From 2018-2020, the Falcons were chasing a dream that died in February 2017, trying to re-capture faded glory and find the missing piece or two that would return them to relevance. Owing to those decisions and the choices of the new regime, the Falcons from 2021-2022 spent nickels on defense and pennies on offense, dreaming of the day when they’d be able to spend big in pursuit of something bigger and brighter.
For those five seasons, we were subjected to a lot of bad football. They won 32 games over that span—in four of those seasons, exactly seven wins—and lost 50 games, never making the postseason and only occasionally delivering brilliant play for more than a quarter here or a game there. All the team really had to sell was a dream, and it got harder and harder to sell that as the losses mounted and the despair deepened. Only the promise that the team would be able to spend this year, heading into a season where the NFC South looked truly up for grabs,
In 2023, the Falcons are done dreaming. They just poured a ton of money into this roster, stocking the defense with Jessie Bates, Calais Campbell, Kaden Elliss, David Onyemata, Jeff Okudah, and Bud Dupree. On offense, they added Mack Hollins, Jonnu Smith, and Scotty Miller while re-signing core pieces like Kaleb McGary. They used the draft to add a game-changing talent in Bijan Robinson and their new starting guard in Matthew Bergeron, as well as intriguing future starters like Clark Phillips and Zach Harrison. The net effect is a better roster in a shaky division, in the third year for a no-longer-new regime that has had time and finally has resources to execute on a plan. We’re thinking ahead to brighter days to come as well as being excited about this season, but the team is focused on the now; they have arrived.
That increases the pressure on this team to win and it should, but it also removes the pressure of having to talk about the Atlanta Falcons like they’re a contending team when they’re very clearly not. Atlanta somehow got seven wins out of two duct-taped rosters the past two seasons and remained in the playoff hunt later than most of us anticipated; but individual brilliance, good coaching, and some luck obscured just how far away those teams were from making a real postseason push. This season we don’t have to ask if the Falcons can keep winning despite zero pass rush or a laughably bad passing game, because those shouldn’t be issues any longer. The offense is more talented than it was a year ago, the defense is much-improved, and the qualifiers around that are less
Jeff Schultz at The Athletic said it well in his latest column, which you should read in full:
Depending on Ridder’s development, this could be a playoff team this season, a team that wins the NFC South. Smith kept his players’ morale high through two 7-10 seasons and a blur of transactions. They haven’t been good but that’s been more a byproduct of buying players who’ve been marked down than effort or culture.
“Even in the last two years, nobody wanted to go out there and see a lifeless team,” Smith said.
The payoff should be coming.
The Falcons themselves are clearly reveling in where they are now. Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot took this job with few illusions about the state of the roster, even if they sometimes talked a big game about how good the team could be. That was a very dicey proposition given that it was bogged down with big contracts and light on game-changing young talent. They had to swallow some medicine to get by it and take their fair share of crap—Smith in particular was, if not humbled, certainly less brash after the 2021 season saw his early talk of the team being written off undercut by the team’s actual play—but they’re now talented and seasoned enough to contend. While this team isn’t a finished product, they’re far better than they were in early January.
You can sense that the swagger is there as a result. The Falcons took Bijan Robinson not to fill or a need or because he’s a useful player, but because they think he’s great and they want to dominate teams on offense. They lured Calais Campbell to Atlanta not because they want veteran leadership but because they believe they’re a playoff team that could use one of the better defensive linemen of the past two decades. They’re rolling with Desmond Ridder at quarterback because they believe in him, but also because they think they have the weaponry and the scheme to have a great offense even if he doesn’t turn out to be a great quarterback. And so on. The energy around the team even in these early days is palpably different than a year ago, and it’s clear that Smith and Fontenot are relishing the chance to prove that all this work has been going somewhere.
There are a million ways this could all go wrong, but for the first time in a while, I’m not resigned to those things going wrong. The Falcons have replaced dreams with something far more concrete, and they look like they’ll be a fun force to be reckoned with in 2023. Their dreaming may be over, but for Falcons fans, the big dreams can finally begin.