The Atlanta Falcons are running out of time.
They’re running out of time to figure out how to snap this embarrassing three-game losing streak they were expected to sweep. They’re running out of time to clean up sloppy play on defense and find some form of consistency on offense. They’re running out of time to keep pace with a struggling NFC South, even if the division title is still within reach.
They’re running out of time to still have Arthur Smith and this coaching staff on the sideline for 2024. They’re running out of time before Arthur Blank decides he’s seen enough.
It won’t matter too much if you’ve been a card-carrying member of the Taylor Heinicke hive or if you’re dead-set on riding with Desmond Ridder. It won’t matter if you’re the world’s biggest Arthur Smith fan or if you are weary of the way he coaches his offense. Winning games is how you’re ultimately judged in the NFL, and the Falcons aren’t winning them.
Sunday’s loss might’ve been a win if the defense wraps up quarterback Kyler Murray on a third-down scramble. You could say the same with last week’s game against the Minnesota Vikings and quarterback Joshua Dobbs. If the team squeaks out two-straight wins, however uninspiring as they might’ve been, they’d still have been wins. The Falcons would be 6-4.
Instead, the Falcons are 4-6. They’re still alive in a weak division, but they can’t keep counting on the other three NFC South teams losing to buffet their chances. Atlanta has played in a lot of close games this year. but they’ve only won four of those contests. It’s November. That is simply not good enough for a team that had playoff aspirations in August.
How the Falcons get to winning doesn’t really matter; they just have to get there. The bye week comes at a merciful time, as answers will have to come quickly and in bunches, and it doesn’t feel like the team could get there without a break. The team will have to figure out who is playing quarterback, how to get this offense to find a consistent flow and how to help this defense withstand its injuries and execute the sound fundamentals of tackling in crunch time, among other pressing needs. That feels like a lot to figure out in such a short time, but such is life in the NFL.
Speculation over Smith’s job will understandably ramp up in the next two weeks, as it is fair with how the team has floundered in winnable games. His offense just isn’t doing enough to win right now, and his defense has started to decline amid a spat of injuries.
Whether you feel Smith is a capable-enough coach or not, his ability to get the job done will be proven in the last seven games of the season. If he can rally a team in freefall to finish strong and win at least four or five of its last seven games, he can possibly get it to the postseason. If he can’t and the team’s playoff drought extends to six seasons, he likely won’t get the chance to fix anything past the final game of the season, sans an extreme vote of confidence from Blank.
Unless Blank just operates with an incredible (and perhaps improper) amount of patience or feels Smith is a good quarterback away from getting this team to long-term success, it sure seems like Smith has to get to the playoffs to keep his job. It’s not to say he’s had a fair hand of cards since he got here in 2021; he hasn’t. However, at some point, you’ve just got to figure things out with the hand that you’re dealt. This, remember, was the good hand.
This was supposed to be the year that things started to look up, and there just isn’t a lot happening with this franchise right now to suggest that it’s heading in the right direction for the long haul. Squeezing into the playoffs might buy this regime some time, but missing the playoffs may really just be the point that Blank determines it’s time to clean house.
General manager Terry Fontenot feels much safer than Smith does, if only because his free agents and draft picks are making plays, his salary cap is in good shape and personnel executives usually get more time than coaches do to figure things out (see Dimitroff, Thomas). Smith and his coaches are the ones who are most likely fighting for their jobs right now.
At the end of the day, there’s no use with arguing too much about the immediate future of this team. The next seven games are just going to play out as they do, and they’ll most likely be the determining factors as to where Blank decides to take his team into 2024.
If Blank sees a Falcons team pick itself back up after an abysmal stretch and win some meaningful games, it may inspire him to lean on his patient streak. If his team continues to lose games it should arguably be winning, it may inspire him to make some hard calls.
Smith and his coaching staff have plenty of time to right this ship. Blank won’t pull the plug on this regime while it’s contending for the division, as hard as it is to believe a 4-6 football team can contend for the division in November. However, if the ship takes on too much water by the end of the season, Blank may just let it sink and build a new vessel instead.
While the players on the field bear much responsibility to make the requisite plays on game day to win games, this coaching staff will bear the weight of disappointment if the Falcons miss yet another opportunity to contend for playoff football. Smith’s seat is hot because he’s most likely coaching for his job right now. Whether or not that heat will subside will depend on how his team performs in the final seven games of the season; there really are no other factors.
At this point, we’ll just have to wait and see if this team can rebound and maintain itself for 2024, or if its destined for yet another coaching reset after three years of mediocre football.