Is Falcons’ run-first, ‘positionless’ path to playoff contention finally about to pay off?

Bijan Robinson has fans and teammates excited about the future in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Alex Slitz)
Bijan Robinson has fans and teammates excited about the future in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Alex Slitz)

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The sun was nestled behind some welcome clouds, the beats of “Ruff Ryders Anthem” rolled out over the Atlanta Falcons’ practice field, and wide receiver Frank Darby was feeling it.

He and his teammates were loosening up, stretching in preparation for the day’s practice, and Darby added an array of nods, shakes, dips and thrusts to his routine. He was the ready-to-roll embodiment of a newfound vibe in Flowery Branch, eager to get going on a whole new chapter.

Everyone in the Falcons organization — from those wearing helmets to those wearing whistles to those wearing sideline lanyards — is feeling, and projecting, an unfamiliar feeling around these parts: optimism.

“We feel really good about where we are,” an exuberant GM Terry Fontenot said Wednesday. “It was a transition the last couple of years … We believe we needed to lay the right foundation and establish that winning culture and we believe we have a really competitive football team. We’re excited to be in year three.”

“Coach [Arthur] Smith and Terry Fontenot laid out a very careful, thoughtful and kind of methodical plan of what they were going to do with the roster going back several years now,” team owner Arthur Blank said earlier in the week. “I think they have been very disciplined.”

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They certainly haven’t been very victorious. Atlanta hasn’t won more than seven games in a season since 2017, the last year the team reached the postseason. That run of futility resulted in a housecleaning that ran off the last of the Falcons’ Super Bowl team, and an entire new offensive philosophy no longer based around a marquee veteran quarterback in Matt Ryan.

There are signs that the strategy is working. The Falcons are at last out from under the last of Ryan’s budget-crushing dead cap number, freeing up $40 million that wasn’t available last season. Partly out of financial necessity, and partly out of strategic maneuvering, they’ve pursued a “positionless player” philosophy — selecting players capable of lining up all over the field, in an array of offensive packages that will, in theory, prove a headache for defensive coordinators trying to figure how to counter Atlanta’s moves.

“In order to be a versatile player (on the Falcons roster),” Fontenot said, “you have to be able to get everything down, and we have to be able to trust you to go in and do whatever you need to do.”

The Falcons let leak earlier this year that they had no interest in chasing Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson despite holding plenty of cap space and draft capital. The team later used the No. 8 pick to grab dynamic Texas running back Bijan Robinson — despite already having 1,000-yard rusher Tyler Allgeier on a tidy rookie contract — establishing once and for all that it’s a run-first team.

The Falcons attempted more rushes than any team in the league last season, and compiled more yards on the ground — 159.9 per game — than any team except Chicago. Atlanta ran the ball 55.3 percent of its snaps, the highest percentage of any team not named the Bears. Chicago and Atlanta were the only teams in the league to run the ball more than half their snaps last year. With Robinson in the backfield, those rankings aren’t likely to change.

The big question mark for the Falcons is at the position that hadn’t been a problem for 15 years: quarterback. Ridder is still an untested commodity — to put it plush-pillow gently — with all of 113 attempts and two touchdowns in his entire four-game, four-start NFL career.

It's Desmond Ridder's show now in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Alex Slitz)

“One thing we saw early on with Desmond is the professional he was and the maturity at an early stage in his career last year,” Fontenot said. “That’s why we decided to play him the last four games and he showed growth every game. He showed growth and improvement every game. We saw him in critical moments: third down, fourth down, end of game, end of half. He was able to produce in those moments.” (The Falcons went 2-2 over those four games, losing the first two on the road and winning the final two at home.)

Ridder may or may not turn into Atlanta’s franchise QB, but he’ll start the season with a luxury young quarterbacks on non-playoff teams don’t often enjoy: talent all around. After tight end Kyle Pitts and wide receiver Drake London, Robinson marked the third straight offensive skill player Atlanta has taken in the first round. The Falcons’ offensive line is one of the best in the league. The run-first philosophy is designed to take pressure off Ridder and lean into the team’s strengths in the backfield and on the line.

“We’re going to have adversity,” Fontenot said, in an understatement as vast as Atlanta’s sprawling suburbs. “Failure is a part of the process … We have to believe in the mindset and the makeup and that everyone here is doing everything they can to have sustained winning, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Strong, motivating words. The best thing the Falcons may have going for them, though, isn’t roster talent but geography. Playing in the beleaguered, depleted NFC South — where the four-start Ridder is literally the longest-tenured starting quarterback in the division — presents an opportunity Atlanta wouldn’t find anywhere else in the league.

“I expect us to certainly win more games than we’ve won in the last couple of years,” Blank said. “With the talent that we have now on both sides of the ball, we’re going to end up with some pretty good results.”

Out on the practice field, Darby kept rolling. On a deep throw from Ridder, he wrestled the ball away from cornerback Cornell Armstrong with such style that the Falcons social media team highlighted it later in the afternoon.

It’s a long way to the season, and an even longer way to the playoffs. But it’s looking like the Falcons are going to run the ball all the way into January. If that ends in a playoff berth, Darby won’t be the only one dancing.

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