Time draws near for Falcons to move on from Ryan, Jones, too

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan discusses the team’s failures against the Panthers to drop the team to 0-5 for the first time since 1997.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Admitting that your likable coach and your bright-eyed general manager are not the solution was a difficult but needed step for the Falcons. Cutting through all that sloganeering and hair product was bound to be a chore. They are good men for whom you wish nothing but good things.

But now comes the really hard part for this franchise.

Admitting that the window has closed on the firm of Ryan & Jones is the next great need, and that figures to be more shattering divorce than cold personnel decision.

To stare unblinking into the future and confess that it no longer belongs to quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Julio Jones, that will hurt. That will be like giving up on a dream. That will be like moving on from your favorite pair of jeans, the ones you wore to all your best memories, because they just don’t fit anymore.

For the 78-year-old owner who is getting a little past the time when rebuilding sounds like an exciting challenge, this will be a particularly wrenching moment. Arthur Blank coined the concept of “Falcons for life” around players such as Ryan and Jones, knowing full well that such commitment is dangerously sentimental.

His response Monday to the question of Ryan’s place moving forward was much more business-like. Maybe Blank has begun the process of letting go.

“Matt has been a franchise leader for us, a great quarterback, one of the leading quarterbacks in the last 13 years in the NFL. I hope he’s going to be part of our plans going forward. But that will be a decision I won’t make,” the owner said.

ExploreArthur Blank non-committal on Matt Ryan's future

“Matt has the ability to play at a very high level, even at this age. Whether that’s going to continue or not, I’m not sure. ... I will have to see, but again, that’s going to be a decision at the end of the day that part of it will be up to the player and part of it up to the (new) coaching staff.”

And for the fan base that banked so much on this combination, the one that almost delivered it a Super Bowl with one epic 27-yard connection late in the going in Houston before everything turned to fool’s gold, this likewise will be a painful reset. Why, if Ryan and Jones are in decline, then all of us face that same greased slope. And who wants to consider that?

But here we are. Ryan is 35. He still is as dependable as a good truck, and still capable of posting pretty numbers. Yet the bottom line is disturbing – his Falcons are 0-5 this year and 24-29 since that Super Bowl. And there come certain moments – like the closing interception against Carolina on Sunday or the inability to prolong a play or the quick out pass that is not quite as quick as it used to be – that we are reminded the time for the Falcons to begin preparing for a future without him draws near. To not do that with the most important position in sports would be irresponsible.

Oh, and look who just might be draft eligible in 2021: Not one but two home-state prodigies in Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields. This Falcons team certainly is capable of playing down to a level where they will be in play on draft day.

Jones is 31, on the other side of a pass-catcher’s best days, yet still a match-up nightmare when not out with a hamstring issue.

The Falcons' roster is in disrepair. There is a lot of ordinary to weed out on both sides of the ball. By the time the Falcons do that — while dealing with the salary-cap drag of Ryan’s and Jones' massive contracts — will either player still be able to perform at a championship level? Can either be seen as part of a long-term plan?

Hence is born the idea of a more complete tear-down and rebuild.

Jones is by far the most tradeable of the two, given his age and contract and allure to any team needing a dose of dynamism to get over the hump.

Trading Ryan would be problematic and releasing him would be madness given that his cap hit the next two seasons is around $40 million, or close to 20% of a team’s salary cap.

But it was the Falcons President and CEO Rich McKay who said Monday that there are ways around financial barriers for those smarter than the average sportswriter. “We have a lot of really good football players paid at a very high level that impacts our salary cap. That said, I’ve always believed that salary cap is something that you can maneuver around, you can work within, and you can operate within. I’m not intimidated by it,” he said.

The “Tank for Trevor” movement is bound to gain momentum in these parts as the Falcons keep losing — they wouldn’t do something silly and go on another late-season winning tear would they? Lawrence is such an intriguing generational talent that a fan can’t help but want one of those. And Fields is in that class, too.

There is notable precedence for a highly drafted hot shot co-existing with an established quarterback in the short term. As a rookie, 10th-overall pick Patrick Mahomes sat behind Alex Smith at Kansas City and has credited that apprenticeship for much of his current success.

Green Bay took Jordan Love late in the first round this year, and all that did was get Aaron Rodgers in a competitive lather that is benefitting the Packers now.

Much sooner than later the Falcons will have realized that the window for two great players on one bad team has closed. And with it, an important chapter of team history closes, too.

With that realization comes the messy, uncomfortable business of moving on.

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