The Falcons are close to critical territory after just four weeks. This isn't about wins or losses, either. This is about playing games that matter as the season progresses.
Don't think team owner Arthur Blank, management and the coaching staff were naïve to the fact that building a proper roster and being competitive wasn't going to be a potentially teeth-gnashing process.
What must be tough for those in charge, though, is that sustained synergy of progress hasn't materialized yet. Neither has an I-would-pay-to-see-that playmaker.
Who's That Dude for the Falcons? Cordarrelle Patterson. Absolutely. Is he a long-term building block, though? Rookie tight end Kyle Pitts has teased. And there was little chance he would immediately meet the other-worldly expectations fans were hoping he would meet. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett has been Grady Jarrett. They need more to emerge than just those three.
So far, this team appears to be a sum of its parts, and those parts have only played well together for parts of one game -- the win against the Giants. Tampa was an 'A-for-Effort' outing, but the two-pick sixes thrown by Matt Ryan were a painful way to fade down the stretch. The Giants win was a sign of tempered progress.
Oh, there is hope. There are 10 teams with 1-3 records like Atlanta and the Lions and Jaguars, are winless. There are 13 games left, no one is running away with the NFC South and, well, all the other reasons you can come up with to not cancel out belief.
The Falcons can even pull to within one game of on-paper mediocrity if they beat the 1-3 Jets Sunday in London. It would be a lot better than losing and having a long flight home wondering how in the world they found a different way of losing. Miami, which seems to have no course charted for how it is playing, is up next after the bye for Atlanta to possibly pull to .500.
Could that propel confidence to rip off wins against the Panthers, Saints, Cowboys and Patriots before facing Jacksonville?
This likely will be a season of fits and starts, like it has been. That shouldn't surprise anyone. Arthur Smith is a new coach and every one except that Chargers' Brandon Staley (3-1) is going through it right now. Dan Campbell (Lions) and Urban Meyer (Jags) are winless. Robert Saleh (Jets), Nick Sirianni (Eagles) and David Culley (Texans) are with Smith in the 1-Dub Club.
The Jets and Jags have rookie quarterbacks to build around. The Texans have some good talent along the offensive line and an exiled quarterback that should bring them some quality draft picks over the next few seasons. The Eagles have a defensive front, quarterback and wideouts as units that could emerge as anchors.
That leaves the Falcons with the Lions trying to answer: what is the backbone of their on-field product?
Smith said during training camp that his key mission is to develop players while trying to be competitive. That's a lot harder done than said. Weekly, coaches study opponents' film, their own teams' practice film then game plan. Players try to heal their battered bodies, while also practicing and participating in community-based initiatives.
Getting both to commit extra reps to learn their schemes, techniques, hand signals, on-ball checks and tempos – while prepping for opponents is not easy. It's why so many coaches freak out each year about the lack of offseason practice time they get with players.
It must happen with the Falcons, though. If they keep having receivers and defensive backs drop passes, or have linebackers take pursuit angles that leave gaping holes should a lead tackler miss, or have receivers get the yips when they go across the middle, then coaches and players have failed.
Coaches must coach guys up or have players behind them ready to seize opportunities. Players have to work harder mentally and physically to be better, whether they're starters or backups. It can happen. There is a reason the Rams, Seahawks, Buccaneers Patriots, Chiefs and Packers routinely get better as seasons go along.
Each week should be filled with challenges for the Falcons, so, when things matter most, they've done what needs to be done to actually matter.
Falcons Final Whistle | A Postgame Podcast
Break down the hottest topics surrounding the Atlanta Falcons and how they can impact the team's success with Atlanta Falcons Insiders Scott Bair, Tori McElhaney and Kris Rhim. Like and subscribe to join us for the lively debate on Falcons Final Whistle.
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.