ATLANTA – The Falcons finished 7-10 in each of Arthur Smith's first two seasons as head coach.
While the records were the same, Smith was adamant that those two teams couldn't be more different. He's right.
The 2021 group had a lot more veteran savvy, though many were on the way out the door due to bloated contracts or the fact the salary-cap-strapped Falcons didn't have the space to pay them.
This year's group was younger and full of both talent and inexperience that affected games in opposite ways. They lost a ton of close games. They struggled on the road. That's why the playoffs weren't in consideration at the end and this season ended as scheduled after 18 weeks. And, if we're being candid, those are things young teams often do.
They weren't good enough to capitalize on a golden opportunity to stand atop an NFC South ultimately won by an under-.500 team.
They were, however, handicapped by a record amount of dead money, more than $83.6 million by season's end.
Now the shackles come off. The Falcons are flush with cap space, which OverTheCap.com estimates at $69 million with 39 players under contract. That number can go up easily with an expected cut of Marcus Mariota that will save $12 million and require a $2 million dead-money hit.
We don't dive any deeper into all that, other than to say the Falcons have a real opportunity to improve in a hurry if they spend and draft right.
There is hope in that, hope for a better future.
"[This year was] obviously not good enough," right guard Chris Lindstrom said. "We wanted to win the division and we fell short of that. In terms of what we are and what we want to establish, we have a great idea of what that is and we're ready to start the journey. I'm excited for this offseason, knowing that this year wasn't good enough, and ready to keep working to become a better team."
We've talked a ton about forming an offseason priority list and what needs must be addressed. The list is significantly smaller than it was at the start of this season, after so many young players established themselves in 2022. Drake London, Tyler Allgeier and Troy Andersen all seem like long-term solutions. Both safety spots seem set. Bringing back Rashaan Evans and Isaiah Oliver seem like easy smart moves to make. The offensive line is in a good place, even with Kaleb McGary hitting free agency.
There are problem spots, two main ones that Smith was quick to identify.
"The next challenge is to make sure we become more explosive offensively," Smith said. "We need more of a pass rush. I get all that. But every game except for one up in Cincinnati, was a dogfight. These guys embraced it. There's a big difference between [this 7-10 and the last one]."
Even beyond the long-term solutions on the roster, Smith believes that team culture has been established. It's centered on work ethic and an unwavering commitment to the process. That was evident these last two weeks, after the team was eliminated from playoff contention.
"Tomorrow will be sad, knowing that this team has given us everything," Smith said. "They have come in day in, day out, starting in the spring. You talk about foundation and culture and what it means to be a Falcon. You can see that in the ethos of these guys. We'd love to still be playing. We're not, but there are a lot of good things that have happened."
There were, especially with first- and second-year players establishing themselves and eliminating needs. There will still be tons of roster turnover this offseason, with a different brand of free agent coming in. There's a distinct possibility an A-list impact player or two join the ranks. We know a quarterback will come from somewhere and the assets devoted to that player will tell us more about their opinion of Desmond Ridder than any press conference session ever could.
The Falcons could also look to extend their own talent, especially Lindstrom and A.J. Terrell and possibly Kaleb McGary.
The hope is that, while we've seen tons of turnover in recent years, that flow will slow as we carry on.
This will be a busy offseason for Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot, one that could help the Falcons get better in a hurry. Because of the progress made this season, the Falcons can be more focused on specific areas in desperate need of depth and upgrades. Not every issue will be solved this year, but there's an opportunity here for real growth with improved talent added to a strong workplace environment.
There's a fascinating offseason ahead. Can't wait to see it play out.
Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during Week 18.
Swaggin' Since 1966
Takin' it back to 1966! Shop the Red Helmet Collection today online or in-store at Atlantic Station.