Greeson: Falcons fans can be cautiously optimistic (again)

AP photo by Alex Slitz / Atlanta Falcons rookie running back Bijan Robinson signs autographs for fans at training camp on July 29 in Flowery Branch, Ga. Robinson, a first-round draft pick, is expected to be a big part of the offense with his ability to not only run the ball but contribute as a target in the passing game.

Lifelong fans of the Atlanta Falcons are forever familiar with phrases like "This has the chance to be a big year" or "This could be the turning point."

For an NFL franchise that never posted back-to-back winning seasons until Matt Ryan came to town, optimism is needed. And all too often, empty.

But, from a cynical columnist who can recall being an 8-year-old kid standing in the rolled-out bleachers of Fulton County Stadium screaming for Steve Bartkowski and William Andrews to find a way, this truly is a year of great opportunity for the Falcons.

That great opportunity is fueled by a slew of young difference makers on offense, from tight end Kyle Pitts to receiver Drake London to rookie running back Bijan Robinson, who in the preseason turned more heads than Beyoncé walking naked through Times Square.

It's an opportunity galvanized by a completely overhauled defense that has added a slew of veteran additions through free agency and trades and also re-signed some bona fide dudes. Yes, Jalen Carter would look great in the middle of this crew, but like Norman Dale told the Hickory students and fans at the season-opening pep rally, "I hope you would support who we are, not who we are not."

And all of those reasons for optimism are not as critical for the opportunity before the Falcons in real terms of playoff contention. Simply put, the NFC South is dreadful.

Which team in the division scares you?

The Carolina Panthers with a rookie quarterback?

Tampa Bay with the artist formerly known as Baker Mayfield at QB in his first year with the Buccaneers?

New Orleans with retread Derek Carr at QB in his first year with the Saints as they try to navigate out of salary-cap purgatory?

None of those three are world-beaters — and no, neither are these Falcons — but they are younger and more explosive than all of their South rivals.

And amazingly, they have the most tenured quarterback in the division in terms of connection with the staff and the franchise.

Yep, second-year pro Desmond Ridder and his four starts with the Falcons is exactly four more than all the other QB1s in the NFC South with NFC South teams. That's a good thing, and I have cautiously high hopes for Ridder, who should have been on the field much earlier than the final month of the 2022 season.

Atlanta was close in several games — the Falcons finished 7-10 (one game behind division winner Tampa Bay) but lost eight games decided by a single possession — and that was with Marcus Mariota being prominently involved for the majority of the season.

The future is bright, right? That's what Falcons fans have forever tried to convince ourselves of, and maybe this fall will be fantastic.

The reality, though, has reason for optimism either way.

If the Falcons play well, they will host at least one playoff game. The schedule is doable and ranked by as the easiest in the league this season.

If the Falcons flatline, then we will know the answer on third-year head coach Arthur Smith and Ridder, too. Which will lead us into an offseason with a bevy of college quarterbacks looking like future NFL stars.

Good times, which is what Falcons fans always want to believe.

Optimism before realism, right Birds backers?

Contact Jay Greeson at [email protected].