Might this be the time for Matt Ryan and the Falcons to part?

120521 Atlanta: Falcons head coach Arthur Smith and Matt Ryan confer during a time out against the Buccaneers in a NFL football game on Sunday, Dec 5, 2021, in Atlanta.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”`

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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120521 Atlanta: Falcons head coach Arthur Smith and Matt Ryan confer during a time out against the Buccaneers in a NFL football game on Sunday, Dec 5, 2021, in Atlanta. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”`

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The Falcons can mess up anything. Even their greatest moments become cautionary tales. (Don’t get arrested on Super Bowl Eve. Don’t waste a 25-point lead in the game itself.) This week saw them court a quarterback facing 22 lawsuits alleging sexual assault and harassment. The quarterback opted instead for the Browns, themselves no slouches in the art of mess-making.

ExploreMore AJC coverage of the Falcons

Just as we were trying to decide if rebuilding around the defendant in 22 lawsuits is an optimal operational move, the question changed: Which is worse, pursuing Deshaun Watson or losing Deshaun Watson?

Having tried to buy a new quarterback, the Falcons must smooth the presumably ruffled feathers of Matt Ryan – or must they? Having deemed him dispensable, should they trade him and ready themselves to go 2-15 and draft Bryce Young in 2023? Is Ryan so dismayed he wants out this minute? Could we Atlantans bear to see Matty Ice leave on the westward heels of Freddie Freeman? Should the Hawks buy out Trae Young and complete the hat trick of outbound icons?

As pleasantly bland as he might appear for public consumption, Ryan surely knows what’s going on – even if the Falcons haven’t quite said, “We’re pretty much done with you.” He turns 37 in May. He has a contract so oppressive, from the Falcons’ side, if not his, that he keeps restructuring it for the communal benefit. He just agreed to another redo, though a guaranteed bonus has, for possible transactional reasons, been put on hold until Tuesday.

In the interim, might Ryan find a happily-ever-after destination for himself, just as Matthew Stafford did in L.A.? Baker Mayfield reacted to the Browns’ acquisition of Watson by asking to be dealt to Indianapolis, which has everything but a quarterback. Could Ryan, a Philly guy, call the Eagles and say, “Got room for a borderline Hall of Famer?”

ExploreDeshaun Watson stiff-arms Falcons, elects to play for the Browns

Offloading Ryan would bring the Falcons some cap relief. Without landing a Watson in trade – not many quarterbacks of such eminence get traded – this team minus Ryan would be the NFC South’s worst. As is, they might be the second-best. There’s a reason every team in the division that didn’t have Tom Brady sought Watson.

There wasn’t much of a Watson market until a Houston grand jury brought no indictments. Then there was. There might even have been a moment when the Falcons thought they would prevail. (He came here to meet with them; other suitors went to Houston.) Then Cleveland met his soaring price – the Browns will pay him $230 million over five seasons and sent three Round 1 picks to the Texans – and now the Falcons’ overture appears poorly reasoned and badly executed.

Given that the grand jury didn’t press charges; given that the Falcons need a quarterback beyond Ryan; given that Watson is 26 and a three-time Pro Bowler who grew up in the shadow of Flowery Branch … given all the above, could the club have just said, “Sorry, not interested”?

Answer: Yes, it could. The Falcons made the considered decision that Watson would be worth the resulting criticism. Not saying that’s right. It is, however, how pro sports tend to work. The NFL is apt to suspend him – it said Friday its investigation into “serious allegations” is “active” – but he figures to play again soon, if not in September 2022.

From Arthur Blank last month: “Our fans should look for a succession plan. I think that’s not improper. It doesn’t show a lack of confidence in Matt, but Father Time will get to all of us.”

The Falcons have no succession plan. With Watson, they’d have had Ryan’s successor – no years of grooming necessary. With quarterbacks, though, there’s seldom a seamless transition. Joe Montana wasn’t crazy about Steve Young. Brady sulked because Bill Belichick liked Jimmy Garoppolo. Aaron Rodgers threw a fit when the Packers drafted Jordan Love.

You either have your QB of the future or you don’t. The Falcons just told us they don’t. It might be better for all concerned if they parted ways now.