Maybe Marcus Mariota will give the Falcons competent play at quarterback. He’s done it before, though he hasn’t played more than 1,000 snaps since 2017. But Matt Ryan is better than Mariota, who will face the same challenges as his predecessor. Pass blocking and proven playmakers still are lacking for the Falcons.
ESPN’s Bill Barnwell ranked the league’s skill position groups, excluding quarterbacks, and placed the Falcons 27th of 32 teams. Barnwell writes that second-year tight end Kyle Pitts and rookie Drake London give the Falcons hope but adds: “Good thing the Falcons have those two, because the cupboard is bone dry otherwise.”
The five teams Barnwell believes have worse skill position talent than the Falcons are the Jaguars, Packers, Giants, Bears and Texans. The Falcons face only the Bears among that group. The five-best skill groups, per Barnwell: the Bengals, Raiders, 49ers, Vikings and Bucs. The Falcons will play the Bengals, 49ers and Bucs (twice).
The outlook isn’t much better for the Falcons on defense. They should cover receivers better than they have in recent years. Cornerback A.J. Terrell is one draft pick the previous front office got right, and free-agent pickup Casey Hayward is a good starter. I just don’t think the Falcons will cover well enough to make up for their perpetual problems rushing the passer. The linebacker group is lacking, too.
There’s just not much optimism that the Falcons will be any good in 2022. That wasn’t the case before last season.
The Falcons changed coaches and traded Julio Jones after finishing 4-12 in 2020, but their over/under was 7.5 wins for a 17-game schedule in 2021. There wasn’t much talent on the roster. There was hope the Falcons could overachieve with Ryan throwing to Pitts and Smith calling the plays. Now the Falcons don’t even have that.
There wasn’t even this much pessimism during the dying days of Dan Quinn’s coaching regime. The Falcons had won before with Quinn, and they still had Ryan and Jones on the roster. There always was a chance they could rekindle the Super Bowl magic. Blank held on to that hope for much too long, and now his team is in worse shape than it was after Michael Vick was arrested and Bobby Petrino fled the premises.
The Falcons had some bad years under coach Mike Smith. They finished 4-12 in 2013 and 6-10 in 2014, mostly because their defense stunk. But those were truly underachieving seasons. Bookmakers had their over/under at 10 wins in 2013 and eight in 2014. The Falcons were supposed to be good, or at least decent, but weren’t.
Things are different now. Everyone outside of the team complex in Flowery Branch expects the Falcons to be bad (and some inside the building probably are forced to agree). That hasn’t happened since 2008, the year after Vick and Petrino.
Oddsmakers set the over/under for the Falcons at 4.5 wins in 2009. They surprised everyone by winning 11 games with rookie quarterback Ryan. The Falcons lost a wild-card game to the Cardinals, who had to work hard for that victory before going on to the Super Bowl.
The 2022 Falcons aren’t going to repeat that pattern. The best they can hope for is winning a few games while London, Pitts, Terrell and other young players get better. Then the Falcons will have a relatively cheap base of talent. They can supplement it with good veterans once their salary cap isn’t weighed down by the dead weight of salaries for players who no longer are on the roster.
Let me try to end on a more positive note. The Falcons aren’t going to set the franchise record for fewest victories since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. The Falcons won only three games in 1974, ‘87, ‘89 and ‘96. They’ll win at least three games this season, if only because they get 17 tries to do it while the worst post-merger Falcons teams got no more than 16.
That’s the most optimistic opinion I can muster for the 2022 Falcons. The belief that losing big is better for the rebuild is too cynical even for me and, anyway, the potential payoff of draft picks won’t come until later. The outlook for the Falcons this season is so bad that not even the start of training camp can spark my imagination enough to believe they’ll be decent.