There’s no bright side for Falcons on eve of training camp

Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

I’m trying to look on the bright side for the Falcons. I do that with all our local teams before they start a new season. Even if they were bad the year before, the clean slate provides the chance to consider the possibility that lots of things go right, little goes wrong and the team is better than expected. This is the time to do that with the Falcons, who open training camp Tuesday.

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But, despite my honest efforts, I just can’t make a good case that the Falcons will overachieve this year. Heck, not even Arthur Blank is doing that. After he allowed the old front office to blow up the books in a futile chase for past glory, Blank essentially is selling salary-cap space for 2023. It’s always a bad sign when the team owner is talking more about future flexibility than current capabilities.

The Falcons’ over/under win total for 2022 is 4.5 or five, depending on the sportsbook. The under is paying much shorter odds to win, which means that’s the side that’s getting the most action. Put me down for the under on the Falcons. They won’t just post their fifth consecutive losing season, they’ll also rank among the worst teams in the NFL.

Only the Texans are expected to be as bad. Their over/under win total also is 4.5 or five. That makes sense: Houston has won four games in consecutive seasons, and over/under win totals correlate strongly with a team’s results from the previous season. But that’s not how it’s working with the Falcons, who were 7-10 in 2021 with an over/under of 7.5.

The betting markets have concluded the Falcons will be worse in 2022. There are no good counterarguments. The best ones I could come up with on offense or defense are undermined by the many, many holes on the roster. Arthur Smith may be a better head coach in his second season doing the job, but the job, and the schedule, will be a lot harder in Year 2.

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.