It’s not unusual for a team with a rookie head coach and new offensive system to struggle early in the process, but Sunday’s loss to Washington was all-too-familiar for Falcons fans. Can Arthur Smith right the ship in time to save the 2021 season?
Through the first four weeks of the 2021 NFL season, the Atlanta Falcons have struggled. Now sitting at 1-3 despite facing two of the worst teams in the league, Atlanta has shown little to make fans believe that relevance is possible this year. The defense is 32nd in points allowed, and the offense has languished while scoring less than 20 points per game. Even the special teams has faltered, as the Falcons gave up the first kickoff return TD of the year in Week 4 to the Washington Football Team.
Unless you were expecting the Falcons to be a serious playoff contender this season, this start isn’t entirely unexpected. The most optimistic among us were probably hoping the team would manage 2-2 in this stretch—and they probably should be, considering how Sunday’s game ended. But despite a new coaching staff and supposed new attitude in Atlanta, the same hallmarks continue to haunt this team. The most problematic one of all reared its ugly head on Sunday: the propensity to choke away late leads.
The main difference between the final year of Dan Quinn and the new regime of Arthur Smith thus far has been…well, the 2021 Falcons weren’t good to begin with. Under Dan Quinn, Atlanta at least appeared to be the better team in most of their early games before blowing lead after lead—in increasingly ridiculous fashion, I might add.
Arthur Smith’s start has been a struggle from the first day, with a blowout at the hands of the Eagles (who really aren’t very good themselves, as they’re now 1-3), a late blowout to the Bucs, and an extremely narrow last-second win against the lowly Giants. The main positive you could take away from Week 4’s loss to Washington is probably that, for the first time all season, the Falcons actually looked like the better team for the vast majority of the game.
While much of our attention has been focused on Smith’s extremely conservative playcalling on Atlanta’s penultimate drive, there’s plenty of deserved blame elsewhere. The offense was plagued by drops all day long, with Calvin Ridley turning in a particularly bad performance. If Ridley catches just one of the 4 or so targets that were bobbled, this game has a different outcome.
The officiating was extremely poor—for both teams—with an egregious DPI call that was inexplicably waved off despite clear video evidence. That penalty would’ve put the Falcons in field goal range with a first down, and the 2 or so minutes they could’ve taken off the clock as a result may have prevented Washington’s final TD drive. It’s worth noting that Atlanta also benefitted from an extremely questionable roughing the passer call on Chase Young that extended a Falcons TD drive. As frustrating as the officiating was, you shouldn’t blame the loss on the refs.
Atlanta’s defense, a bright spot through three games, fell apart late in Week 4. T.J. Green allowed a 30-yard touchdown pass to Terry McLaurin where he appeared to simply give up on the play in the endzone. The special teams allowed the aforementioned kickoff return TD, and punter Cameron Nizialek left the game with an injury. That forced Younghoe Koo into emergency punting duty, who delivered one shank and one actually-not-bad punt late in the game.
Despite this cavalcade of errors from the entire team, criticism keeps finding its way back to Arthur Smith. In truth, we should probably go a little easier on the first-time head coach, but it’s hard to let him off the hook when the end of the game is handled so poorly. Before I deliver my criticism of Smith, I want to say it’s not just his fault, and the poor execution by the players probably deserves as much or more criticism in the end.
But this fanbase has been scarred by poor end-of-game management and blown leads, and Arthur Smith just delivered another one into our laps. Like a scab that gets ripped off before it has a chance to fully heal, Falcons fans were once again subjected to this painful reality.
The first mistake Smith made was playing to run the clock out with just a two-point lead. In the NFL, a two-point lead is nothing—you might as well treat it like a tie. Teams can and will drive into field goal range with just seconds left on the clock. Take the Falcons in this game, for example: with just 33 seconds remaining on the clock and a single timeout, Atlanta drove down to Washington’s 37-yard line. That would’ve still been a difficult 54-yard FG attempt for Younghoe Koo, but it could’ve easily decided the game.
Second, Smith ran the ball on 2nd-and-13. That’s a big no-no in just about any situation, but particularly when you have no punter. If you want to point to the biggest coaching blunder in this whole game, I’d argue it was that call right there. Third, Smith insisted on using RB Mike Davis on this drive. Davis is a reliable veteran, but he was having an abysmal day on the ground: on 13 carries, Davis amassed just 14 yards for a pitiful 1.1 YPC average.
On the other hand, Falcons MVP Cordarrelle Patterson was sitting at 5.7 YPC and RB3 Wayne Gallman was sitting at 4.8 YPC. In the NFL, you adjust your gameplan to your opponent, and Washington clearly had Davis figured out. Why you wouldn’t lean on your best offensive player throughout the game in Patterson on the final, crucial drive is beyond my understanding. Arthur Smith claimed it was about “ball security”, but Patterson has fumbled just once on 45 touches in 2021 and has proven himself as one of the most trustworthy kick returners in the NFL. It’s not an answer I buy, to say the least.
That bungled last drive ended up burning just 1:52 of clock and gave Washington nearly two minutes to drive into field goal range. They didn’t even need all of it, as it took the Football Team just two passes to get to the Atlanta 33. Washington then wound up scoring a 30-yard TD two plays later.
Despite how frustrating this final sequence was, let’s hope it is a learning experience for our new head coach. These types of game management situations take time to feel out, and the hope is that Smith can eventually make better decisions than Dan Quinn. As an offensive head coach, Smith should realize that the old adage “the best defense is a good offense” rings very true in the NFL. Instead of playing “not to lose”, you must play to win—or you’ll continue to suffer the same fate that befell Dan Quinn’s Falcons from 2018-2020.
We’re just 4 games into a 17-game season. There’s a lot of football left to be played for Arthur Smith and Company. A major takeaway from Week 4 is that the Falcons offense didn’t just look competent, but good for the first time all season. This team has continued to make incremental improvements every week. Though small, these can add up over the course of an entire year.
It’s unlikely the 2021 Falcons will be contenders for anything more than the final Wild Card spot, even if everything goes right the rest of the way. But what we need them to do is continue to grow, and begin to play consistently mistake-free football. That growth—and carrying it over to 2022 and beyond—is the most important thing for this team going forward.