They began 2020 knowing they wouldn’t be a playoff team. Their record is 4-9, the same as the Falcons’. Indeed, it was the Oct. 11 loss to rebuilding Carolina that finally moved Arthur Blank to cut bait with Quinn. On that day, it was clear which team was better prepared and had a greater idea of how it needed to play, and it wasn’t the club that went to camp with 17 Round 1 draftees on its roster.
Even without Christian McCaffery, Carolina outgained the Falcons (who were without Julio Jones) by 63 yards. The Panthers took the lead six minutes into the second quarter and never let it slip. The final score — 23-16 — flattered the Falcons, who didn’t manage a touchdown after their opening drive and kicked a field goal with four seconds remaining. Even in the nascent stages of a rebuild, Carolina looked as if it knew what it was doing. The Falcons haven’t known what they were doing since the score was 28-3.
The Panthers are working under a new owner, David Tepper having bought the club from the disgraced Jerry Richardson in 2018. Their GM is Marty Hurney, serving his second stint in that position. Carolina’s key man is Rhule, who had spent only one year – he was the Giants’ offensive line coach in 2012 – in the NFL before taking this job.
Tepper had said he sought “the right mix of old-school discipline and toughness with modern and innovative processes.” That described Rhule, who brought a vision that allowed the Panthers to move beyond the greatest player in their history. The Panthers drafted Newton No. 1 overall in 2011. He was 30 the day they released him. It would have been tough for Ron Rivera, who arrived in lockstep with Newton, to bid adieu to the quarterback who took him to the Super Bowl, but Rivera was fired last December, clearing the deck for a new man with a new plan.
The Falcons have a similar opportunity, though it will be more difficult for them to part with Matt Ryan. Newton was on the final year of his contract; his release cost the Panthers $2.1 million against the salary cap. Ryan’s cap charge for 2021 is $40.9 million. Jones’ is $23 million. Not many, if any, teams would be willing to trade for either. Ryan is 35 and having one of his worst seasons; Jones is 31 and cannot stay healthy.
Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) and quarterback Matt Ryan (2) talk during an NFL football training camp practice Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020, in Flowery Branch. (John Bazemore/AP)
Credit: John Bazemore
Credit: John Bazemore
Here we see the cost of keeping Quinn and Dimitroff in place for so long. Ryan and Jones took Quinn to the Super Bowl. The drafting of Ryan and Jones were the greatest moves of Dimitroff’s tenure. Rich McKay has worked for Blank since December 2003. Is there anyone in this organization who could persuade this owner to tear everything up and start again?
NFL teams don’t usually tank. The draft and a hard cap and widespread free agency offer annual opportunities to get better in a hurry. Trouble is, the Falcons are close to capped out. McKay insists that workarounds exist, but the bigger issue is this: Where the presence of Ryan and Jones once represented a lure to coaching candidates, their ages and the money they’re owed could well be a deterrent. Can you rebuild around a quarterback who’ll be 36 and a wideout who’ll be 32 come Week 1 of the 2021 season? Can you talk Blank into moving one/both?
The Falcons have long seen themselves as a playoff-level team. The cold truth is that they’ve had two winning seasons over the past eight. They’re 57-68 since 2012. The Super Bowl season was the exception, not the rule. They went 7-9 last season and kept Quinn, and then they added Todd Gurley and Dante Fowler and Hayden Hurst and A.J. Terrell. They’ll have to win out to get to 7-9 again.
To borrow from Inspector Harry Callahan, a man’s got to know his limitations. So does a team. The Falcons haven’t been good for a while. If they were going to win a Super Bowl with Ryan and Jones, they would have by now. They came close once; they haven’t been close since. They need a restart. The question: Will Blank allow one?