“People only see what they are prepared to see.” So said Ralph Waldo Emerson, a 19th century essayist and poet from New England. He also said that “what lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”
The Atlanta Falcons are 1-3. For the first time in a long time, they have lost two straight games. Last night, the second loss in that string came on their home field, under the bright lights of a nationally-televised audience.
This is not the start to the season Falcons fans were prepared to see. The team went 13-3 last year, and finished approximately 10 yards away from the Super Bowl. Big-name players have returned, including the inimitable Tony Gonzalez, who was coaxed back to cleats and helmet after teetering on the brink of retirement.
So what’s wrong with the Falcons?
There has been a string of much-publicized injuries. Arguably 25% of their core defense is injured, some out for an entire season. Their noteworthy off-season acquisition of running back Stephen Jackson hasn’t paid many dividends yet, as he has spent most of his time as a Falcon on the sidelines with an injury of his own. In many ways, Roddy White’s sprained ankle is the simplest summary of what this team is right now: playing, but hobbled.
The visiting Patriots were, on paper, faring no better when they marched into the Georgia Dome last night. Their star tight ends are hurt or sitting in a jail cell under criminal indictment. Their wide receivers are young enough for me to have babysat. Their defense depends upon the fingertips of a single man. Nevertheless, well into the fourth quarter of last night’s game, they enjoyed a multi-score lead.
So what’s wrong with the Falcons?
If, like me, you made the mistake of following social media last night, the team is a grab-bag of scape goats. Matt Ryan can’t get it done. The o-line is so porous that neither a run nor a pass game can get established. The defense is largely impotent. Smitty is too weak. Smitty is too aggressive. Dirk Koetter doesn’t know how to use his weapons. Dirk Koetter should leave the play calling to Matt Ryan. Mike Nolan isn’t bringing the new guys along fast enough. Mike Nolan isn’t using the same shifting formations he tricked offenses with last year.
If, like me, you made the mistake of joining the chorus of the concerned last night, the cries echoing in your head or on your Twitter feed sounded something like this: The Falcons are in trouble.
After years of being the Cinderella story no one wanted to pay attention to, it is as if Falcons Nation has collectively decided that the glass slipper is proving to be a size too small. The Smith-Ryan era always seemed, in a way, too good to be true. It began in 2008 with the first play from the line of scrimmage ending in a touchdown pass, and it peaked last season with a series of improbable victories that made the team seem as though it had a standing appointment with destiny.
Where once we believed in the team’s indestructibility and potential for greatness, now we seem to believe that the past five years were a fluke. We seem to have decided that the past four games are the inscription for the tombstone: “Here once lay a great franchise.” We seem to have decided that we are prepared to be disappointed. And now, everywhere we look, we see nothing but disappointment.
Truth is, each of the Falcons’ losses this season were a tip or a grab or a pass away from a win. The team is a collection of yards away from an undefeated record. Each game has had to break, one way or the other, in the waning seconds of play. It just so happens that each time, the break has not been in our favor.
We are lying prostrate on the other side of the coin we were dancing on last season.
Did the Falcons look like a championship caliber team last night? No. Do the Falcons need improvement? Absolutely. Is this the doomed franchise of dog-fighting figureheads and lopsided loss columns? I don’t think so.
As I watched last night, the thing that perhaps most frustrated me is that through 3.5 quarters, the team seemed flat. Players stood silently on the sidelines. Linemen racked up penalties, sometimes back-to-back. Coach Smith did nothing more emotive than move his mic from his mouth to his ear and back to his mouth.
With six minutes left in the game, the Falcons were down by 17 points. They needed three scores – three. Television cameras panned to a half-empty stadium.
Then, the Falcons scored. Then, the Falcons recovered an onside kick. Then, the Falcons scored. Then, the Falcons stopped the Patriots on fourth down, forcing a fumble by Tom “Golden Boy” Brady.
The Falcons were within 7 points of tying the game, and the Falcons had the ball. The Falcons got into the red zone. They just couldn’t get out of it.
Which sentence do you want to focus on?
The last sentence is the one that sealed the Falcons’ loss. The six sentences before it indicate there is still magic to this team, there is still passion in its players, there is still potential in its game. There may still be destiny to contend with.
See what you will, say what you will. What lays behind the Falcons is undeniably disappointing, and what lies before the Falcons is undeniably unpredictable. But what lies within the Falcons still appears to the fighting spirit, the never-say-die attitude, the where-there’s-a-will-there’s-a-way mentality that makes this the team we love. That makes this the team we cheer for, whatever the score board tells us. That makes us Rise Up.