The 2021 season was full of challenges for the Falcons.
For starters, they hired a new general manager in Terry Fontenot and Head Coach in Arthur Smith, who inherited a team that was 4-12 in 2020, with limited cap space. Then in one of their first moves, Fontenot and Smith traded arguably the greatest player in franchise history in Julio Jones for a second-round pick.
Not to mention the ever-present COVID-19 pandemic, which created strict protocols and made building relationships much more of a challenge. Fontenot admitted that relationship building was the most challenging part of his first season.
"You weren't able to build all those relationships as quickly as you'd like to," Fontenot said, "and that does affect things."
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On the field, the Falcons lost their No.1 receiver and one of the NFL's best talent's in Calvin Ridley for 12 games due to a mental health issue. To add insult to injury, Isaiah Oliver, one of the Falcons' best defenders in his first season playing in the nickel cornerback role, suffered a season-ending knee injury in week four.
Despite the many challenges, they still found ways to win.
Take their game against the Jets in week five, for example. Ridley missed his first game due to what was then personal reasons, and Russell Gage was sidelined with a high ankle sprain, leaving Tajae Sharpe as the team's No.1 wide receiver.
With big help from Kyle Pitts (9 rec, 119 yards, 1 TD) and Cordarrelle Patterson (7 rec, 60 yards) in the passing game, the Falcons pulled out a close 27-20 win.
And all the Falcons wins were similar to that Jets victory – close, with different players stepping up on all three units.
Smith has boasted their 7-2 record in one-score games this season, confident that the record proves that his team has a good foundation heading forward.
On the other side of their seven wins, however, are the ten losses, most of which weren't close.
The Falcons finished the 2021 season with a lopsided -146 point differential, the fifth-worst in the league. The four teams with the worst records in the NFL this season in the Jaguars, Jets, Giants, and Texans, were the only teams to finish worse.
Even in those losses, Fontenot was impressed with how players competed.
He acknowledged the massive point differential the Falcons had this season, but saw it as a testament to the mindset shift in Arthur Smith's first year. The Falcons were in a much better position than many other teams with similar point differentials.
"We're building a winning culture," Fontenot said in Tuesday's press conference. "... I really believe everything that our head coach preaches about having a winning culture and being a smart, tough, competitive team. You look at any game; you can look in the fourth quarter where the game can get out of hand, and we have players flying around competing."
Beyond competing late in games, the Falcons responded this season after lopsided losses when things could have gone downhill.
After losing three of four games, including two blowout losses to the Cowboys (43-3) and the Patriots (25-0), the Falcons went on to win two of their next three games. The second of the two wins came over the Panthers, who limited the Falcons offense to just 213 yards of total yards in their first matchup.
Responding to tough losses, and players competing late in games that are already out of reach are all things that Smith and Fontenot are excited to build on for next season. Still they know that there is significant room to grow.
In year two, they have many goals, but their biggest is to be doing their end-of-the-year press conference much later.
"For our ultimate goal, it's gotta be to win a championship," Smith said, "not playing survivor every year."
"Yeah, I agree," Fontenot added. "Without looking at scores in games or records. It's about continued development, continued improvement. And again, that's something we saw throughout the year: continued development and continued improvement. We'll see that in the offseason. It's about developing and getting better. And that's our goal. That's our challenge to continue to get better."