Whatever you think of Falcons’ draft, it’s up to Kirk Cousins to make it work

Falcons legend Steve Bartkowski: ‘This guy’s solid as a rock’
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Kirk Cousins answers questions during his introductory press conference at the Falcons practice facility in Flowery Branch on Wednesday, March 13, 2024. (Miguel Martinez/miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Kirk Cousins answers questions during his introductory press conference at the Falcons practice facility in Flowery Branch on Wednesday, March 13, 2024. (Miguel Martinez/miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

Steve Bartkowski’s reaction to how the Falcons used their first-round draft pick probably was a little bit like yours.

“Like most NFL fans and people who track it, kind of a head scratcher,” the Falcons legend said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s one of those deals you say, ‘Wait a minute now. What’s it going to do for Kirk (Cousins) and the money you spent on him?’”

Being a charter member of the team’s Ring of Honor does not preclude Bartkowski from wondering why general manager Terry Fontenot and coach Raheem Morris used the No. 8 overall pick Thursday on quarterback Michael Penix Jr. when they had just committed a nine-figure contract to Cousins. But it may mean he’s more gracious about it than many.

“There’s a whole lot of guys in that (draft) room that are smarter than me, and they get paid a lot of money to make decisions like this,” Bartkowski continued. “I defer to them, and we’ll see how it works out.”

And that’s where the Falcons are. The reaction of fans – ranging all the way from outrage to fury – has been registered. Media members have served heaping portions of ridicule. (The opinion here is that it actually was a forward-thinking decision to secure a potential franchise quarterback – the most critical ingredient in the pursuit of a Super Bowl – when the opportunity presented itself.) (And, yes, there are at least some fans who approve of the selection.)

Now all that’s left is for the Falcons to make their bold scheme actually work. Ironically, the heaviest load will be carried by a guy who was thrust into the center of the drama without ever auditioning.

“It really depends on the guy, and the character of the guy, that has the team right now, and that’s Kirk Cousins,” Bartkowski said.

By his play and his response to Penix, Cousins will heavily shape the course of seasons to come. If he falls well below his Pro Bowl standards, or if he is unable to stay healthy, the plan for Penix to sit and learn behind Cousins while the Falcons fulfill their playoff aspirations will crumble. The pressure on Morris to play Penix will be immense.

If the Falcons miss the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season, Fontenot will be mocked for using the No. 8 pick on Penix based on his belief that the Falcons wouldn’t be drafting high enough to land a quarterback like Penix anytime soon. And not only that, but he’ll be hammered for committing $100 million guaranteed to Cousins in the first place. Really, at that point, mockery might be the least of Fontenot’s concerns.

Further, even if he plays well, Cousins can make life miserable for Penix – and by extension the team – by refusing to help him. Likewise, he can cause headaches for Fontenot and Morris by how he addresses the situation publicly.

On the other hand, if Cousins plays at his peak for at least the next two seasons, leads the Falcons to postseason success and at the same time is the mentor to Penix that Morris and Fontenot would love for him to be, he’ll have justified the Falcons’ daring decision (some would opt for another adjective) and made sizable deposits in Fontenot and Morris’ credibility accounts.

The Falcons will have steered themselves out of their playoff drought in the near term while setting themselves up for long-term success with Penix. There would be applause and mea culpas due Fontenot and Morris, and imagine the love that Falcons fans would shower upon Cousins, particularly if he were to handle the inevitable transition with humility and grace.

Those are two vastly different pictures there, both with Cousins’ signature in the corner.

Bartkowski, who spends most of the year in Montana helping run a fishing and hunting lodge with his family, doesn’t know Cousins personally but has watched him play and knows people who know him well. For what it’s worth, he also watched the Netflix documentary that featured Cousins (”Quarterback’) in which he comes off as tough, dedicated and likable.

In both aspects – his play and his relationship with Penix – Bartkowski believes in Cousins.

“This guy’s solid as a rock,” Bartkowski said. “I don’t think he’s going to let anything deter him from becoming exactly what they hired him to be, and that’s the franchise quarterback for this team for the next few years.”

And while Cousins is 35 (he’ll turn 36 in August) and coming back from a torn Achilles, Bartkowski contends he’s right for the job.

“The Falcons are loaded with playmakers; there’s no question about it,” he said. “They just need to figure out a way to get those guys the ball, and that’s what Kirk will be about.”

Bartkowski himself was in a similar boat once. In 1984, before his 10th season with the team, the Falcons signed a rookie free-agent quarterback whose name is familiar to all who follow the team closely – Dave Archer. (If you don’t follow the team closely, Archer is the team’s excellent radio analyst.) In 1985, the Falcons made Archer the starter and later waived Bartkowski, a player who practically was synonymous with the franchise.

“I thought it was a real treat to be able to download Dave Archer, and I knew he was going to end up with my job at some point,” Bartkowski said. “I knew it. But I did everything I could to try to make the franchise a winner.”

That job now falls to Cousins, who finds himself in a role he didn’t sign up for, but who has 100 million reasons to fulfill it well. Beyond that, he has the opportunity to be far more than a hired gun, but a player who can be both surpassing in his play and leadership at a point when his team direly needs both.

If he’s anything close to what Bartkowski believes he can be, this will work out quite well.