The only guarantee is that these Falcons will be different

Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith gestures during the first half of a preseason NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
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Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith gestures during the first half of a preseason NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Credit: AP

Not much is expected of the 2021 Falcons, which isn’t a bad thing. If they manage four wins for a second year running, we can shrug and say, “Where’s the surprise? They had a new coach and they traded Julio Jones.” If they finish close to .500, it will feel as if they’re building toward something, as opposed to the past few years, when every blown lead was viewed through the prism of the greatest of all blown leads. If they make the playoffs, we’ll hail Arthur Smith as the best Falcons coach since that other guy named Smith.

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This team hasn’t just shuffled coordinators and redeployed Raheem Morris for the 20th time. The only current Falcons who played for the other Smith – his name’s Mike, just for the record – are Matt Ryan and Jake Matthews. Beyond those two, the list of remaining Falcons who helped forge a 25-point lead in the Super Bowl ends with Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones.

It’s hard to imagine that anything will be worse than the so-grim-it-was-funny tableau of 2020, wherein masters of the the blown lead found novel ways to amaze us. (Then again, these are the Falcons, so we know never to say never.) They mightn’t be very good, but they won’t be the same. They have Kyle Pitts, who should make this team worth watching. They have Foye Oluokun, a sixth-round draftee who isn’t far from being an All-Pro. They’re not devoid of talent.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

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Falcons’ Foye Oluokun comments on working with defensive coordinator Dan Pees and the new 3-4 multiple defense.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

That said, this season isn’t so much about the Falcons as it is about Arthur Smith. He hasn’t been an NFL head coach. (The last Falcons’ head coach who arrived with previous NFL head-coaching experience? Dan Reeves in 1997.) He did nice work for the Titans with Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry. That’s encouraging. Of the first four head coaches hired by Arthur Blank, only one came with a reputation of offensive expertise. That was Bobby Petrino, who also had a reputation of leaving, which he did after 13 games.

Arthur Smith steps into a division expected to be ruled by Tampa Bay, the reigning Super Bowl champ. New Orleans will have a quarterback other than Drew Brees. Carolina moved on from Cam Newton last year; now the Panthers are moving on without Teddy Bridgewater. The Falcons could finish second in the NFC South. They could also finish last. There’s pressure on every NFL coach every week of every year, but nobody’s going to call for A. Smith’s firing if his team underperforms expectations, those expectations being as yet undefined.

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For a month, the new coach had on his roster two first-round wideouts plus a first-round tight end. The notion of Ryan, Jones and Calvin Ridley welcoming Pitts into their new scheme was tantalizing. It was also financially unsound, which is why Jones no longer works here. At his best, he’s the NFL’s best receiver. He’s also 32, and he has a long history of leg and foot injuries. It would be no shock if he gives his new employer one big year and not much else. His absence made us recalibrate our assessment of the 2021 Falcons, but not in an all-is-lost way. Over his 10 seasons here, the Falcons finished with a winning record four times.

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Atlanta Falcons will play 17 games in the 2021 NFL season.

Arthur Smith as head coach is a blank slate. Three exhibition games offered no hints. The Falcons lost all three and looked awful, but Ryan didn’t play, so who cares? They’re favored in the for-real opener against Philadelphia, which just gave up on Doug Pederson, who won that long-suffering franchise a Super Bowl, and Carson Wentz, never quite a franchise quarterback. And the Falcons do have a history of new-coach bounces.

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Jim Mora’s first team started 4-0. Mike Smith’s first team started 4-2. Dan Quinn’s first team started 5-0. Mora’s first team went 11-5 and won the division. Mike Smith’s first team went 11-5 and made the playoffs. (Quinn’s first team fizzled at the end, as Quinn’s teams tended to do.)

Yours truly is on record as being cautiously optimistic about these Falcons. This wide-angled guess has them going 8-9, but there’s no real consensus. They could be OK. They could be terrible. The one guarantee is that they won’t be the same.

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