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Falcons going through inevitabilities of frustrating growing pains

The Falcons are learning the hard way about growth.

Washington Commanders v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

A few years ago, the Atlanta Falcons demanded less patience.

Indeed, after that 2017 season and divisional loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Falcons began a steady decline into the NFL’s basement.

In 2018, you hoped the injuries, changing out Steve Sarkisian for Dirk Koetter and having Dan Quinn call the plays would fix your team. In 2019, you hope going 1-7 and then rallying to win six of your last eight games means you’re a few pieces away from contending again.

In 2020, well, the bottom finally fell out, and the franchise started again.

One of the things I have to look back on as a person who devises Falcons takes is that I was wrong about the waning days of the Quinn years. As badly as you wanted to hold onto the laurels of the past, the 2019 Falcons should’ve been what reset this franchise, as some at The Falcoholic suggested. Going 1-7 was the kind of serious red flag that hinted that something was seriously wrong with this franchise, and that winning six games after that to go 7-9 didn’t fix the foundation.

The highs of 2016 and 2017 were hard to move on from, but success in football is a bit like trying to find the Holy Grail in an Indiana Jones movie. Once you get it, you don’t want to let it out of your grasp. However, when the ancient temple starts falling apart, sometimes, you’ve just got to let that thing go before you fall into the abyss holding it.

The Falcons couldn’t let go of the past after 2019, and that showed that whatever good this franchise had achieved during those two delightful seasons had withered away. It took another wasted year in 2020 for Arthur Blank to hit the reset button. I can’t claim to have been pushing for a cleaning of the house after 2019; I was down to run it back, too.

Two seasons and six games into the Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot regime, I’m challenged to look back at what doomed that last regime, and what responsible patience really looks like for an NFL franchise. In 2021, Smith and Fontenot tried to grasp for whatever glimmering hope there still was with Matt Ryan while vaguely competing with a mediocre roster and a disastrous financial situation.

In 2022, the team jettisoned Ryan after a horrific (and blessedly failed) attempt to secure Deshaun Watson (a.k.a., the NFL’s worst quarterback that’s paid like one of its best ones). The financial situation and the roster were worse. They were expected to contend for the first-overall seed with a past-his-prime Marcus Mariota starting under center. They won seven games, and the future actually looked brighter after Desmond Ridder looked pretty decent for a third-round quarterback.

In 2023, the Falcons are 3-3 with Ridder playing inconsistent ball, the defense is vastly improved and the team has regressed a bit from some of the unexpected successes of 2022 with the run game and the offensive line play. They’re 3-1 at home and 0-2 on the road. They spent oodles of money that seems to be going to good use, and Ridder’s highs and lows aren’t atypical for young players at the position.

Smith’s team is right where it was in 2022 after six games, but it feels much, much less likely that they’ve peaked in mid-October like they did last season. If anything, it feels like they’re still putting the pieces together, making gains and slipping up in equal measure. They are a frustrating football team, but they seem to be climbing in the right direction.

As much as Sunday’s loss to the Commanders stung, it was a growing pain. A growing pain, as bad as it can hurt and as annoying as it can be, is still a sign of growth.

You can’t guarantee that this iteration of the Falcons will work, but you can point to various moments in Ridder’s first 10 games where you can see a franchise quarterback. You can also point to moments of his first 10 games where he looks like a third-round quarterback.

You can look for moments in Smith’s coaching career where he looks like a genius; you can look at Sunday’s game and wonder what on Earth was going through his head.

You can look at Fontenot’s draft classes and see successful picks and tough misses. You can see free agents and traded players that have really acclimated well to the roster and a few that haven’t. We can keep going with more examples, but you see where this is going.

As much as the Quinn Falcons ultimately didn’t deserve all the patience they got when the boat started taking water, the Smith Falcons deserve time to figure this thing out and build on the positive moments. It’s not that you can’t criticize bad mistakes and dumb decisions, but this is really the first season where any of us would feel comfortable saying this new regime really has all of its pieces in place to be competitive.

We’re six games in, and they’re 3-3. They’re maddeningly inconsistent, but honestly, that doesn’t have to be a sign of certain doom. Honestly, it might be a good sign for the long run that this team is having to face its shortcomings in real time. For all the ugly moments, there have been some truly exceptional highlights from Ridder, Smith, and Fontenot’s roster. You can meaningfully build on those, and they have at times this season. It just takes time and growth to get there. It takes patience to get through those.

As much as patience might’ve kept us from turning the page sooner on the Quinn years, patience is going to be what helps the Smith years be what they can be. Lumps will be hard to take because this franchise has taken a lot of them, but it feels like these Falcons keep pulling themselves up when they get knocked down.

The positives, just like the negatives, aren’t a fluke. They’re signs of a team that is trying to find out what it can do right now and what it can learn for the future. As long as we keep seeing steps forward to go with the steps backward, that could be enough in the grand scheme of things.

That could be playoffs now, and that could be sustained success later. It also couldn’t. We just don’t know right now, and we’ll need that time and patience to find out.