FLOWERY BRANCH — Since walking off Lincoln Financial Field after a 15-10 upset loss to a backup quarterback in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs Jan. 13, 2018, the Falcons have been a non-factor in the NFL.
The Eagles would go on to win the Super Bowl, while the Falcons went crashing into the lower levels of the league. They have not been over .500 since at any point in the subsequent seasons.
The Falcons were slow to make a transition and stayed with general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Dan Quinn until the fifth game of the 2020 season. Since, the Falcons moved on from most of the stars – left tackle Jake Matthews and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett are the only two starters left from that divisional playoff game – and hired general manager Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith to rebuild the franchise in January 2021.
After two seasons of fielding under-manned teams and posting identical 7-10 records, the Falcons are positioned to make a climb back to respectability in 2023.
“That just comes with winning,” Matthews, a team captain, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I think I speak for everyone. We were not happy with the amount of games we won last year. We expect more from ourselves.”
Jarrett said, “We are definitely confident about the guys that we’ve got in the building today....We are not really thinking about 2017 any more. We are just looking forward.”
The new regime methodically moved on from wide receiver Julio Jones, former league MVP Matt Ryan and nearly all of the young defensive prospects who helped the Falcons reach Super Bowl 51. The Falcons now have in place new offensive weapons and a rebuilt defense.
They also are in the NFC South with two other rebuilding teams — the Panthers and Buccaneers — and are playing the weakest schedule in the league. The Falcons have a long runway to what could be a winning season.
“That’s the beauty of this game,” Matthews said. “It’s another year. I like where we are at. I like the mindset of our team and the work ethic that we have. It’s time for us to go prove it against a good team on Sunday.”
Matthews, who was drafted in first round of the 2014 draft out of Texas A&M and is set to make his 146th start, remembers when the Falcons were feared and respected league-wide.
“We were winning a lot,” Matthews said. “Winning cures everything. That’s our goal. We fully expect to do that again this year.”
The Falcons have the easiest strength of schedule in 2023 (based on final records in the 2022 season). The Falcons’ 2023 opponents had a combined 119-167-3 record last season (.417).
The Saints have the second easiest schedule, 122-164-3 (.427). The Panthers have the sixth easiest schedule, 130-147-2 (.453), and the Bucs have the 11th easiest schedule 138-148-2 (.483).
There is a problem with putting too much stock in the 2022 records. Last season, the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams looked like a formidable opponent. No one projected them to sink to 5-12.
The Falcons have four games against 2022 playoffs teams, in the Jaguars in London, Bucs (twice) and Vikings. Over the past seven seasons, at least one team with one of the two easiest schedules has made the playoffs. If that trend holds, the Falcons or Saints are headed to the playoffs – and maybe both.
“When you win games, it’s a cure for everything,” Matthews said. “We have a great opportunity Sunday (against Carolina). Just looking back on this training camp and the mindset that (Smith) has brought in, we expect to compete and to win. It’s time to go prove it (starting) on Sunday.”
Smith has been pleased with how the team has come together over the offseason and in training camp.
“I think it’s the maturity of it, the way that they go about the work,” Smith said. “I know it’s the National Football League, but sometimes you go through these lulls of camp. When you’re used to covering camps with a lot of padded reps, a lot of competitive reps. Well, now the way the schedule is, you have a lot of walk-throughs now, which is good because you can get a lot out of it if you have the right mindset.”
Smith believes his team was focused while preparing for this important season.
“The focus has been there every day,” Smith said. “It’s never going to be perfect, but that’s what you appreciate. You think you have it, but until you go through six weeks, you don’t know. That part (has) made my job a lot easier.”
Dimitroff and Quinn did leave behind some talent that the new regime retained in right guard Chris Lindstrom, right tackle Kaleb McGary, cornerback A.J. Terrell, kicker Younghoe Koo and safety Jaylinn Hawkins.
Lindstrom has turned into one of the top guards in the league, and offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford, who was hired by Smith, has helped salvage McGary’s career after a slow start. Terrell is a starter, Koo has been solid and Hawkins has been a contributor.
“We’ve got a great group of guys, and we’re really fortunate for the culture that we have in the building,” Lindstrom said. “It’s really exciting now heading into this year. You never take for granted the opportunities that you have. We have a great group of guys. ... We are really looking forward to Week One.”
Lindstrom believes the Falcons have a good mix of veterans and young talent to help get things turned around.
“David (Onyemata) and Jessie (Bates III), those guys are really amazing,” Lindstrom said. “To speak with them, and Calais (Campbell) probably has more knowledge than anybody. To hear and talk to him, even about small things about his routine and to how he approaches practice, is just such a value.”
Lindstrom, who was drafted 14th overall in 2019 out of Boston College, has not been on a winning Falcons team yet. He thinks this season could be different.
“Just belief,” Lindstrom said. “Belief in each other and belief in what we’ve got and the belief in that ethos that Coach talks about all the time. I think that’s team wide. The competition that we have out here every single day is amazing.”
Smith thinks the roster is in a better place, and now it’s time to produce wins.
“I’m thankful ... that I got an opportunity to coach all of the players that we’ve had come through here, and it’s been a lot,” Smith said. “Our team is a little bit different with the way that this one is currently built. We have some depth on the lines of scrimmage that I’m excited about, some guys that we’ve invested in early, whether it’s been with draft capital or they were here when we got here or going into their third year in this program.”
The energy is different.
“They understand what’s being asked of them, and they know what’s ahead of them even as they prepare for Week 1 and the season ahead,” Smith said. “We’re excited. ... This is a long journey ahead of us but we’re ready to go.”
The Falcons’ streak of five losing seasons ties the franchise mark set from 1966 to 1970 as an expansion team. The franchise had its first winning season in 1971 when it went 7-6-1.
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