The Falcons, dare we say, have gotten smart

No coach is handed a perfect team, though some teams are more imperfect than others. There are two ways to handle this. One is to shrug and say, “I need better players.” This generally leads to unemployment. The other is to do the best you can with what you have.

Arthur Smith inherited a team that had gone 18-30 over three seasons despite having spent big on high-profile talent. The almost-universal belief was that the Falcons would need to get worse – assuming that was possible – before getting better. Two months after Smith took the job, Julio Jones was traded to Tennessee. Todd Gurley wasn’t offered a new contract. Ricardo Allen was cut. Alex Mack and Keanu Neal left as free agents.

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In his first season as a head coach, Smith had a 36-year-old quarterback and not much else. Desperation being the mother of position changes, he turned Cordarrelle Patterson, a 30-year-old wide receiver, into a feature back. When Calvin Ridley, a second-team All-Pro in 2020, stepped aside after five games to tend to his mental health, Matt Ryan was left with wideouts Russell Gage, a Round 6 draftee, and Olamide Zaccheaus, who wasn’t drafted.

The 2021 Falcons ranked 29th in total offense, 26th in total defense. They were outscored by 146 points. They should have gone 4-13. They went 7-10. They weren’t eliminated from playoff contention until the season’s penultimate weekend.

All their victories came in one-score games. If we’ve learned anything about the NFL, it’s that teams that win a lot of coin-flip games in one year tend to lose a bunch the next. When the hurried and failed pursuit of Deshaun Watson led to Ryan seeking and finding a trade, the Falcons were viewed as the league’s worst team. “You rated us 45th,” Smith told reporters earlier this fall, which wasn’t true. We did, however, pencil them in for 32nd.

But here they sit, 4-4 with the hardest part of their schedule behind them. They’re leading the NFC South, which says much about the NFC South, but still: Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay isn’t on top. The Buccaneers have been outscored by five points, same as the Falcons. The team with the GOAT has scored 146 points; the team with Marcus Mariota has scored 200.

ESPN’s football power index estimates that these Falcons will finish a rounded-up 9-8; it assigns them a 53.4% chance of making the playoffs. Sunday’s date with the Chargers is one of two remaining games against teams currently above .500. Oh, and the Falcons are 3-3 in one-score games, which is more than acceptable. It’s also an indication that Smith, if any doubt remained, is a keeper.

The Falcons rank fifth in rushing yards, 29th in passing yards. Conventional wisdom holds that nobody wins by running anymore. But the Titans, with Smith calling plays, went 11-5 in 2020, when they ranked second in rushing and 23rd in passing. Smith doesn’t have the irresistible Derrick Henry here, but he acts as if he does. Having Mariota gives the Falcons an extra running back. Mariota the runner makes Mariota a more effective passer.

The Falcons have this wrinkle. A receiver goes in motion toward the sideline – sometimes the receiver is Kyle Pitts, the gifted tight end – and, after the snap, essentially stands there. He’s not blocking. Nobody’s blocking for him. This isn’t a screen. The unencumbered receiver is Mariota’s bailout. He isn’t great at throwing long, but he’s OK throwing short. If he opts to run instead, that’s fine, too.

Mariota is on track to rush for 600 yards, almost double his career best. Running the ball controls the clock, which limits the opponent’s possessions, which is big. The Falcons’ defense just yielded 478 yards to Carolina and PJ Walker. This team won’t win any shootouts, as evidenced by the Cincinnati blowout. The idea is to have Mariota do what he does well and keep games from becoming blowouts. No, he’s not Joe Burrow. C’est la vie.

With Patterson injured, Tyler Allgeier – a Round 5 pick from BYU – has gained 324 yards. If you can run, you should be able to pass a little, play-action still being the sport’s greatest weapon. Journeyman Damiere Byrd caught five touchdown passes in his first six NFL seasons; working with Mariota, he has caught two in two weeks. The Falcons aren’t a talented team, but they’ve found enough workarounds to resemble one.

I realize I might be in the minority, but here goes: Watching the Falcons fascinates me. Trying to guess what Smith will do next is great fun. I’m not very smart, but I enjoy watching smart people work.