Even the most optimistic Atlanta Falcons fan wouldn’t tell you with a straight face that the team would be Super Bowl-bound this year.
But there was a feeling, even a hope that the Falcons would finish the year in much better shape than previous years.
With two more games to go in the regular season, we know that the Falcons are no worse than last year, but not any better either.
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Last season, the Falcons were 7-9, ending a losing season with a win against the Buccaneers in their last year with nemesis Tom Brady as their quarterback. Backup QB Desmond Ridder was called in to replace an underperforming starter Marcus Mariota. Ridder hadn’t yet made believers out of fans who still wondered whether he was franchise quarterback material.
Jump ahead to near the end of his first full season as Falcons’ starting QB, he still hasn’t.
The Falcons set out earlier this season to do better than the previous year. Or as owner Arthur Blank said in a recent interview, a “more competitive team this year, a winning team this year.” This season, in mostly everyone’s judgment, including Blank’s, has not met those expectations.
The offseason helped raise those expectations in the first place. The Falcons had the eight-round NFL draft pick, and instead of drafting a quarterback, which many hoped they would get, they instead selected a running back, Bijan Robinson. The Texas Longhorn brought “size, elusiveness, power and vision” to the Falcons lineup. His numbers at Texas and seeing him perform in practice made a lot of local observers believe the Falcons got the right man although he wasn’t a passer. With an impressive addition like Robinson, an improved defensive line, and Ridder as QB, Flowery Branch figured they had a chance for a winning record if not a playoff berth in 2023.
That notion was a harder sell to national commentators who thought the absence of a franchise quarterback on the Falcons’ roster meant they would be locked out of playoff contention. It didn’t matter that the Falcons spent most of their free’d up cap space money to fortify its leaky defensive line. Nor did it occur to them that having multitalented stars like Robinson, Calais Campbell, Drake London or Jessie Bates III would make the Dirty Birds faster and more physical. ‘No quarterback = no playoffs’ was the national sports media’s thinking.
So it fell on the Falcons to sell their starting quarterback, Ridder, to a skeptical audience.
Falcons General Manager Terry Fontenot told the press in August that he and Head Coach Arthur Smith evaluated Ridder’s performance by watching films of him in action, plus watching him during his four games last season.
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“One thing we saw early on with Desmond is the professional he was and the maturity at an early stage in his career last year,” Fontenot said. “He showed growth and improvement in every game.” He elaborated that they liked how Ridder responded to adversity and was willing to improve and converse with teammates.
After weeks of grueling practice in a searing Georgia summer heat that wore out players and had attending sports journalists sweating, the new and improved (mostly) Falcons started their preseason games, hoping to show the improvements. Newcomers on the team were impressive, but the Falcons still finished their preseason 1-1-1.
The Falcons’ regular season got off to an impressive start, winning their first two games against NFC South rivals Carolina Panthers and the Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay Packers. The dual wins would put the Falcons on top of the NFC South with a record above .500.
And then reality set in.
The Falcons would be embarrassed by the Lions, Jaguars (in London), and Commanders over the next four weeks. Only a three-point victory over the Texans kept the Falcons from being 0-4 over those four games. After barely beating the Buccaneers on Oct. 22, the Falcons resumed their losing ways, dropping winnable games against the Titans, Vikings, and Cardinals. All of those teams had quarterbacks either just hired or backups. The Falcons would score back-to-back wins over the Saints and Jets (no Rodgers). Then, back-to-back embarrassing losses in divisional games to the Bucs and Panthers.
The December Panthers game hurt the most. Carolina was 1-12 and in disarray. On paper, the Falcons should have had no problems not only beating Carolina but scoring points against them. Instead, it ended the way too many Falcons games ended or were decided: a Ridder turnover. This time an interception was given up in the red zone, just as the Falcons were poised for a game-ending go-ahead touchdown. Ridder could have thrown the ball in the stands or shovel passed to a runner. Anything but throw the ball in the air and risk a pick-six, which he did. They wound up losing 7-9, and Ridder’s days as a starting quarterback for the Dirty Birds came to an abrupt end. Smith benched Ridder, and backup QB Taylor Heinicke was back on the field, leading the Falcons to a victory over the Colts, arguably their most complete performance of the season.
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The Falcons were plagued with all kinds of issues this season: penalties, dropped passes, missed tackles, injuries (most notably a season-ending ankle injury to veteran tackler Grady Jarrett), questions about Coach Smith’s play calling, questions on who was getting enough action on the field (particularly rarely seen “Joker” Cordarrelle Patterson and even more rarely seen TE Kyle Pitts) and even brief controversy surrounding Ridder being in concussion protocol after halftime in the Titans game, allowing Heinike to take over as starting QB for two games. Coach Smith and the Falcons were fined by the NFL for not reporting an illness of Robinson in week seven. It looks like the Falcons will do no better than 9-8 (if they win out the next two games against the Bears and Saints.) Ridder is unlikely to return next season. Will coach Smith?
Blank in an interview confirmed Smith will be the Falcons coach for the rest of the season, answering questions (and some hopes) that he be terminated immediately. There are reports he is likely to be coaching next season.
There’s still a chance the Falcons could sneak into the playoffs if they win the next two games ahead of them and other teams lose/win. But they no longer have the luxury of controlling their own destiny or room for error. Thoughts are already turning toward next season. Will there be more improvements in defense? Will the offense see improvements? Who will be the next starting quarterback? Which of the team’s starters will return next season? Can the Dirty Birds improve on yet another “better luck next year making the playoffs” season?
The Falcons are ending 2023 the way they started it: with more questions surrounding their future than answers. And, possibly, more losses than wins.
By Brian Allen, founder and editor, Sports In The ATL
Social media image credit: Atlanta Falcons/Instagram
Coming Friday, The Hawks.