The Falcons are profoundly disappointed they aren't still playing football. While some may have raised an eyebrow, maybe snickered under their breath at the thought of Atlanta as a playoff contender, they had a shot to make the postseason. Had things gone different late in the season, against San Francisco especially, maybe the Falcons are seeded in the NFC tournament.
Their deficiencies eventually became too much to overcome, leading toward an unwelcome slide out of the playoff picture. All that lead to a 7-10 record and an abrupt end to the year.
"We're not where we want to be," Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot said. "We don't want to be having this press conference right now. We want to be preparing for a playoff game. We're not happy that we're not playing right now, and that's going to be our charge moving forward."
Moving forward will involve an objective look back. That will require some time away. Not much time, mind you, just enough to clear heads and create separation from what just happened.
Head coach Arthur Smith prides himself on that process, never letting an emotional reaction influence a hard look at the facts. That was the case during the regular season. It will be now that it's over, when he and Fontenot take a deep dive into what has happened and what must come next.
"After anything, after anything we've done here, I think the smart thing is to go back and look at it," Smith said. "What can we do better? That's certainly got to be every year. Whether you've won the Super Bowl or not, I think you've got to be objective and see where you can evolve and adapt. It can never stay the same. It just can't. We feel like we've got a great foundation here, and we got a bright future. We'll look at every single thing we've done and see what we can do better."
The Falcons must be better in several areas, on both sides of the football. That much is clear.
Blazing a trail forward won't be done by just one man. Smith and Fontenot are committed to running things together, with decisions made as a collective.
"We'll have a collaborative effort, sitting down with Arthur and the staff and the coaches and the scouts and evaluating the season and every single player," Fontenot said. "Whether a player is under contract or not under contract, that's the start. We evaluate every player and how we want to proceed with each player. Then we start to formulate that off-season plan. So, we need to just separate a little bit so we can come in with fresh eyes and be objective and evaluate every single aspect of this year."
Smith and Fontenot working together is a relatively new thing. They didn't know each other before joining the Falcons, but the pair quickly formed a strong working relationship now entering its second year.
Both men are adamant that decisions are made together, where credit and blame falls on the collective. That isn't the case everywhere. Several teams have a vertical power structure, with a single decision maker at the top. There can also be a coaches vs. scouts mentality in some places – I've covered a team like that before – that isn't present here.
That's not how the Falcons operate, point made clear, on a micro level, by this year’s in-season roster churn. The scouting staff worked to identify players who could help the Falcons get at least one percent better. The coaches were given input in that process and were then charged with getting them ready to contribute. Sometimes it didn't work. Often times, however, it did.
"That's why it's such a collaborative effort," Smith said. "You have to have a vision. You have to be in sync. Nobody is looking here to jump in front of the parade because everything, the discussions we have daily, Terry and I and our staffs, is about the vision of building this roster to get to a championship level and to operate that way to win championships. And that's where we feel we're on the right path."
This upcoming evaluation of self will be key in a pivotal offseason where the Falcons have an opportunity to upgrade the talent base and, in turn, be more competitive than they were a year ago.
That means most anything is on the table to achieve that end. That's why Smith and Fontenot weren't making bold proclamations at their press conference – nor should they have – outside their unwavering commitments to improve the roster and to do that work together.
"There's going to be no state of the union because it's a constant evolution," Smith said. "You look at it and you never want to pass up an opportunity to improve your football team."
Falcons Final Whistle | A Postgame Podcast
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Welcome to Falcons Final Whistle – an Atlanta Falcons football postgame podcast during the season that shifts gears in the offseason to answer a pressing question about the team's future each week through free agency, the NFL Draft and the offseason program.