The easy Falcons narrative: If you can’t gain a yard, you can’t win

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – To deflect from criticism, certain political operatives use the term “fake news.”

Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins will challenge the viewer to watch a 10-car pileup but see the Rose Bowl Parade. As in his famous declaration in the midst of his third three-win season: “If you can’t see how much we’ve grown, how much we’ve developed, you don’t want to see it.”

When Falcons coach Arthur Smith wants to discourage harsh assessment, he’ll do it in a far gentler way. As he did again in Sunday’s 31-13 loss here to the San Francisco 49ers, dropping the phrase “the easy narrative” a couple times as certain faults were brought to the postgame podium. It’s a mildly derogatory term aimed those who would jump to conclusions based on the evidence of the moment.

All of these approaches can be insults to reality.

And make no mistake, the easy narrative was ripe, low-hanging fruit Sunday. And because it was easy, that doesn’t make it wrong.

Easy narrative No. 1: The Falcons’ wild, Fantasia-on-adult-gummies kind of visions of the playoffs set in the west Sunday. We now are free to get back to the unvarnished business of seeing this team for what it truly isn’t.

The truth remains that in five shots at teams with a winning record, the Falcons are a resounding 0-5. In truth, losing only by 18 Sunday (31-13) to the Niners showed some improvement. For in the four other games against teams with a pulse – those being Dallas, New England and Tampa Bay (twice) – their margin of defeat was 25 points.

There is nothing wrong in admitting this, even if those within the Falcons locker room would let it slip that they don’t belong in playoff company. Given all the limitations of their roster, we expected nothing more of them. In many ways, they already have cleared a low bar, so embrace that.

“We’re going to compete every game . . . keep swinging . . . lot of crazy things happen in the NFL,” Smith said, keeping to the far more difficult narrative of a playoff future. And credit him for that – he’s a coach coaching to the end.

Easy narrative No. 2: Sometimes a team just deserves to lose. A team that leaves a game in which a single yard on fourth down seemed as unattainable as peace in our time is one such team.

As a play-caller and head coach Arthur Smith will have better moments than Sunday. He, however, may never have more ineffectual ones than early in his eighth career loss.

A nine-point underdog, the Falcons were in need of something positive to point them in a hopeful direction. They got it with the opening kickoff, when Qadree Ollison jarred the ball loose from returner JaMycal Hasty, recovered by Richie Grant at the ‘Frisco 12-yard line.

Having benefitted from three Carolina turnovers just the week before, the Falcons were set up sweetly again. And when they motored effortlessly to a first down inside the 1, a propitious beginning was in the air.

But as soon as a Cordarrelle Patterson’s touchdown plunge was reviewed and overturned as a bit short, the Falcons were doomed. Doomed as all are whenever taking a simple chore and making it unduly hard.

To hammer a nail, one only requires a hammer. The problem becomes when someone tries to use a painter’s palette or a hardback copy of “Jane Eyre” for the job. Keep it simple. No need to try to turn carpentry into high art.

Second-and-goal from the 1: Rather than battering away from feet away, Ryan goes play action and throws incomplete.

Third-and-goal: A toss to Patterson right loses a bit.

Fourth-and-goal: Now for the sake of pride, the Falcons are compelled to go for the touchdown. But they line up with Ryan in the shotgun, empty backfield, leaving only the option to throw. It shouldn’t be this hard, but it is. Ryan looks to Kyle Pitts, who is covered up by safety Jaquiski Tartt.

There occasionally are moments when the disgust rises to the level of contempt. When you hear yourself saying, “This team has no business winning this game.” Kind of tough when that happens and there’s still more than 57 minutes to play.

In fairness, rushing yardage came hard for the Falcons Sunday – 62 yards on 23 carries, an average of just 2.7 yards per. Still, c’mon, you have to crash the gates with that first possession if you’re legit.

Ryan explained afterward, “When you pound it and it doesn’t get in, that makes you reconsider what you’re doing. As a player I never overthink those things. Our responsibility is whatever plays come in is to make those plays come to life and to make them work. Whether it’s run or pass, we collectively have to be better.”

As if to emphasize an unpleasant point, the Falcons made two other forays into the red zone in the fourth quarter Sunday and came away with exactly zero points. They faced third and fourth down seven times in the red zone Sunday – and converted only once. That being on a Ryan sneak (um, where was that earlier?). Not getting the hard yard against a good team is a major failing.

“Those are easy narratives,” Smith said, “but the truth is this team has continued to get better.”

Easy narrative No. 3: There is a ceiling for this team. Sometimes a player jumps through it, as when receiver Russell Gage employed all 40 inches of his vertical leap for a beautiful touchdown reception over San Francisco’s Ambry Thomas Sunday. But the ceiling stays intact. Much work remains to raise it, work that will continue for years to come, and will require considerable growth from both players and coach. But then we knew that all along.