Wyche: Examining foundation Arthur Smith, Terry Fontenot established in first Falcons season

There's disappointment inside the building missing the playoffs, optimism that Falcons can improve by adding to young talent base

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Real talk: No one with the Falcons is okay finishing with a losing record and out of the playoffs.

Okay, okay. So, a team that has one more game against the rival Saints to reveal whether it will have seven or eight wins (or nine or 10 losses), might have surpassed preseason expectations. Yet, bereft of elite talent as Atlanta might be, there isn't one coach or player that has ever played this game who's cool being sub.-500 and out of the playoffs – especially now with seven teams per conference earning postseason berths.

What's there to look forward to, then? Plenty.

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This column isn't going to focus on the variety of issues the team must address in the offseason to graduate to where they will be taken as a serious threat. That will come next week, when the season is complete, and the time is more appropriate to dig into the next steps.

Let's look at the foundation that has been laid by first-year head coach Arthur Smith, first-time GM Terry Fontenot, their staffs, and the players who played well enough to get all their wins against, as it currently stands, non-playoff teams.

The Falcons established a culture where competing is real. Regardless of the score, watch how this team plays late in games, at the end of quarters and halves. Effort and love of the game is not in question. That said, effort is said to be a great enough trait to get you through the muck and to the door.

That's when you need the proper amount of talent to get you inside and a seat at the grown-folks table.

All the Falcons victories this season came down to one-possession games. You can view that as them playing it too close with teams they could have beaten by larger margins, or you can compare it to 2020, when Atlanta was 2-8 in one-possession games.

The majority of outcomes in the NFL are by fewer than a touchdown, so coming out on the plus side of one-possession games can be viewed as showing enough gumption when needed to emerge victorious. The only issue is Atlanta lost seven games by double digits. Those L's came courtesy of playoff teams and the Niners, who enter the weekend in position to claim a wild card spot.

Remember, talent gets you a seat at the grown folks table and those teams that drilled the Falcons possess that in far greater abundance.

I'm interested to see if Atlanta closes the season with a valiant, to-the-wire effort against the Saints, who could get into the playoffs by beating the Falcons. There is nothing, from what I've seen, to make me believe Atlanta is going out with a whimper, especially against the Saints.

Let's look at specific players/personnel groupings that are building blocks. I won't cover everything here but hit on some key elements.

DEFENSE

CB A.J. Terrell: Duh. The second-year player has lived up to his first-round billing. He's one of the best cover corners in the NFL and was avoided by many teams in the passing game. There's also plenty of room for growth and Terrell's approach is hardly that of a player who thinks he's arrived.

LB Foye Oluokun: It was a contract year, and he earned the bread that's coming his way. The NFL's leading tackler has been the type of aggressive player that clearly enjoys every second he’s on the field.

DT Grady Jarrett: The incoming staff didn't know what they'd get from Jarrett with the scheme change to a 3-4 front. He delivered big-time and is the guy Atlanta wants to build its front around.

Rookie DLs Ade Ogundeji and Ta'Quon Graham: Both progressed and made plays that have left the staff with high hopes.

Check out the best black and white images from the Atlanta Falcons and the Buffalo Bills game during Week 17 of 2021.

OFFENSE

QB Matt Ryan: He might not reach 4,000 passing yards for the first time since 2010, but he enters Week 18 with the fewest attempts he's had since his second year and has taken a pounding this season. His leadership through this transition with the least explosive skill players he's had showed coaches he's The Guy entering 2022. He also has a dead-money cap charge of more than $40 million if they cut or trade him. So, there's that.

TE Kyle Pitts: The No. 4 overall pick turned out to be the Real Deal. His 66 catches for 1,018 yards set some franchise records. He has just one TD, though. With more help at the skill positions, that TD output should jump radically over the next two seasons.

WRs Russell Gage and Olamide Zacchaeus: They 85 catches, 1,003, six touchdowns combined. Neither is the lead dog, but they showed the type of growth and production in a lot of areas that are viewed well.

The offensive line and running backs are areas that will be addressed next week, but we can't forget to mention Mr. Do Everything Cordarelle Patterson.

The 30-year-old was the backbone of the offense in the rushing and receiving games and literally was THE explosive threat. Patterson is on a one-year deal, though. It would be hard for the Falcons, with so many other needs, to commit a big deal to him.

How many other teams would be willing him to offer him a big deal? That's the big question. The Falcons want Patterson back because he is a huge part of what they do offensively and to the culture in the building. This is a big "we'll see."

There clearly are other players that the Falcons like and believe will get better. Same with certain position groups.

Here comes the warning sticker. For as long as I have covered this league -- almost 20 years -- a lot of teams thought they had building blocks in place to take the next step. It doesn't always happen for a variety of reasons (See this year's Dolphins, Browns, Washington Football Team).

So, nothing that we've seen out of these Falcons guarantees anything for 2022.

That could turn out being a good thing.

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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.

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