Falcons won’t make playoffs, but they’re building good foundation

Falcons head coach Arthur Smith walks on the field to challenge a play during the second half against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (Hans Deryk/AP)

Credit: AP

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Falcons head coach Arthur Smith walks on the field to challenge a play during the second half against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (Hans Deryk/AP)

Credit: AP

The Falcons are on the fringe of the NFC wild-card race with four games to play. Win at San Francisco on Sunday, and they’ll be right in the thick of it. I don’t think the Falcons will make the playoffs. No one could have reasonably expected that before the season.

What matters more than their playoff fate is the evidence that the Falcons (6-7) are building a solid foundation. They need to add more player talent to it. That’s the hardest part. But Sunday’s victory at Carolina added to my growing feeling that coach Arthur Smith’s Falcons have something good going that they can carry over into next season.

The Falcons ran the ball effectively behind a line that’s forming cohesiveness in Smith’s wide-zone scheme. They mitigated shaky protection with play-action passes designed to look exactly like runs. That gave quarterback Matt Ryan a little more time. At age 36, Ryan still can make plays when that happens.

The Falcons pretty much shut down Carolina’s runs. They couldn’t consistently pressure Carolina’s two quarterbacks, but did hold up well in the secondary. The Falcons recorded three takeaways, including a pick-six. If you can’t get to the QB, then you better stop the run and make plays on the ball. The Falcons did that.

They wobbled a bit near the end of the game. That’s been a pattern this season. This time, they finished strong for a 29-21 victory.

“I think you’ve seen certainly the mindset of finishing games has improved,” Smith said the next day. “I think you’re seeing a team that’s playing smarter and more together. We still have a lot of stuff to work on.”

Agreed on all points. I’m not trying to make too much of one victory against a fading opponent. The Panthers started physically diminished Cam Newton at quarterback and were missing their best player, Christian McCaffrey. Rather, I see this one victory as good news for the Falcons in the bigger picture.

For one, it showed they’re getting better, which is No. 2 in importance behind winning. There was some doubt about that after wipeout losses to the Cowboys and Patriots. The Falcons won two of three games since, both on the road by a touchdown. The loss to the Bucs in between those games was mostly Tom Brady doing his usual against the Falcons.

More important, the Falcons won at Carolina with pretty much the same formula Smith used as Titans coordinator. Tennessee’s offense was much better largely because of the personnel running those plays. The win at Carolina was a sign that Smith might be able to do the same for the Falcons once the roster improves. He’s shown some flaws as a first-time head coach, but he’s proven as a play-caller.

Smith said the Falcons are just scratching the surface of what they want to do on defense. Coordinator Dean Pees’ bold plan to have pass rushers “coming from everywhere” has been scaled down because of ineffective blitzing and poor man-to-man pass coverage. The Falcons’ years-long problems rushing the passer and covering receivers will take more time to fix.

The Falcons need to add more good players and improve their depth. They have a small core of keepers. Offense: Ryan, running back Cordarrelle Patterson, wide receiver Calvin Ridley, guard Chris Lindstrom and tight end Kyle Pitts. Defense: tackle Grady Jarrett, cornerback A.J. Terrell, and linebacker Deion Jones (I’m assuming his bad season is an outlier). Put kicker Younghoe Koo on the list, too.

The Falcons should be able to retain all those players if they want. They have some top-heavy contracts weighing down their 2022 salary cap. That includes $15.5 million of so-called dead money for Julio Jones, who plays for the Titans. The projected increase in the cap from $182.5 million to $208.2 million will provide some relief. Contract extensions can create more.

Ryan’s contract is set to count $48.7 million against the 2022 cap. There’s no way he can be on the roster with that league-high figure. There was a time I believed the Falcons should let Ryan go and take the massive dead-money hit. He’s still effective, but better to move on if he’s taking up a big chunk of the cap while leading a bad offense for a going-nowhere team.

Now I see that the Smith/Ryan pairing can be the basis for a good offense sooner than expected. The offense has shown real improvement over the past three games. That’s with a line that struggles to block for passes and a lack of productive pass-catchers. What might the Falcons do if the line improves, they put more playmakers around Ryan and Smith’s play sheet expands?

Restructuring Ryan’s contract and spreading cap hits over future years doesn’t seem like such a bad plan now. Extending Jarrett’s contract ($23.8 million cap figure in 2022) is an easy call. Left tackle Jake Matthews ($23.7 million) is a good candidate for an extension. Deion Jones ($20 million) is a trickier decision. If Ridley ($11.1 million) decides to play in 2022, the Falcons could reduce his salary after he spent most of the season on the non-football injury list to focus on his mental health.

Those choices come later. Right now, the Falcons are trying to make the playoffs. FiveThirtyEight’s statistical projection gave them just a 12% chance of doing so before this week’s games. That number rises to 42% for the Falcons if they beat the 49ers, independent of results in other games. Lose at San Francisco and the playoff odds drop to 2%, according to FiveThirtyEight.

Smith said the Falcons have achieved their goal of playing meaningful games late in the season. The next step is winning them. That’s too big of a leap for this team. I predicted the Falcons will lose to the 49ers. They aren’t going to win at Buffalo in Week 17. The Falcons should be favored at home against the Lions and could be for the finale against the Saints.

The Falcons are, at best, a below-average team. There’s a reason why every one of their statistical measures looks much worse than their record, most of all their minus-108 point differential. But the record matters most of all. It’s good enough after 13 games to give the Falcons a chance to make the playoffs.

I don’t believe they’ll do it. That doesn’t mean I discount what they’ve already accomplished. Winning in the NFL is hard, regardless of opponent. If the Falcons don’t make the playoffs, that won’t make this a loss season because they’re building a solid foundation with Smith as coach.