The energy emanating from the Falcons after their third and final preseason game was different. It wasn't the typical, "Ok, it's time to get to real football," vibe most teams have right before rosters are trimmed to 53.
Oh no, it was much more of a feeling that something real is happening. What that is, we shall see. There clearly is a structure that players and coaches sensed.
No doubt, though, there are plenty of unknowns.
Even so, with players and coaches pulling in the same direction, this is quite different than the 2021 season.
The main reasons why:
There is a new quarterback in Marcus Mariota, who has replaced Matt Ryan. Also, head coach Arthur Smith's no excuses philosophy, his offensive schemes and defensive coordinator Dean Pees's relentlessness have started to take hold.
The infusion of new talent, including wideout Drake London, edge rusher Arnold Ebiketie, running back Tyler Allgeier and slot corner Dee Alford has promise to fill needed voids. The competition, which was more than coach-speak hyperbole, caused a lot of players to step up. There is depth at linebacker, running back, quarterback and in some spots in the secondary.
Things are changing. Yet they haven't totally changed.
The positive energy must be met with reality with the rival Saints coming to Atlanta Sunday.
Stack New Orleans' roster against the Falcons' roster. We can ballyhoo about Sean Payton and Drew Brees being gone (for the second season) and Brees's replacement, Jameis Winston, being a question mark. Oh, let's add that its offensive line looking shakier than it has in years and the wide-receiver room turning over.
Minus the head-coaching status, can't those same things be said about the Falcons? You could run down nearly every roster Atlanta faces the first half of the season and ask the same question.
Then look at the rosters of the Saints, Rams, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Browns, 49ers, and Bengals – the Falcons' first seven opponents.
By no means is this a condemnation of Atlanta's 53. Smith and GM Terry Fontenot have assembled a competitive group that will be better than most people think.
Again, though, look at those seven teams' rosters. Most are loaded at every position group. The Falcons offensive and defensive lines, tight end depth, wide receivers and depth in the secondary are works in progress.
The difference between Atlanta and most of the teams they will face is those teams have built their clubs over years. They had or manipulated enough salary-cap space to sign free agents like Ty Mathieu, Bobby Wagner, and Alex Cappa this season. They drafted and developed stars like Cooper Kupp, D.K. Metcalf, Nick Bosa and Joe Burrow.
The Falcons are building the foundation those teams have now. They've got the coach and GM and staff. They're good there.
Keeping it real, though. I'm someone who spends time with just about every team in the NFL and talk to people and players with most teams. A lot of the Falcons players we grew to respect and love and even hail in the preseason wouldn't make a lot of other teams' 53.
Even so, the Falcons are deeper and more talented than last season's 7-10 club.
Atlanta's players, regardless of whom, have an opportunity to prove their NFL worthiness. Some will. You see that in rookies like London, Ebiketie, Troy Andersen and Allgeier and maybe quarterback Desmond Ridder.
Vets like A.J. Terrell, Grady Jarrett, Jake Matthews, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Kyle Pitts should elevate themselves even more with an overall better supporting cast. I'll ad this too: The Falcons, for the first time in a minute, have players you'd pay to see and enjoy watching.
Which brings things back to where we started.
Smith has done a great job of assuring his players that they don't have shortcomings. This team, he has preached, is equal to if not better than their forthcoming opponents. They want to prove doubters wrong. Proving doubters wrong is real, too.
Think about all the times someone counted you out and you locked in, worked harder, proved smarter and got to ask the cynics, "How you like me now?"
That belief can carry a team and swell into something special should that belief translate to wins and progress. Belief can only carry a team so far though. At some point, when better players that believe in themselves individually and in totality, is when things really change.
Until then, the Falcons will work to make their presence felt. That, in itself, is a W.