This was always going to be a longer-term project, no matter what anyone else might have said or how things might have been framed. That much was clear from the beginning no matter who took over for Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff for the 2021 season for the Atlanta Falcons.
A roster needing a lot of players – both in talent and pure numbers – combined with major salary cap issues was always going to constrain the Falcons under first-year coach Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot.
It was a combination of young players being placed in bigger roles and a lot of veterans signing one-year contracts in free agency because that’s what Atlanta could work with. It had the makings for a rough season, one clearly in transition, which is why Atlanta's season ended up being fairly surprising.
That the Falcons were even in the playoff race for as long as they were, that they went through Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s Eve with a possibility for the postseason, says something. Yes, the NFL is somewhat set up for these possibilities, especially with a 17-game season in a league often structured for parity.
But the Falcons, entering the season with a new coach, new general manager and salary-cap-hamstrung roster, often played well above what they should have this season even if the goal remains the same.
“You want to play in the postseason,” Smith said. “We came up short.”
The first stat Smith looks at after every game is the obvious one – the final score. And that stat has the Falcons at 7-9, but it’s deeper than that.
When Atlanta faced teams that were playoff-bound, in almost every instance, it did not go well. The Falcons lost by double-digits to Philadelphia, Tampa Bay twice, Dallas, New England and Buffalo. San Francisco, another potential playoff team, also beat Atlanta by double-digits.
But the teams similar to the Falcons – or worse – Atlanta did what it was supposed to. It went 7-2 in one-possession games.
This was the first year of a bigger plan, something Fontenot even alluded to before the season started. They need to remedy their salary cap situation. And that’s going to take time, both on the field and off it.
Before the draft last season, Fontenot said he doesn’t necessarily want to restructure contracts – something Atlanta had to do in order to afford filling their roster. But one of the first parts of this process for Fontenot and Smith is remedying the cap situation they inherited because of mismanagement and COVID.
“With the cap, it’s going to take time,” Fontenot said in April. “We want to have a healthy cap at some point, so we can’t just restructure every contract because it’s hurting us in future years.”
Which is how the Falcons ended up in the situation they were in – and possibly part of what the offseason looks like. But the Falcons hope eventually they are going to be in what Smith called “a different spot” next season and the year after that.
That’s on the field and, presumably, with the cap.
But what the Falcons showed this year was resiliency. Even with talent issues at some positions and a roster where almost every position has questions entering this offseason, they managed to hang around almost the entire year. Before the season, Falcons owner Arthur Blank said he wanted his team to be competitive this year.
Atlanta was that, even without star receiver Calvin Ridley for most of the season, a quarterback in Matt Ryan under almost constant duress being sacked 37 times, and a defense unable to create consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. And going into the final week, Smith figures there won’t be much need for random motivation. It’s part of the culture they’ve started to build. They don’t want players they have to “trick” into being motivated to play.
Which is how Smith has approached this season – and the finale.
“We’re playing to win this game,” Smith said. “That’s the best way to describe it. There are so many things that happen, things that are in your control, out of your control. Can change so much from year to year. We obviously had a long-term vision but short-term, the way it always it when we line up on Sunday.
“Do whatever we have to do, play whoever we can, to win that game."