From 1998 on, the Atlanta Falcons have enjoyed a run of success unparalleled in franchise history. After posting just seven winning seasons and four playoff berths in the first 31 years the team was around, they collected 10 winning seasons and nine playoff berths in just over two decades, including both of the franchise’s Super Bowl visits. A Falcons fan in 2018 might have thought that the disappointing year the team had just suffered through would be a relatively short-term blip; in the span I’m mentioning here, Atlanta had never had more than three losing seasons in a row.
A playoff berth is still technically in reach, but we’re back in the bad old days. Atlanta’s six season streak of losing records, which they sealed with that ugly loss to the Chicago Bears this past weekend, is the longest run since 1983-1990. The Falcons have been through two head coaches, two front offices, three offensive coordinators, and five defensive coordinators since they last enjoyed a season with a winning record or a playoff berth.
This was supposed to be the year that all turned around. Atlanta finally had money to spend, as much cap space as I can ever remember them having, and invested enough of it to drag the defense up to “pretty good” from “mediocre.” The offense once again received a significant investment, with Atlanta’s two top picks in the 2023 NFL Draft going toward that side of the ball, and the thought was that the team-building work done in the previous two years would drag the Falcons out of the 7-10 muck where they found themselves in 2021 and 2022. Instead, they’re tracking to be, at best, a single game better than 7-10, making this one of the more disappointing seasons versus expectations in recent memory.
What makes this year even more frustrating is that this was supposed to be the culmination of a three year building project, and that project came out of the dispiriting end of the Dan Quinn/Thomas Dimitroff era. In 2018, the Falcons had their moments but suffered an injury-marred, rough season that caused Quinn to fire his coordinators en masse after the season, taking control of the defense himself, bringing back Dirk Koetter for some reason, and adding Ben Kotwica at special teams coordinator. After the 2019 season spun out of control with an awful first half, Quinn handed over defensive duties to Jeff Ulbrich and Raheem Morris and the team had an improbable second half run of decent play, convincing Arthur Blank to bring the whole group back for 2020. After an 0-5 start, Quinn and Dimitroff were finally fired and Kotwica was let go shortly thereafter, with Raheem Morris piloting the team to a 4-7 finish. Years of trying to chase the highs of the 2016 Super Bowl season left the team aging, expensive, and without a clear direction forward.
Enter that rebuild that the team insisted was not really a rebuild. Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith were brought aboard to be unsentimental and find a way to get this team back to competitive football without the extreme cap burden, which led to a rough 2021 and only slightly more palatable 2022. That was all in service of 2023 being, if not the year the team found itself Super Bowl-bound, then certainly a year in which they were more competitive and had a legitimate shot at the playoffs. The fact that they’re 7-9 instead and there is open and rampant speculation about the head coach being fired tells you far too much about how this season has gone instead.
The problem for the Falcons is twofold. First, they invested in this being a successful football team and it wasn’t, with a lot of legitimate one-year contributors now heading for free agency after a year in which they played well but the team did not. Adding to those troubles, the clock is ticking on players like Kyle Pitts—there’s a fith year option decision looming—who are heading toward free agency themselves in the not-too-distant future. The second problem is that this year has done massive damage to the fanbase’s already limited trust in this franchise, with fans retaining their loyalty but not necessarily their faith after being told this year would be different and seeing more of the same. The Falcons will head into 2024 needing not just to improve the roster and potentially the coaching staff, but also to gin up excitement for a squad that hasn’t had a winning record in years. That’s not going to be an easy task after the team burned anticipation and goodwill this year.
Winning remains the panacea for NFL teams, as fans can forgive the past if the present and future are bright and exciting. For the Falcons, that winning hasn’t happened in far too long, and thus we brace for another uncertain offseason that should be productive but will be confronted with the justified wariness that comes with a long drought.