In all the press conferences and interviews the Atlanta Falcons new regime has done since arriving in Jan. 2021, there has been one common theme.
“We understand the team was 4-12 last year, hadn’t won in the last three years,” Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot told Robert Mays on The Athletic Football Show podcast in July 2021. “Some people outside looking in would say, ‘hey, you should strip it down and completely go through a whole rebuild.’
“If you know much about myself, and where I’m from or much about Arthur Smith and his mindset, rebuilding doesn’t make any sense.”
Doesn’t make sense? Did the Falcons sign Fontenot and Smith to one-year contracts?
“They hired the wrong guys if they thought we were going to lower expectations, take our time and rebuild,” Smith told Pro Football Talk after the 2021 draft. “That’s just not who we are. The expectation is to win now, build for the future, have plans.
But from the outside looking in, it’s become clear that the Falcons really haven’t had a plan the last 14 months. Or, at least not one plan. They have been bouncing back and forth between executing transactions that will help now versus in the future.
This remained true even at the beginning of the 2022 free agency period. Apparently in Atlanta, “rebuild” is a dirty word.
“We’re trying to have our cake and eat it too,” Fontenot said on March 1. “We want to be smart and don’t want to make decisions that will hurt us in future years, but we also want to build the best team that we can.”
But the fact of the matter remains that the Falcons didn’t have the cap space the last two seasons to build a quality contender now. On the other hand, Matt Ryan’s age prohibited the team from entering a full rebuild.
So rather than flying, the Falcons fluttered between two very different roster building strategies. Until finally, the botched Deshaun Watson situation made Fontenot pick one.
As disappointing as it is for Ryan to be done in Atlanta. As sad as it was to see the way the organization treated him this past week. And as frustrating as the trade return for Ryan was, Fontenot finally went for the strategy he couldn’t bare to utter.
The Falcons have a plan, and it’s to rebuild.
On Monday, the Falcons traded Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts for a 2022 third-round pick. The deal opened some salary cap space for the Falcons, but Spotrac reports more than $40.5 million of Ryan’s contract remains in Atlanta as dead cap money. That’s the largest dead-cap figure in NFL history.
Add in the $15.5 million that Julio Jones is still eating on the Atlanta payroll and nearly 27% of the team’s salary cap for 2022 is dedicated to two players no longer on the roster.
Fontenot and Smith can talk until they’re blue in the face, but no one is going to believe they can win in 2022 with that kind of dead cap money. The Falcons were fortunate to win seven games last season. Right now, it looks as though they will be lucky to win four contests this fall.
Honestly, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes the only way to take a step forward is to go backwards first.
It just took too long for Fontenot to make his move backwards.
He could have taken a small step backwards and drafted Justin Fields fourth overall last year. Fontenot could have had his “cake and ate it too” with Ryan trying to win in 2021, and Fields waiting on the sidelines as the future of the franchise.
Had the Falcons drafted Fields, the Ryan trade would have been far less painful Monday.
Instead, the Falcons committed to Ryan. They restructured Ryan’s contract, prolonging the team’s salary cap issues. After all, they wanted to win. Of course, they didn’t. Fortunately for Fontenot, at least No. 4 pick Kyle Pitts has become the player everyone expected.
But the commitment to Ryan last April was supposed to endure for more than a year. Not end during a year with a weak quarterback draft class.
Instead, the commitment to Ryan seemed to last until Deshaun Watson became available.
The Falcons arguably made many mistakes in their pursuit of Watson, who, despite the dismissal of his criminal charges, still faces 22 civil lawsuits alleging sexual harassment and assault. But the biggest error from Fontenot was again declining the inevitably — the Falcons had to rebuild.
Trading Ryan prior to courting Watson would not have changed his decision to go to Cleveland, but it could have improved the trade return for Ryan. Instead, Fontenot kept Ryan on the roster seemingly as a backup plan.
After failing to acquire Watson, NFL Insider Ian Rapoport implied the Falcons were backed into a corner Monday.
Ryan has not publicly stated whether he “wanted out” after the Falcons tried to replace him with Watson. But months from now, it won’t be shocking to hear that was the case.
On Twitter, Ryan’s sister-in-law refuted a report that the Falcons were communicating with the quarterback during the Watson negotiations.
It all could have been avoided had Fontenot bought into the rebuild and tried to trade Ryan sooner. Had the Falcons not been forced to deal Ryan prior to Monday’s roster bonus deadline, then maybe the compensation would have been better than a third-round pick.
Fontenot will take the blame, but Falcons owner Arthur Blank should too. Blank reportedly spearheaded the meetings to court Watson to Atlanta.
It’s water under the bridge now. The Falcons will not compete in 2022.
The franchise took as many detours as possible and made the road far too bumpy, but the Falcons have arrived at a rebuild. Now, they should embrace it, and stick to that plan.