The Falcons don’t have much, but their coach is an upgrade

The Falcons just lost by 40 points. This was, at least to these eyes, an encouraging sign. Bear with me.

Two weeks ago, Football Outsiders ranked the Falcons as the NFL’s worst team. At that moment, the Falcons were 3-4. After they won in New Orleans, they were 4-4, which would have earned them a wild card had the expanded playoffs commenced in November. Football Outsiders crunched updated numbers and ranked the .500 Falcons … the NFL’s second-worst team, ahead of only winless Detroit.

We around here just saw a team that took a while to break .500 win a championship. Should we be on alert for these Falcons to make such a run?

Short answer: no. Longer answer: Hell, no.

Over the fullness of a season, Football Outsiders’ DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) is the best gauge there is. The Falcons’ first eight games came against the NFL’s third-softest schedule, per DVOA. Their remaining games will constitute the league’s seventh-toughest closing run. The record suggested the Falcons weren’t half-bad. Analytics rose to object.

Final score: Cowboys 43, Falcons 3. Halftime score: Cowboys 36, Falcons 3.

Some folks might take that as evidence that Dan Quinn, now defensive coordinator for Dallas, knows his business better than the man who succeeded him in Hall County, Ga. This correspondent sees it as reason to believe that Arthur Smith is an upgrade.

Since blowing the Super Bowl on Feb. 5, 2017, DQ proved incapable of coaching up a star-spangled roster. After 28-3 became the most crushing loss in the history of humankind, his record was 25-30. Smith inherited some, but not nearly all, of those players. His first two games yielded losses by an aggregate 49 points. When matched against opponents of similar smallish caliber, Smith’s Birds won four of six.

Three victories came on Younghoe Koo field goals at the end. The one in New Orleans came after the Falcons wasted a 17-point lead in seven minutes, remarkable even by their standards. This time, though, they won. You could say that the Falcons under Smith were getting lucky in a way the Falcons under Quinn never did, but sometimes luck is a function of an actual coach doing actual coaching.

The Falcons no longer have Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman to run the ball or Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu to catch it. Also gone: Alex Mack, Ryan Schraeder, Desmond Trufant, Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen, Robert Alford and Vic Beasley. Last month, Brad Spielberger of Pro Football Focus graded the Falcons’ roster the NFL’s thinnest. Some of that is by design, it being impossible to rebuild without cap space.

With Calvin Ridley on leave, Matt Ryan’s chief targets are Olamide Zaccheaus, an undrafted free agent, and Cordarrelle Patterson, a wideout-turned-running-back. (Oh, and Kyle Pitts, who’s as good as advertised.) As of noon Sunday, the Falcons were 4-4 and mathematically in the midst of playoff contention, but did anyone truly believe this was a playoff team?

Smith can’t turn any of his receivers into Julio Jones. A head coach can only work with he has. The way this season began, the Falcons appeared bound for 2-15 or worse. Come the 2022 draft, Falcons fans will wish Koo had missed a couple of those kicks. As it stands, Smith has gotten great value from an unassuming-if-not-nondescript roster.

By January, the Falcons’ record could look awful. Football Outsiders projects them to win only 1.8 more games, and that’s with Jacksonville and Detroit upcoming. What we saw Sunday in Dallas was a gifted team doing what it should against an opponent of meager means. That these same Falcons bled out four wins over six games – margins of victory: 3, 7, 2 and 2 points – is a credit to Koo and Ryan, but mostly it’s a credit to Smith and staff.

This is a bad team with a not-yet-bad record. Under previous management, the Falcons were a talented team with a losing record. Yes, there’s a happier medium – good team, good record – but for now this is almost refreshing. We can live with a 40-point loss if it’s clear the opponent is that much better. What nobody could abide was a 20-point lead undone by an unfielded onside kick, which happened when the Falcons last graced Arlington.

“I told the team there has to be a lesson in the pain of that loss,” Quinn said then. The next week, his Falcons blew a 16-point lead in the final 6-1/2 minutes and lost to the Bears. For his Falcons, there was never any learning.

We can’t yet know if Smith will lead this team up from oblivion, but we’ve seen enough to believe he’s capable of maximizing what he has. In 2021, he doesn’t have much. That won’t always be the case.

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