Mark Bradley: The Falcons must realize they weren't as good as their record

By Mark Bradley

The Falcons finished 7-10, which wasn't bad. Not since 2017 have they won more than seven games in a season, which is why this team was under new management. Arthur Smith, the head coach, and Terry Fontenot, the general manager, met the media Tuesday. Among Smith's opening comments:

"You've got to be objective. You've got to go back and see where you can evolve and adapt. You can never stay the same. We feel like we've got a great foundation here."

That makes sense. A team needs to know what it is before it can decide what it must do to get where it wants to go. The catch: The 2021 Falcons weren't as good at their record.

They were outscored by 146 points. Only four teams fared worse. The Falcons beat three of those four. Of the Falcons' victories, all were by one-score margins. On point differential, the 3-13-1 Lions — whom the Falcons beat 20-16 on Dec. 26 — were slightly better than the Flowery Branch bunch.

Rarely will you see such clear lines of demarcation. Every time the Falcons played somebody halfway decent, they lost big. Nearly every time they played a substandard opponent, they won, if only just. Smith has made much of the team's 7-2 record in one-score games. (No coach downplays winning.) After the Detroit escape, he offered that 7-2 was a signal of greater tomorrows. Maybe it was. Probably it wasn't.

The Falcons were 0-7 against teams that qualified for the playoffs. Those losses were by 25, 23, 40, 25, 13, 18 and 14 points. The collective winning percentage of the teams the Falcons beat was .315, the league's lowest.

Here, though, we return to the word Smith used Tuesday — "objective." If you're running the Falcons, you cannot be fooled by going 7-10 against the league's fourth-softest schedule. Next year's schedule includes 10 games against teams that finished above .500. This could get worse before it gets better.

Receiver Calvin Ridley missed 12 games for what have been characterized as mental health issues. He could return next season. He could also be traded. The Falcons have said little about Ridley except that they support him.

The Falcons have said nothing about Matt Ryan to make us believe they're ready to cut ties. After the Detroit game, Smith deemed Ryan "a joy to coach." Ryan, who'll turn 37 in May, hasn't voiced a desire to leave. He has presided over two winning seasons since 2012. Still, he was the reason these Falcons managed seven wins, the difference between a capable quarterback and a rookie/scrub never being more blatant. His contract runs for two more years, carrying cap hits of $48 million in 2022 and $43 million in 2023.

There's young talent on this roster. A.J. Terrell is a big-time cornerback. Chris Lindstrom is the best offensive linemen this franchise has drafted since Bill Fralic. Kyle Pitts wasn't great every game, but he was awfully good in most. Those are foundational pieces. To get anywhere worth going will require many more. It'd be nice if the Falcons could keep Cordarrelle Patterson, for whom Smith's schemes proved a career retro rocket. He's a free agent, though.

To date, the Smith/Fontenot regime hasn't made a wrong move. Pitts justified being the eighth player drafted. Julio Jones, shipped to Tennessee to clear a bit of cap space, had his worst NFL season. (He scored his first touchdown as a Titan on Sunday.) For this rebuild to take wing, Smith/Fontenot must do more sagacious cutting.

For reasons tactical and practical, it makes sense to rebuild around Ryan, as opposed to taking a chance on Kenny Pickett. (Though Pickett could be available when the Falcons pick at No. 8 come April.) We need to look only 240 miles up I-85 to see the perils inherent in starting over with a new quarterback.

After the 2019 season, the Panthers dumped cornerstone Cam Newton and coach Ron Rivera. They hired Matt Rhule, who'd worked wonders at Baylor. They hired Joe Brady, who'd helped Joe Burrow reinvent himself at LSU, as offensive coordinator. They imported Teddy Bridgewater, who seemed a serviceable replacement for Newton. They finished 5-11 in 2020, which was understandable. What happened next was not.

The Panthers just went 5-12, and this was a woeful 5-12. Rhule fired Brady in December. Sam Darnold, who hadn't clicked as a Jet, didn't click as a Panther. By December, Carolina was reduced to starting the retread Newton, an admission the club was out of ideas. It was outscored 211-99 over its final seven games. It's believed Rhule has one more year to show something.

This time a year ago, the Falcons were readying to hire Smith and Fontenot. Those two didn't have much time to plan before free agency and the draft. They've now had a year.

The belief is that these men are wise enough to know that 7-10 flattered their Falcons. It's possible, perhaps probable, that 2022 will produce a worse record but a better team. In the grand scheme, that'd be just fine.

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