Arthur Smith’s narrative for Falcons: ‘Doing things the right way’

FLOWERY BRANCH — Arthur Smith is not a fan of narratives. The Falcons coach especially does not like “easy” or “lazy” narratives. Unfortunately for Smith, his team has served up plenty of those. The Falcons were a bad football team in his first season. They are going to be bad again.

That’s my narrative, at least. I’m hardly alone in that belief.

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Few outside of Flowery Branch expect the Falcons to win many games in 2022. They finished 7-10 last season after they were 4-12 in 2020, but regression is the popular narrative. After successive salary-cap purges, the Matt Ryan trade debacle and Calvin Ridley’s suspension, there just aren’t enough good players on the roster for the Falcons to be better in 2022.

That narrative could be wrong, of course. More than any other league, the NFL is set up for bad teams to quickly improve. There are a handful of teams you know will be good. There are many teams bunched in the middle, looking for some lucky breaks. The 2021 Bengals were on that list.

The Bengals were 120-1 shots to win the Super Bowl before the season and then nearly did it. Sure, the Bengals were expected to be pretty good (over/under of 9.5), and the Falcons are not (4.5). Yes, Cincinnati has a franchise quarterback, and the Falcons do not. Hey, nobody said building a positive narrative for the Falcons would be easy.

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I went to The Branch on Thursday looking for help. Smith said he likes his team. You won’t find many coaches who will say otherwise publicly, but Smith hasn’t been one to go over the top with praise. If he says he likes this group, then there is little reason to doubt his sincerity.

What specifically does Smith like about his team?

“They are a great group to work with,” Smith said. “Sorry, I don’t have a deeper meaning. You hope to like the people you work with. I like working with this team.

“We’ve got a lot of good guys in here coming in and doing things the right way. I don’t have some deep, philosophical reading for you.”

It doesn’t have to be deep. This is just sports. If Smith is right that the Falcons are putting in good work, then add that to their positive narrative.

Smith doesn’t have much use for “laughable groupthink” or critics he calls “peripheral opponents.” That’s a good thing. I’ve covered a lot of sports franchises. The best ones care little about what outsiders had to say. The worst ones cared way too much. Winning organizations focus on performance, not perceptions.

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The Falcons will get their chance to prove critics wrong. Said Smith:

“It’s the NFL. It’s hard. The only way to do it is you’ve got to earn it. These games are going to be very competitive. The way the schedule looks when it comes out, that’s probably not how it’s going to play out because there are so many variables out of your control.

“One injury, a team can look very different. And vice versa: a team improves (because) you’ve got young players, you’ve got a group of guys that can fit into a system and understand what you are asking them in Year 2.”

Smith still is building his program. The Falcons tended to wear down late in games last season. In response, Smith is trying to set a higher expectation for hard work. He designed training camp to be more physical. Smith wants all Falcons players to feel as if their spot isn’t secure.

Mission accomplished so far, linebacker Adetokunbo Ogundeji said.

“It is more competitive than (before). It’s more intense. The vibe is great. We are playing physical, but that’s how football is supposed to be played. Coach has made an emphasis on being competitive and earning your job, and I think that’s the biggest thing.”

It seems Smith is developing the right attitude for his team. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Falcons will be better. But Smith’s influence is among the variables he was talking about. He made some missteps during his first year as a head coach. It’s reasonable to believe he’ll be a better coach in Year 2.

The same goes for his players who haven’t been in the league long. Injuries are the most volatile variable for NFL teams. Nothing much can be done about bad luck in that area. The performance of young players probably is No. 2 on the list. If enough of them play above their experience level, a team can be better than expected. That’s where the Falcons have the most hope.

Tight end Kyle Pitts was a Pro Bowl tight end as a rookie. Third-year pro A.J. Terrell is among the NFL’s better cornerbacks. Guard Chris Lindstrom is the team’s best lineman. Isaiah Oliver was playing well in his second season at inside cornerback before he suffered a season-ending knee injury in October. Rookie wide receiver Drake London showed off his potential with a nifty catch-and-run in the exhibition opener.

If those young players make a leap, you could see the Falcons forming a solid core of talent. They have some capable, older veterans on the roster. The list includes the most important position, quarterback, with Marcus Mariota.

Mariota has Cordarrelle Patterson and Pitts as proven playmakers. London has the potential to quickly become one. Grady Jarrett is a good defensive lineman. The Falcons seem eager to replace linebacker Deion Jones, but, to me, his bad 2021 season was related to a shoulder injury that eventually required surgery. Jones was a very good player not long ago, and he’s only 27.

Smith can enhance his team’s talent if he gets the intangibles right. Dan Quinn helped the Falcons make a two-year turnaround from losers to Super Bowl contenders by developing a competitive team spirit. The Falcons had more good players back then, but we’re not talking about the Super Bowl for the 2022 Falcons. Just matching last season’s victory total would give Smith’s program some momentum before the salary-cap shackles are released after this season.

“We’ve got a fun group,” Smith said. “These guys want to be coached, and they are out here working hard. Let’s see where it goes.”

That’s not a bad narrative for the 2022 Falcons.