New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) passes against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017. 
Photo: John Spink/AJC/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Photo: John Spink/AJC/JSPINK@AJC.COM

The NFC South has changed. Where does that leave the Falcons?

We awoke Wednesday to a new NFC South. Carolina appears to have a new quarterback. His name’s Teddy Bridgewater. Tampa Bay has a new quarterback. His name’s … well, you know. New Orleans still has Drew Brees. (And Taysom Hill, the NFL’s most intriguing player by some distance.) The Falcons still have Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, but here’s who they no longer have: 

Devonta FreemanAustin HooperDesmond Trufant and Vic Beasley

Three of those started in Super Bowl 51. (Trufant was lost in a November 2016 victory at Tampa Bay.) Two of them scored touchdowns. All made a Pro Bowl. 

As we know, the Falcons are coming off consecutive losing seasons. If you’re of the glass-half-full ilk, as everyone who works in Flowery Branch apparently is, they’re also coming off consecutive second-place NFC South finishes. (Never mind that they finished six games out of first both times.) Mounting evidence to the contrary, they still view themselves as a playoff team. But in an offseason when they were forced by the salary cap to cut back, haven’t they lost ground in division that just welcomed Tom Brady? 

As mentioned yesterday, I don’t believe he’s the Brady of Super Bowl 51. Can he make Tampa Bay better? He can, yes. Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate are better than the receivers he had in New England. But Bruce Arians’ offenses, as Bill Barnwell of ESPN notes, have historically traveled on the long ball. Brady hasn’t thrown long lately. As much as Jameis Winston was vilified for his 30 interceptions (seven of them Pick-6s) last season, he led the NFL in passing yards. 

Are the Buccaneers ready to play pitch-and-putt? Given that they’ve believed to be spending $30 million on Brady, the answer’s surely yes. Given that he’ll be 43 in August, this is the utter definition of a Win Now move. Are the Bucs ready to accommodate? 

Tampa Bay hasn’t made the playoffs since 2007. It hasn’t won a playoff game since Super Bowl 37, which was played Jan. 26, 2003. It has had one winning season since 2010. The Bucs have had six head coaches over the past 11 seasons, one of those being Raheem Morris, who has had approximately six different jobs as a Falcons assistant and could be the next head coach here. They yielded 449 points last season, fourth-most among NFL teams. They finished 24th in rushing yards. 

Will Brady’s game-managerial skills be enough to elevate a 7-9 team? Is it realistic to expect TB with TB to overhaul NO with Brees/Hill? The Saints are 37-11 over the past three regular seasons, having won the NFC South every year since the Falcons’ Super Bowl run. New Orleans has had some awful playoff luck — the Minnesota miracle, the no-PI against the Rams, an overtime loss to Kirk Cousins — but it remains the team to beat in this division, especially seeing as how nobody else has broken .500 since 2017. 

Quarterback Cam Newton (1) has been informed by Carolina to find a new home.
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

Carolina is intriguing. It just told franchise icon Cam Newton he’s free to seek a trade, which prompted him to say he isn’t seeking a trade. The belief last season, which lasted but two games for the guy from Westlake High, was that the indestructible Cam was physically broken. The Panthers spent $63 million to buy Bridgewater, who just went 5-0 as an emergency Saints starter. 

In Charlotte, there’s a newish owner, a new general manager, a new head coach (Matt Ruhle, fresh off Baylor’s Sugar Bowl loss to Georgia) and a new offensive coordinator in Joe Brady, who helped guide Joe Burrow to the greatest season by any college quarterback. It’s hard to imagine even a healthy Newton fitting into Brady’s schemes — for good measure, the Panthers also shed tight end Greg Olsen — and the commitment to Bridgewater means the incumbent is all but gone. There’s no way Newton could ever be happy, or silent, as a backup. This team is starting over. It’s not in it to win now, but it could win soon. 

Which brings us to the Falcons, who, apart from the periodic redeployment of Morris, remain mostly intact as an administration. As a team, they’ve changed a lot. Hooper is gone. Mohamed Sanu was traded in October to New England, where he got hurt and did nothing much. Beasley signed with Tennessee, his 15-1/2 sacks of 2016 a distant memory. (Now watch Mike Vrabel turn him into Von Miller.) Trufant was cut, which makes sense. His cap number was $15.1 million. Freeman was never the same after Kyle Shanahan left, which the Falcons should have expected but did not, making him the NFL’s highest-paid back in the summer of 2017. 

On Wednesday they added Dante Fowler, a pass rusher. The third overall pick in the 2015, he has 27 ½ sacks over four NFL seasons. They’re paying him $48 million over three years, which sounds like a lot and is. They’ve also acquired Hayden Hurst, a tight end whom Baltimore made its Round 1 pick in 2018 but had already deemed surplus to requirements.

So maybe this constitutes upside. At issue is how much upside the Falcons retain as a team. Is it reasonable to expect Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Alex Mack — all on the high side of 30 — to do more than they’ve done? Having trimmed so many big names, is this organization now closer to rebuilding Carolina than to going-for-it Tampa Bay? 

The Falcons believe that #continuity — at least when it comes to the GM and head coach — will reap rewards. I’m not sure anybody else in the NFL views them through such rosy lenses. This has been a .500 team since the Super Bowl. It keeps finishing second in the NFC South, but this has been, apart from the Saints, a bad division. (The Falcons are 8-4 in division play the past two seasons; they’re 6-14 against everybody else.) 

The other three NFC South teams appear to know what they’re trying to do. The Falcons seem stuck in between. They’re retooling without quite rebuilding. Maybe it will work. Maybe, I said.

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About the Author

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.
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