With just over 12 minutes on the clock, up by 8 points, the Atlanta Falcons have the ball. They’ve managed to move at will for the vast majority of the game, and, despite their talents on the defensive line, Washington have no real answer for the offense Arthur Smith has called all day. Until now, one two drives have ended with a punt. They’re in the driver’s seat, and ready to secure the win that will take them to .500 in season for the first time since September 16th 2019. All they need to do is keep the ball moving, and keep the clock rolling.
They do neither.
Six plays later, the ball is in the hands of Taylor Heinicke, who slices apart the Falcons’ soft pass defense. They would, however, fail to convert a two-point attempt, and the Falcons regained the ball, up 2, with just under 4 minutes to go. Two fail runs and a short screen pass later, and Washington have the ball again. They score a touchdown, again. They fail on a two-point attempt, again. And with 30 seconds on the clock, the Falcons fail to put together a drive. Again.
A tradition like no other
The Falcons have been blowing leads since before I was born, that’s just who they are. It’s the fact that it happened is inevitable. It was the realization, with about 8 minutes left on the clock, as the Falcons punted the ball back to Washington up 8, that it was going to be another one of those. Aside from a Matt Ryan pick, it went almost exactly the way it always goes. And that’s what stings most about this one.
I don’t think any of us were expecting miracles in year one of the Smith/Fontenot double salvo. The heyday of this team has passed, and all that remains is the quarterback, his left tackle, a defensive tackle, and the middle linebacker. Despite the large number of losses that has occurred over the past 4 years, the Falcons have managed to, just about, hang in there. 7-9, 7-9, 4-12. An awful 3 year stint by anyone’s estimation, but the amount of losses caused by their own inability to close games out must in in the double digits. The new regime brought us hope that we’d moved past that, and then it all happened. Like the repeat broadcast to the worst episode of your favorite TV show.
Before him, Mike Smith and Dan Quinn suffered massive blown leads that ultimately defined their tenures. In the 2013 NFC Championship Game, the Falcons blew a 17 point lead to hand San Francisco a trip to the Super Bowl. Smith would oversee similar leads lost. Most notably, in their 2014 trip to London, the Falcons would lose 22-21 having been 21-0 up at halftime. For Dan Quinn, Super Bowl LI will always be the reference point for awful Falcons blown leads. But there seemed to be some awful defeat around every corner from that point forward, which ultimately resulted in his demise.
Time to change, and unearned trust
Arthur Smith is fortunate. His first blown lead was only a single score. It could happen to anyone. And it came in a regular-season game that will likely not have much consequence when the final chapter of the Falcons 2021 effort is written. What he has to do, which neither of his previous two predecessors managed, is to learn from it. Conservatism in football gets you so far. Sometimes you have to give what your opponent is giving you, and Washington gave them air yards in bunches.
A word on trust, too. Post-game, Arthur Smith commented on Mike Davis being the back tasked with picking up the yards required to hand the Falcons a valuable victory. He cited “trusting him and ball security” as the reasons why he went with the Atlanta native. The issue is that Davis has done little to earn that trust, not least in that game. Both Cordarrelle Patterson, and Wayne Gallman, contributed more to the run game than Davis, on half the carries. The Falcons run game isn’t good, so you have to go with the hot hand with the game on the line. Instead, the ball was handed to a player that ended the game with 14 yards from 13 carries.
Red (and black) Dead Redemption
If Arthur Smith is to learn anything from this week, it’s that the Falcons aren’t actually far from being a solid team. For just over three quarters, the Falcons were the noticeably better side. The offense looked sharp, despite several notable drops from key contributors. Matt Ryan looked comfortable, again, which is a testament to the improvement of the offensive line. They looked like a team that could cause teams problems. Like last week, the positives have to be magnified and focused on, if Atlanta are to win in week five. Moreso, the negatives need to be ironed out.
So what happens next? Immediately, the Falcons travel to London, to face the equally miserable New York Jets. The Jets managed their first win of the season against a Titans side missing just about every notable name outside of Derrick Henry. Nevertheless, they’re clearly a more favorable match up to who the Falcons just faced, but they cannot take them lightly. If they’re to make something of 2021, the stand at Spurs, as I hope they’ll call it, needs to yield a positive result. A victory across the pond won’t change the past, but it’ll be a nice way to put a cap on that infamous Mike Smith los. Hopefully, it’ll give Arthur Smith’s Falcons the opportunity to right the wrongs of blown leads past. The schedule is certainly set up for that.