From 1998 to 2017, the Falcons made nine of their 14 franchise playoff appearances. Between the Dirty Birds, the Michael Vick era, and the Matt Ryan years, Atlanta was not one of the NFL’s consistent punching bags. They were, for the better part of two decades, a team capable of punching back, a team that even flirted with greatness. Looking back on it now, it was something of a golden age for our favorite team, even if it didn’t always (or even often) feel like it as we lived through it.
Those Falcons are in need of revival. These Falcons finished the season 7-10, the fifth consecutive season with seven or fewer wins. Obviously, that means it’s also their fifth straight losing season, five years now without sniffing the playoffs, and a small eternity without real hope. Some of us talked ourselves into this team in 2018 and 2019, virtually no one did in 2020, and there was plenty of optimism for 2021 and 2022 that eventually fizzled out in the face of injuries and tough losses. This team needs fans to get excited again, but more than that, they need to be good.
As Matt Chambers wrote earlier, this is the longest Falcons playoff drought since 1982-1990, predating Arthur Blank’s ownership of the team. There are those of us who remember the uneven years before 1998 very well; there are those of us who remember the mostly bleak days before that very well. Try as we all might to hem and haw and remember how much better things have been over the last nearly 30 years than the 30 years that came before, the reality is that this team has not been good for a while now. We can believe in better and we often have convinced ourselves of better over the past five seasons, but aside from brief brilliant moments our optimism has been met with a slog.
The past two years have been about dismantling the contracts and challenges that were keeping Atlanta from getting better, which meant making the best of what this team had and trying to find a way out of the muck. That has brought us, stride by stride, stumble by stumble, to this moment.
There is a risk of overstating the stakes, especially when we’re talking about something that happens every single year: The NFL offseason. Our level of investment in this infuriating team that we love so much but doesn’t always love us back is such that we make big statements, though. This is the point where the Falcons have the best chance to shake off the last five years of rust and malaise and come out the other end as a team to be feared again.
- The Falcons head into the offseason with the second-highest cap space in football, trailing the Chicago Bears by a wide margin but still over $10 million ahead of the third-highest team, the New York Giants. With the expected cut of Marcus Mariota and a few tweaks, they can clear $80 million. Cap space evaporates fast and poorly spent money can haunt a team for many years, as we all know, but adding impact talent to the defense in particular will be a must if this team is going to take a major leap forward.
- Atlanta also has another top ten draft selection and eight selections in total to further improve the team, this coming after a pair of drafts that delivered uneven results but also true building blocks like Kyle Pitts, Ta’Quon Graham, Drake London, Tyler Allgeier, and perhaps Troy Andersen, Arnold Ebiketie, Desmond Ridder, and a couple of others. It is, at the very least, another very good chance to add affordable talent over the long haul, both high-end and to fill out the roster.
- There are players here who should take the leap, some of whom I alluded to above. Not everyone will be great because the NFL and life do not work that way, but enough may take another step forward to provide the sturdy foundation this offseason may rest on. Certainly an offense that can trot out a spiky bowling ball like Allgeier with a pair of towering, tough to defend talents like London and Pitts already is off to a good start; a defense that can get Andersen and Ebiketie to unlock their scary potential to go with A.J. Terrell and Grady Jarrett has the beginnings of greatness stirring.
Not everything will go right; not everything will go well. Atlanta Falcons history is full of the still-smoldering wreckage of big investments, both of money and hope, and there are more holes on this team than there is putty to plug them even now. With the state of the NFC South and with the resources available to them, though, the Falcons have a chance to put this grim little era of the team’s history in the past.
The Falcons have burnt through enough hope and goodwill over the past five years to exhaust us all. This offseason offers the opportunity to be more phoenix than phoebe, to rise again in a flash of brilliance rather than just chirping about doing so. Seizing that opportunity and making the most of it, in whatever form that takes, is a necessity for a franchise that has been low on opportunities and lower on wins for too long now.