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The 2023 NFL trade deadline ended quietly again for the Falcons

The Falcons will bank on improving with what they have, and will ask for our faith that they can get there without a big addition.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

There were reports that the Falcons were making a push for Commanders pass rusher Montez Sweat, offering at least a third round pick to get him. There was hope they might land another high-end player to help out a pass rush that has been less-than-stellar in 2023. In the end, Sweat went to the Bears for what may very well be the first pick in the second round in 2024, Chase Young was shipped to the 49ers for a third rounder, and nobody else of note that fit what the Falcons needed was on the move.

In the end, then, the Falcons did what they so often do at the deadline: Quiet things. Little things. Things that might have import and impact down the line—like they did at last year’s deadline, when they flipped Calvin Ridley to the Jaguars—but won’t be franchise-shaking or alter this team’s fortunes in the here and now. In the here and now, a team that just lost Grady Jarrett stocked up on its defensive line depth with a trade for Ryan Nielsen favorite Kentavius Street. Well before the deadline, they did another late round pick swap with the Rams to pick up receiver Van Jefferson, who has a growing role but has yet to provide the production this offense is looking for. Small things. Things that we hope will loom larger in the weeks to come than they do at the moment.

The frustration in the fanbase that followed that deadline passing without much of the way of sound and fury is understandable, even if you weren’t ultimately expecting a move. Man, we are tired. We’re all watching this team, Ridder revelers or Heinicke hopefuls alike, and knowing that this team has the same middle of the road 4-4 record as a year ago and a level of play (on offense in particular) that is not where we hoped it would be.

This year may not have been the culmination of a grand plan, but it was talked about as a major step along the way for a regime that took over three years ago. It’s supposed to be something better than seven wins and, hey, we’ll get ‘em next year. So far, it’s not looking like the big leap we hoped for. For as good as free agency has been to these Falcons, they’ve taken enough steps backwards elsewhere to leave us here. 4-4, again. Waiting for the payoff, again.

The Falcons took a swing for Sweat and came up short, with the Bears delivering a return for Washington no other team was realistically going to be able to match or exceed without handing over their first rounder. If there was a Plan B, we didn’t hear about it. Otherwise, this franchise is looking at the next man up, dipping their buckets into the well of self-improvement, and trying to assure us that the better days are right around the corner.

They’ll plug in Street and maybe Bell and look to get 50-70% of Grady Jarrett through a rotation and sheer force of will. They’ll count on improved quarterback play from Ridder if he stays in or Heinicke if he’s now in the driver’s seat. They’ll expect to find a way to lift Bijan Robinson from a great young player to a minor god, to get Kyle Pitts uncorked and untracked to the detriment of defenses, to get Arnold Ebiketie and David Onyemata and Calais Campbell into the backfield a tick faster and a touch more frequently to pump up the pressure and make panicky passers make big mistakes. They’ll expect to coach a little better, to play a little faster and smarter, to hold this block for another half second and to close on that receiver a half second faster. Little things. Important things. Things they would have had to do even if they had pulled off a trade, if we’re being honest. Things that turn a respectable but vaguely disappointing 4-4 record into an NFC South crown, or a Wild Card spot, or a winning record, whatever your expectations may be.

You can believe in the improvement to come—despite myself, I do—and still think this team would’ve been well-served by ponying up a third rounder for a Chase Young. Or a second rounder for Danielle Hunter, if that might have pried him loose. You pick the move, because I’m sure you thought of them, with the reality that Sweat was ultimately out of their reach. The deadline’s passing closes a roadway to improvement that would’ve been quick and perhaps potent, rather than the toil and slow progress that’s more likely to come. It wouldn’t have solved everything, but it would have indicated the team was serious about improvement in a way that’s a lot more visible than that quiet work.

Some years the outrage at the deadline is ludicrous. Maybe it is this year, but this felt like a moment where something big was warranted and perhaps necessary. Few of us would deny that it’s harder to see this defense enduring minus Grady Jarrett without a major addition from another team, as admirably as everyone up front has played to this point.

The Falcons are still asking us to trust them and trust their talent when that trust has been ground to dust by five-and-a-half tire-spinning seasons. They’re looking at the very real specter of needing to acquire a quarterback next year and refusing to give up a first rounder for Sweat (which, for the record, I think is wise), or giving up significant draft capital for a player like Young that they appear to be less interested in. They are banking on the careful building and the canny investments, as they so often have over the past three years, finally paying off. Faith endures in Flowery Branch, even when fires burn low. Our faith endures, too, because we’re all there on Sunday, despite our misgivings.

The splashes we enjoyed throughout the spring were supposed to bring the Falcons to greater heights. About halfway through the season and with that deadline passing with its small, quiet moves, the time has come for tidal waves and tidepools alike to deliver something more for the Atlanta Falcons. The trade deadline has passed and the Falcons, for all the small moves and shuffling to come, are fairly locked into this roster for the final nine games. What follows this moment has to be something worthwhile, or the sense that 2023 was a year of bigger and more bitter missed opportunities than the years before it will be hard to shake.