Success, especially in the NFL, is a relative term. What one team considers a good season may represent a disaster for another. If the Kansas City Chiefs, for example, finish 9-8 and sneak into the playoffs as a wild card, the overriding question will be “What went wrong, exactly?”. If you’re the Houston Texans and you've played out that scenario, you’re in dreamland. Success isn’t rigid, it flows from team to team. With a day left until the Falcons kick off their 58th season, it’s not unreasonable to survey the field and try to nail down what would be a successful season for them in 2023.
A short recap for the Atlanta Falcons
A brief reminder as to how we got here. In 2016, the Atlanta Falcons caught themselves, and everyone else, by surprise. They won more games than they lost. Not only did they win more games than they lost, they put together one of the best offensive seasons of all time, and were a handful of plays away from winning their first-ever Super Bowl title. I won’t re-hash how it ended, but the Falcons, suddenly, found themselves in a window. They’d put together a good (relatively) 2017 season, falling a handful of plays short of making their NFC Championship Game against the eventual Super Bowl-winning Eagles, before the wheels fell off entirely in 2018. Injuries to just about every starter rendered their already malleable defense useless, but not even a quietly exceptional season from Matt Ryan could save the Falcons from a disappointing 7-9 record. Once everyone was healthy, though, they were gonna make another run. Right?
Wrong. The Falcons had mistakenly believed that their window was still open. And they were willing to do everything they could (extensions, contract restructures, new coordinator hirings you name it) to keep it ajar. 2019 started poorly but ended strongly enough for everyone to keep their job. 2020 started poor enough for the band-aid to be ripped off, and for the regime to change mid-season. Since 2021, the Falcons have been under the watchful eyes of Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith as their GM/HC duo. Their first two seasons? Very meh.
But for good reason. The amount of work the Falcons had done on their salary cap attempting to keep their Super Bowl window open meant they had an obscene amount of dead money owed to players long gone. They’d taken the decision to suck it up for a couple of years while the cap resets itself, and hope they play well enough across those seasons that the league's top talents take notice so that when they do have money, Atlanta is a desirable destination. They’ve finished the past two years 7-10, however, they’ve been in a playoff race both seasons. They’ve beaten some pretty good teams in that time, too. Mission, largely, accomplished.
The Falcons have been busy stockpiling their own stable of talent in that time. Taking Kyle Pitts and Drake London in the first round of back-to-back drafts might look weird considering how poor their defense has been over this stretch. What it means, however, is that the Falcons have two legitimately top receiving options for their quarterback in 2023. It also meant they could allocate the bulk of their free agency resources into adding established quality to a quality-deficient defense. See Jessie Bates III. See David Onyemata. That goes some way to explaining they felt comfortable breaking the mold by adding the top running back prospect in the 2023 draft inside the top 10. The Falcons have spent the past two years developing a run-first offense that goes against the grain in the modern NFL. That approach is how they ground out wins against the Browns and the 49ers last season. Adding an elite young prospect at that position should only strengthen said approach.
The elephant in the room, of course, is the quarterback. 2022 saw the Falcons move on from long-time signal caller, Matt Ryan, replacing him with Marcus Mariota. I’m not reopening the Mariota debate (I think you were all a bit too OTT on him, mind), but it was clear he wasn’t the man for the future. They did draft Desmond Ridder in 2022 in the third round, however, and this is where we’re at. Ridder started 4 games last season, and, as far as I’m concerned, there wasn’t enough either way for us to have a good idea of what he is. From where I was sat, he looked skittish in his first two games (where he played two pretty good defenses), but looked more comfortable in his second two (where he played mostly backups). We don’t even have any pre-season footage to pour over, because the Falcons opted to allow him exactly one drive over three games.
This is where the Atlanta Falcons will live and die in 2023, as far as I’m concerned. Is Desmond Ridder good enough to run this offense cleanly? It should be clear to us all that plans A, B, and C are likely to be a variation of “hand the ball to Bijan” or “pitch the ball to Cordarrelle”. You can’t run every down, however, and so Ridder needs to be capable of hitting one of the exceptionally talented receivers the Falcons have bedded in over the past couple of seasons. If he can complete enough intermediate passes, and a handful of deeper ones, we’re good. If his accuracy and arm are below average, we might have a problem.
Most important is understanding where you’re at in comparison to everyone else. For the past two seasons, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have won the division before the final week. Fortunately, one of the key factors behind their success has retired. Tom Brady has gone. And, with him, some of the luster and pull the Buccaneers enjoyed. They’ve seen something of an exodus, a lot due to their own cap situation. It’s more difficult to attract top talent on reasonable contracts when it’s Baker Mayfield under center.
The Saints are in their own perpetual version of cap hell and have decided the best way to navigate it is to give $150mil to a fine quarterback. It’s a bold move. Let’s see if it pays off for them. The Panthers, conversely, have begun their own rebuild. Bryce Young is their new quarterback, but have a ways to go before they’re considered one of the league's best again. Does the rookie have enough juice to energize the team enough to the top of a pretty weak division? They’ll certainly hope so. It should be pretty clear, however, that the NFC South is, again, not the strongest. You can make the case for all four of them winning it. And the Falcons, as we’ve established, have their own case.
The Falcons have had five straight losing seasons; their worst run since the 80s. We, as fans, don’t follow this team because of historic success, but we expect a bit more than losing every other week. The past two seasons have been pretty disappointing, but there’s been an understanding that the Falcons have been pretty close to their talent limit in both years. Neither roster screamed much more than 7 wins, let's be completely honest. With all that in mind, we need to see steps forward in 2023. Not just with the on-field product, but in the wins and losses columns also.
I don't think anyone is expecting the 2023 Atlanta Falcons to kick the doors of the league's elite down for them to take their place at the top. We look at the current Philadelphia Eagles as one of the best 5 in the NFL, but it took them a few years for their current form, with their current QB, to really take shape. This Falcons side has something worth watching, though. They've got some very good players, on both sides of the ball. They've got a game plan that feels unlike anything else in the NFL today. They're in a division that doesn't seem to have a runaway favorite, and they've got a schedule that should allow them to find themselves without losing touch with the post-season early on. Really, they couldn't have designed a better season if they tried.
So what would success look like for the Atlanta Falcons in 2023? 9 or 10 wins, the NFC South title, and a playoff appearance, I guess?