Year 2: Terry Fontenot, Arthur Smith rebuilding the Falcons’ foundation

Credit: ArLuther Lee

Credit: ArLuther Lee

FLOWERY BRANCH — It’s Year 2 of the general manager Terry Fontenot-and-coach Arthur Smith administration, and the seriously heavy lifting has started.

The Falcons’ brain trust hit the full-reboot button in March when they traded franchise quarterback Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts.

The roster of players from the previous regime, which had fallen on hard times after reaching the Super Bowl after the 2016 regular-season and going to the playoffs after the 2017 season, has been summarily gutted.

Only a handful of key players remain from the last playoff team: Jake Matthews, Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones, who’ll start the season on injured reserve.

Fontenot and Smith have been painstakingly driven to build a collaborative operation with the hopes of turning around this franchise’s fortunes.

Will this approach work or will too many cooks spoil the broth?

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The Falcons, who open the season Sept. 11 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium versus the Saints, are positioned to play the coming season with an NFL-record $63.4 million in dead salary-cap space. The hope is to lay the foundation for a winning culture while finding out if they can revive the career of Marcus Mariota or discover if rookie Desmond Ridder is the quarterback of the future.

While wins may be hard to come by, the season will be measured by whether new foundational pillars can be constructed.

“I think it’s going to be different every year,” Smith said. “I mean, the foundation you’re trying to set – I think our guys understand that – what our core values are, and I think every year you’re going to fight this, whether you’ve got great expectations, or you’re ranked the 35th roster and coaching staff out of 32 teams, it’s staying the same.”

The Falcons know the outlook for the team is bleak. One pundit from USA Today predicted the Falcons will win two games. The over/under in Las Vegas is 4.5 wins.

With Ryan, the Falcons overachieved and won seven games against a weaker schedule last season. In 2022, Ryan’s absence, no cap space and a quarterback who hasn’t started in two seasons help to explain why the expectations are so low.

“You’ve got to prove it every year,” Smith said. “You want to keep that competition. You never want to become complacent, keep things in perspective.”

The Falcons have a measuring tool for their success beyond the win-loss column.

“The good teams improve as the year goes on,” Smith said. “Even if you come out hot, it’s a long grind. That’s the objective, to keep churning competition, to keep improving.”

Despite the team’s offseason pursuit of quarterback Deshaun Watson, Fontenot knows that the roster must be built through their collaborative approach that stresses character.

“We’re going to always focus on makeup,” Fontenot said. “We’re going to focus on character and focus on bringing in the right types of players. We have the right type of players when you look at the practices and the way players are competing.”

The Falcons were 2-1 in exhibition games and held joint practices with the Jets and Jaguars.

“We have a lot of guys that love ball,” Fontenot said. “They love to compete. So, that’s always going to be at the forefront of what we do. That’s not going to change.”

The Falcons know that there will be change throughout this season.

“We’re always going to look at a lot of things and go through – whether we’re talking about college players, pro players – we’re going to turn over every single stone that we can,” Fontenot said. “That’s going to be a part of the process. The character is always going to be at the forefront of that.”

The Falcons believe they started to establish their new brand of football last season when they were 7-2 in one-score games. They didn’t fare as well against teams with winning records and overall had a scoring deficit of 146 points, the second worst in the NFC (New York Giants were minus-158).

We want to be the smartest, toughest, most competitive team in the NFL, so the No. 1 factor is do (Falcons players) know what to do, can they take it from the meeting room onto the field,” Fontenot said. “Can they do it the way they’re being coached, and can they do it with high effort.”

The Falcons plan to continue to use all avenues at their disposal to improve the talent base on the roster. Next offseason, the Falcons are projected to have from $131 million to $136 million in salary-cap space.

We’re looking for the right 53 plus 16 (for the practice squad) at cutdown, but then we’re looking for the right 48 (game-day active players) on a weekly basis,” Fontenot said. “That’s not going to change.”

This is nothing new to Fontenot, who spent most of his career in New Orleans on the pro personnel side of things.

“It’s a fluid process,” Fontenot said. “We’re always looking to bring in competition at every single position.”

The blending of the roster always is under scrutiny.

“It’s not always easy, but I believe we have the right culture, and the guys are going to handle that,” Fontenot said. “This is a team that really loves and cares about each other.”

After cutting to 53 players, the Falcons made some waiver claims and carefully crafted their practice squad with holdovers and a few additions.

“Sometimes, it’s not a guy popping free,” Fontenot said. “Sometimes, it’s not a guy being cut. Sometimes, it’s a trade. Again, at every spot, I love our pro department, and they’re really pounding the pavement. They’re assessing these other rosters, so that’s our job to do that. It’s a fluid process throughout the whole year.”

Smith believes that he learned lessons in his first season that will help him in his second.

“I hope to change every year that I’m fortunate enough to do this,” Smith said. “I’m thankful every day. I have one of the greatest jobs in the world. I get to coach football in the National Football League. That’s not lost on me.”

Smith plans to improve as a head coach.

“I hope that every year I’m here, I get better as a coach,” Smith said. “So, certainly, going into Year 2, there are things that you learn along the way. I don’t think you ever want to as a person, no matter if I’m 80 years old, I don’t want to stop learning and growing.”

While he plans to walk through this steep salary-cap-driven valley, Smith plans to keep his head on a swivel.

“I’m always looking for ways to improve,” Smith said. “I’ve gone through a season. There are going to be surprises every day I walk in – expect the unexpected – and it certainly helps.”

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