It’s really hard to know what to say after watching the Atlanta Falcons blow yet another lead.
It’s a tired cliché at this point, a recurring gag that’s run out of steam. It’s a result so painfully predictable you just wait for the other shoe to drop the moment the first thing goes wrong.
Sunday’s catastrophic loss to the archrival New Orleans Saints shouldn’t really be that much of a surprise at this point. The team’s penchant to let its lead slip like a loose diaper on a scampering baby has been a hallmark of their time Mercedes-Benz Stadium, turning a once-beautiful fixture in downtown Atlanta into both a haunted house and a ghost town. Even the tumbleweeds are going to have better things to do on Sundays if this keeps up.
There have been three different regimes who have suffered the same fates, three different head coaches who have watched commanding leads wither on the vine. Until and maybe even if the team does win a Super Bowl one day—please let that happen—their reputation for losing big games and small games in painful fashion will persist. If you’d like to point to exactly why this franchise has sunk from perennial playoff contender to bottom-dwelling afterthought, you can point to draft misses, coaching mishaps and mistakes with ownership. At the top of the list, though, will be the blown leads.
All the bad luck, tin hats and conspiracy theories can’t save you from the crushing reality that it’s really any given Sunday, but the feeling in your stomach stays the same once the opponent starts to whittle down the deficit. It’s Charlie Brown running to kick the football with Lucy as the mischievous placeholder. It’s Kenny on South Park meeting his doom episode-by-episode. It’s Tom the cat letting Jerry the mouse slip from his clutches yet again, ditto Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. It’s cartoonish, funny if it’s not happening to you, painful and repetitive if it is happening to you. Same as it ever was.
Sunday’s loss felt different in some ways, in that you could argue the Falcons, for the first time in forever, weren’t bullied in the trenches. Actually, the team’s offensive and defensive lines largely set the tone against the Saints, a team that’s never hurt for talent up front. The Falcons amassed four sacks, kept Jameis Winston from really getting comfortable until late and kept Marcus Mariota and the run game humming for more than three quarters. We were promised more attitude with the lines, and so far, it’s what we’ve gotten.
Though, Sunday’s loss also really can’t be blamed on the youth movement. The team showed plenty of young guys making plays, from rising rookies like Drake London and Arnold Ebiketie to emerging youngsters like Mykal Walker and Jaylinn Hawkins. It’s hard to peg this on Mariota, either. In his first game as a starting QB since 2019, he did exactly what he was asked minus a couple of big mistakes. He ran well, he threw well, he didn’t lose his composure after a costly fumble. Sure, he could slide more rather than make the hero play, but the guy hadn’t played a meaningful game as the leader of a franchise since before the pandemic. Even Kaleb McGary put together a respectable afternoon.
While A.J. Terrell had a down day in the secondary and a handful of costly penalties and miscues need to be worked out in practice, the coaches...largely had a good day, too. Arthur Smith showed his ability to adapt to who he’s got with Mariota running his offense, and he got Cordarrelle Patterson going at the right time against a Saints defense that couldn’t contain him. Sure, he could’ve gotten emerging star Kyle Pitts more involved, but for about three quarters and change, he looked like a much-improved head coach.
Dean Pees also had his defense playing lights out for most of Sunday afternoon, showing a grittiness and opportunism that we just aren’t used to seeing on that side of the ball. Just the fact that the Falcons had an exciting pass rush is reason enough to give Pees his flowers, much less his old linebacking buddy Rashaan Evans having a fantastic game back in Pees’ scheme.
The reason your fist is clenched tight, your voice is tired from yelling expletives at your television and your significant other is begging you to take up another hobby for Sunday afternoons is because of the blown lead. It’s always because of the blown lead.
The problems of this regime are the problems of the past regimes. It’s becoming simply a matter of identity. If teams aren’t ever going to be afraid of you when they’re down by multiple scores, they’re going to come back by multiple scores and beat you. It’s not to say the Falcons are cursed, but Smith and Pees both made befuddling decisions late, and players who had been executing at a high level simply lost the ability to be a factor.
It’s like a shark tasting blood in the water the second that comeback starts. Atlanta just forgets how to play football at a high level and how to coach their way out of trouble, flailing about like a hapless grouper awaiting for Jaws to come and snatch it up as a midday snack. It’s incomprensible and predictable at the same time. It’s just Falcons football at this point.
While Smith and Pees seem to be far more contentious in the postgame presser than the always friendly Dan Quinn ever was, it’s hard to spot a difference elsewhere. Quinn had plenty of talented teams that couldn’t hold a drop of water in the ocean, and so far, Smith’s bunch is proving to be not much different. Sunday’s loss isn’t a fluke; it’s a further symptom of a raging disease that has been terrorizing this franchise like an Old Testament plague from the angry heavens.
If Smith and company really want to have a future in Atlanta, they have to stop the bleeding once and for all. To truly change the culture, they must toss the ring into Mordor. Until the Falcons understand how to play for four full quarters and finish games they should win, the franchise is going to be stuck in neutral, no matter how many great draft picks and creative play calls they can muster.
It’s just one game, and the pragmatic side of your brain says that it’s a long season and a young roster. This team is not doomed to a top 2023 draft pick right now, and it’s not even necessarily destined to miss the playoffs again. Sunday’s loss isn’t going to put Smith or Pees on the hot seat, and it’s probably not going to stop you or I from spending next Sunday hoping they’ll pull out a miracle and beat the Los Angeles Rams on the road. We signed up for this; there’s only so much anger you can muster until you blame the person in the mirror for cheering for this team in the first place.
The challenge still is what it was coming into Sunday’s latest comedy of errors. Until the Falcons hold a lead and mean it, nothing is going to change. They’ll still be the team nobody takes seriously, they’ll still flounder in the quest for a title and they’ll still make you feel queasy even when it’s statistically impossible for them to crap the bed. All the money they have coming in 2023 and all the promise that year affords will be hard to fully embrace until the bad habits go by the wayside. The Falcons need to excise and exorcise this malignant ghost that has made them so difficult to trust even when the afternoons start off bright and the promise is evident.
If Smith fixes the late game swoons, he’ll be well on the road to success and perhaps eventually a statue outside the stadium. If he doesn’t, well, there’s always the next guy.