-to-toe with Mr. Unicorn Kyle Pitts in practice.
Throughout the 2022 offseason, the team has stripped out the defense and added: three intriguing pass rushers (Lorenzo Carter, Arnold Ebiketie, DeAngelo Malone), three intriguing inside linebackers (Rashaan Evans, Nick Kwiatkowski, Troy Andersen), a starting-caliber cornerback to pair with A.J. Terrell (Casey Heyward) and actual depth at safety (Erik Harris and Dean Marlowe, who can start in a pinch).
The team also might see a guy like Grant make the leap into being a bonafide high-end starter, or a guy like Jaylinn Hawkins make a jump in the way he plays. What about someone like Ta’Quon Graham turning into a solid rotational player, or pass rushers to help Grady Jarrett not feel like he has to do everything himself to get after the quarterback?
It’s not to say that’s the 1985 Bears, but it’s hard not to look at this defense and say it’s not one of the more intriguing Atlanta has put together in years. Will it pay off? No idea, but at the very least, having a savvy veteran mind like Dean Pees playing with these chess pieces gives you so much more to look forward to than some of those defenses of yesteryear.
On offense, sure, having no stability at the quarterback position isn’t ideal. Though, what if Arthur Smith’s play calling makes the leap it needs to and makes Marcus Mariota look like a competent starter? What if the offensive line plays well enough to keep Mariota upright, and the team’s offensive arsenal begins to show more? What if, y’know, they aren’t a disaster on offense with a guy who hasn’t started a full season since 2018, roughly the same trajectory that made Ryan Tannehill bounce back and got Smith hired here in the first place?
Time and time again, we’ve seen NFL teams come out of nowhere and play well because quiet successes get louder once Sundays roll around, and all the hard work players, front offices and coaching staffs put in to building a team begins to pay off in the most unexpected of ways. This can happen in Atlanta, maybe as soon as this season.
The offensive arsenal alone might be much better than we’re anticipating. With Kyle Pitts likely ascending to elite status this season, he’s going to draw the same coverage Julio Jones did in his heyday. It’ll free up guys like Drake London, Cordarrelle Patterson and Olamide Zaccheaus in the passing game, and we still have no idea how Smith is going to feature guys like London, Bryan Edwards, Anthony Firkser, Damien Williams and Avery Williams in the passing attack.
Speaking of offense, how will Tyler Allgeier factor into the rushing attack? Will the ground game look more consistent this year? Once you start asking the questions and looking back at how poorly everything went in 2021 despite the seven wins, it becomes difficult not to expect a bit better.
If this seems like projecting, it is, just in a different direction. It’s been easy all offseason to just assume the Falcons were going to be at the bottom of the pack this season, but what if they’re not? What if the team’s last two offseasons begin to actually translate into some success? Not to say they’re playoff contenders, but what if the tough outs of 2022 turn into a 2023 team with legitimate promise and tons of cap space?
Optimism isn’t a currency that always works in Falconland — I’ve tried to cash in my fair share over the years to no avail. Though, sometimes, it does pay off. I’m becoming more curiously optimistic in the direction of this team recently, more open to the idea that they might be okay rather than just waiting for the downpour to start. It’s not to say that you should just idly expect the world this fall, but don’t just assume the worst.
The Falcons have surprised us in some pretty rotten ways in the past. But, as hard as it is to remember, they can surprise us in some good ways, too. Maybe by the time we get to midseason, we’ll be pleasantly surprised rather than pessimistic and bored.
Don’t book Super Bowl tickets, but don’t count the Falcons out. If history has taught us anything, it’s that even when all hope looks lost, you can still find your way back on the scoreboard. Even if you’re the Atlanta Falcons.