The Falcons won’t be good. They might be intriguing

Not since 2007, the year Michael Vick was indicted, have the Falcons entered a season expected to do so little. Since then, they’ve always had a quarterback. An NFL team with a quarterback is a team with a chance. Even in 2008, Matt Ryan’s rookie season, the feeling was that they’d drafted a keeper. That they kept him for 14 years says it all.

Of the Falcons’ past 235 games, playoffs included, Ryan started 232. The Falcons were 124-108 in his starts. Most years they didn’t play much defense. Some years they had a rusty gate for an O-line. They blew many games in ways beyond belief. But they always had Ryan, so they had a shot. Now he’s gone. What’s left?

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At the position that matters most, they have something approaching a blank slate. A pro since 2015, Marcus Mariota last started a game Oct. 13, 2019. His Titans lost to Denver 16-0 that day. They lost 14-7 to Buffalo the week before. He would throw two more passes for Tennessee, which in 2015 drafted him No. 2 overall. He signed with the Raiders in March 2020. He threw a total of 30 passes over two seasons there.

It’s possible his NFL career will see a bravura second act, though with quarterbacks such turnarounds are rare. If you’re that highly regarded and you fall that far from favor, there’s a reason. On the day Ryan was traded to Indianapolis for a third-round pick, the Falcons signed Mariota for two years at $18.75 million. He’ll earn the bulk of that – $12M – only if he’s on the roster as of the fifth day of the 2023 NFL year. This is a walkaway deal if ever there was one.

And that’s OK. The Falcons need a new franchise quarterback, yes, and there’s not much chance it’s Mariota. He’s here to serve as a bridge to … somebody. If it’s Desmond Ridder, the Round 3 pick from Cincinnati who looked not awful in preseason, that’s great. If not Ridder, there’s the 2023 draft, which appears deeper in passers than the 2022 edition.

The Falcons are rebuilding, which is something they did only once – in 2008, his rookie year – with Ryan. After running out of ideas under Mike Smith, they were 8-8, 11-5 and 10-6 in their three seasons under Dan Quinn. Then the slogans stopped resonating, though it took Arthur Blank four more years to realize it. Arthur Smith had Ryan for one season and bled seven wins from a team outscored by 146 points. (Yet again: If you have a quarterback, you have a chance.)

We shouldn’t expect much from this team, which isn’t to say we shouldn’t pay attention. They have some useful young players – Kyle Pitts, A.J. Terrell, Chris Lindstrom, maybe Drake London. Smith turned Cordarrelle Patterson into a player of multiple use, though it’s unclear how much more the 31-year-old can do. Above all, there’s Smith himself.

The next slogan he utters will be his first. The Falcons have known coaches with outsize personalities – Van Brocklin, Glanville, Mora – but this Smith most resembles the other guy named Smith. That’s OK, too. Mike Smith is the best coach this franchise has known, though he worked hard not to call attention to himself. Arthur Smith might work even harder.

I like Smith as a coach. I like Terry Fontenot as a general manager. There’s your foundation. The Falcons stuck way too long with Quinn, who had three consecutive losing seasons and still held his job, albeit for only five more games. They kept trying different coordinators, but this is the NFL. The head coach is one of the two most important people in every organization. The other is the starting quarterback.

Mike Smith landed his quarterback with the first pick of his first draft. Arthur Smith wouldn’t appear to have found his yet, though Ridder at least bears watching. We’ll probably see a lot of him before this year is done. This will not be the best season in Falcons history. It could be fun, though.