The pragmatic head coach of both those seasons, and one-time college offensive lineman, said he sensed it on the most fundamental level.
“You could feel a little more of the foundation and an identity, especially up front,” Arthur Smith said when asked to compare the conclusions of the 2022 and ‘21 seasons. “I thought the offensive line, week in and week out, rose to the occasion. They were knocking people off the ball. When we wanted to run it, we could.” That included 174 rushing yards against the Bucs on Sunday.
“The next challenge,” Smith said, rightly settling on needs, “is to make sure we become more explosive offensively, get more of a pass rush.”
Take more comfort in the fact that guard Chris Lindstrom is the cornerstone of that offensive line. For he gets it.
“It’s not good enough,” he said of 7-10 in any form.
“Our goal is to win the division, and we fell short of that. But in terms of what we are and what we wanted to establish, I think we have a great idea of that. I’m excited for this offseason. I know it wasn’t good enough this year, and we’ll continue to work.”
Otherwise, hope came in several colors Sunday.
Finishing 7-10 put the Falcons 2 ½ games above the betting win projections that emerged before the season’s start. They exceeded the expectations of the most bloodless cynics. Now, to win over more civilized society.
The Falcons finally found a way to hold Tom Brady to fewer than 100 yards passing: Just make sure the game is as meaningless as an air kiss and then let common sense do the rest.
Shortly after locking up his single-season records for pass attempts and completions in the second quarter Sunday, Brady left a game that meant nothing to the Bucs. Blaine Gabbert and Kyle Trask took over at quarterback, a downgrade the likes that hasn’t been seen since “Mayberry R.F.D.” tried to replace “The Andy Griffith Show.”
Technically, Sunday represented a breakthrough against Brady, the Falcons’ first victory in a game he started after 11 straight defeats. One of them a historic soul-killer, one that still scars this franchise nearly six years later.
But did they really beat Brady? Does it count given the fact that the Falcons’ great nemesis left the game in the first half, with the score tied? I’d argue that the day was incomplete if it didn’t include Brady dog-cussing every teammate and destroying at least two pieces of tablet technology in the fourth quarter.
The best that could be said is that in victory, the Falcons saddled Brady with his first losing record in his 21 years as a starter (the Bucs finishing 8-9). Somehow, he will find solace in his seven Super Bowl victories and the magazine cover that stares back at him each morning in the mirror.
Hope for the Falcons was present in a pair of players who Sunday established rookie team records for running the football (Tyler Allgeier finishing with 1,035 rushing yards this season) and catching it (Drake London, 72 catches).
And here let’s once more applaud Marcus Mariota’s decision to abandon his post, a true addition by desertion. The young quarterback replacing him continued to improve during his fourth start, throwing his first career touchdown pass and enjoying the experience so much, he did it again.
No one can know yet if Desmond Ridder is the answer at quarterback. At least the Falcons can go into 2023 knowing that he is not the problem.
Heaven knows, Ridder has hope. “Our goal for these past two games was to finish 2-0, start 2-0 in 2023,” he said. “So we have the momentum to put in the work in the offseason and get better for next year. Every single coach and player is excited to go to their respective cities and get better and then come back together in the spring and go back to work.”
The Falcons will have $70 million in cap space to go shopping for new talent in 2023, which was just the kind of financial freedom that pushed Jacksonville from last place to division champion in one year. So, there’s that.
And winning Sunday shouldn’t mean such a steep drop in draft position. Winning Sunday was still more important than tanking for the possibility of a slightly more favorable perch come the next draft show.
The draft, after all, holds no sure things. Relying on the Falcons to draft well is a little like flying Southwest – in either case there’s no guarantee you’ll get to where you want to go.
So, another season closes, leaving another seven months of living on the hardtack and jerky of hope. The same diet that has sustained the Falcons fan for so very long.