Arthur Blank: Falcons needed a long-term plan at quarterback

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan gives owner Arthur Blank a hug before playing the Saints in a NFL football game on Thursday, December 7, 2017, in Atlanta.  Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

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Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan gives owner Arthur Blank a hug before playing the Saints in a NFL football game on Thursday, December 7, 2017, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

PALM BEACH, Fla. – The pursuit of Deshaun Watson and the subsequent trade of Matt Ryan has reverberated along the foundation of the football team owned by Arthur Blank.

Now, the Falcons, who’ve experienced relative success under Blank, are on a course that needs a massive rebuild.

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“So, you know, I think directionally we knew what we had to do,” Falcons owner Arthur Blank said in-person at the NFL owners meeting Tuesday. “It has nothing to do with how much we appreciate or love Matt, which we do both. But you know, there has to be a long-term plan.”

Ryan, the only player in Falcons history to win the league MVP and only the second quarterback to lead the franchise to the Super Bowl, was unceremoniously traded to the Indianapolis Colts for a third-round draft pick March 21.

The Falcons issued statements after the trade, but this was the first time Blank answered questions about the transformative move.

“We have to get ready for the next 14-15 years,” Blank said. “And that’s what our fans really should expect us to do. It shouldn’t be a fire drill when we have that transition to make. So, we’re trying to prepare for that as best we can.”

In addition to the third-round pick, the Falcons cleared salary-cap space in the future that should them rebuild. But the immediate future is bleak as the team must play the 2022 season with more than $62 million in dead space under the league’s $208.2 million salary cap.

“Next year we should be in a position where there’ll be the biggest cap space that we’ve had since I’ve owned the team over 21 years,” Blank said. “It’ll be something north of $100 million to $110 million. So, we’ll have an opportunity to extend our own players and be more active in free agency than we were this year.”

Coming off Super Bowl LI and a failed playoff appearance the next season in 2017, the Falcons signed Ryan to a six-year, $150 million contract. The Colts assumed the final two years of the salaried portion of the contract, but the Falcons had to take on the accelerated salary-cap hit from the bonuses Ryan was paid before the trade.

The total dead-cap hit for Ryan was $40.5 million.

Because the Falcons invested so heavily in Ryan, they were not able to keep some of their free agents. Coupled with poor drafting and bad free-agency moves, the Falcons have had four consecutive losing seasons and finished in last place in the NFC South in 2020 and in third place last season.

“This is not like golf, where you are playing by yourself,” Blank said. “I mean it’s a team sport. So, you’ve got to have enough cap room to be able to sign your own players.”

The Falcons lost bidding wars for linebacker Foye Olukun, who led the league in tackles last season, and dependable wide receiver Russell Gage this offseason. You knew things where bad when they couldn’t retain their Pro Bowl long snapper and 10-year veteran Josh Harris.

“It hurt me a lot when we had to let (DeVondre) Campbell go a couple years ago,” Blank said. “He was a (All-Pro) player. It hurt me a lot currently when we had to let Foye go.”

The Falcons have tried to create a family atmosphere where loyalty is rewarded.

“It’s like having children and when they get to be five years old, you have to say goodbye to them,” Blank said. “Well, you don’t really want to do that. You want to be able to be in position where you want to extend your own players where you can.”

Eventually, the Falcons decided to get out from under Ryan’s contract.

“Our commitment to Matt financially, contract-wise was so significant that it was becoming really impossible to do that,” Blank said. “At some, point given his age and given the nature of the sport he plays, we felt we had to get ready for another version of Matt Ryan for another 14-15 years.”

Other teams have managed the cap better and sustained their winning rosters mostly by drafting well and making good free-agency signings. The Falcons had to get a salary reduction from Dante Fowler one year into a three-year, $45 million deal. He was cut two years after that bungled free-agency signing.

“When you look at this year, Matt would (have been about) 23% of our cap,” Blank said. “Going into next year, even if you project the growth to the cap significantly, you’d probably be at 20% or higher. So, in the last 20 years, there’s never been one quarterback that’s played in the Super Bowl that has been more than 12% of team’s cap. There is one exception. Peyton (Manning) was like 17%, and that was 2009.”

The Falcons were not able to protect Ryan, who was sacked at least 40 times in each of the past four seasons. The weapons around Ryan also had diminished.

“You have to surround your quarterback,” Blank said. “It’s a quarterback-driven league. I get it. I know it. I understand it. Our fans know it, but you’ve got to surround him with other talented (players).”

With Ryan set to turn 37 in May, the Falcons decided it was time to invoke their succession plan at quarterback. After trading Ryan, they signed Marcus Mariota, who’s 28 and has been a backup the past two seasons with the Raiders.

Mariota was drafted No. 2 overall in 2015 and had a 29-32 record as a starter with the Titans before he was benched during the 2019 season. The Falcons are heavily scouting the quarterback class in the coming draft, which is set for April 28-30 in Las Vegas.

Ryan’s age, the lack of weapons and the poor offensive line play, were factors in the decision to pursue Watson and then trade Ryan.

“The older quarterbacks play much better when they’re vertical as opposed to horizontal (after being sacked),” Blank said. “It doesn’t make a difference who they are. (They must) be able to have receivers and running backs and other tools on offense. You (must) have a competitive defense, too.”

Blank noted that Falcons couldn’t control games and were apt to blow big leads. They also have had trouble running out the clock when they did attain leads.

“If the only thing you can do is pass the ball, that’s really not a good position to be in because you could be in a three-and-out in a minute and a half,” Blank said. “So, the other team is back on the field.”

The Ryan deal was tough for Blank.

“From a personal standpoint, it was sad,” Blank said. “It was a very difficult thing. I’ve known Matt, it seems like since he was a child. I remember having dinner with him and half a dozen of our coaches and evaluators in Boston. ... He’s represented our franchise as well as you could possibly hope for both on the field and off the field for 14 years.”

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