This draft tells us the Falcons believe they’ll win again soon
Florida tight end Kyle Pitts (84) makes a touchdown catch against Alabama defensive back Brian Branch (14) during the second half of the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
The Falcons have declared their intentions. They’re rebuilding – a team that goes 18-30 over three seasons can’t really stand pat – but they’re not Rebuilding with a capital “R.” They don’t plan on jettisoning assets in the hope of loading up in the 2022 draft. They hope to be in the playoffs come January. They believe their quarterback remains a franchise quarterback.
Here’s the part the under-new-management Falcons won’t say out loud: The team that Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith inherited should never have become a comical loser. Under the previous administration, this club was poorly managed – did anyone truly believe Devonta Freeman should be the NFL’s highest-salaried running back? – and obscenely under-coached. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the new brain trust has to feel it can make more of what’s on hand. It would be impossible to make less.
The Falcons’ new head coach is a former offensive coordinator. That’s a big deal. No Falcon – not even Matt Ryan, here since 2008 – has worked under an offensive-minded HC while based in Flowery Branch. Of the first four head coaches hired by Arthur Blank, only Bobby Petrino’s background was in offense, and he split for the Ozarks after the quarterback he was hired to tutor landed in prison. This time, though, Blank turned to an offensive man to coach up what Dan Quinn coached down.
Smith arrived with fresh eyes, which – after six years of the Falcons pursuing DQ Guys at DQ’s ongoing request – were both wanted and needed. With Tennessee, Smith turned the journeyman Ryan Tannehill into the league’s leading passer. Ryan has worked under four – or five, depending on how you count Dirk Koetter’s separate stints – offensive coordinators. The best of those was Kyle Shanahan, who made Ryan into the NFL’s MVP.
The toughest moment for a new coach is in telling his new employer what he thinks of the talent on hand. If Smith had said, “I can’t win with Matt Ryan,” this draft would have looked rather different. That the Falcons spent their highest pick in 13 years on a tight end who could re-energize an incumbent quarterback tells us Smith said: “Matt Ryan’s not the problem.”
Maybe you disagree. Ryan wasn’t great in 2020, not that anyone among Falcons was. He finished 21st in passer rating, 18th in yards per pass. (He ranked first in both in 2016, his MVP season.) He’ll turn 36 this month. Maybe you believe that, with the No. 4 pick, the Falcons should have implemented a QB succession plan and drafted Justin Fields or Mac Jones. But succession plans don’t always run to script, and they almost always tick off the incumbent.
Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter
Brett Favre wasn’t thrilled when Green Bay took Aaron Rodgers, who himself was – and remains – displeased that the Packers chose Jordan Love. New England thought it had Tom Brady’s successor in Jimmy Garoppolo, but Patriots owner Bob Kraft wound up ordering Bill Belichick to dump Jimmy G., who was traded to San Francisco in 2018 and played in a Super Bowl in February 2020. On Thursday, the 49ers drafted Trey Lance No. 3 overall. Lance is a quarterback. And so it goes.
That the Falcons didn’t take a quarterback even on the draft’s second day is proof of their faith in Ryan. (They did sign A.J. McCarron on Friday. They had to find somebody. As of Thursday night, Ryan was the only quarterback on the roster.) If you’re not changing quarterbacks, you’re not really rebuilding. The rest of the draft played out as most drafts do. The Falcons took a defensive back in Round 2, an offensive lineman in Round 3, another DB and another lineman near the top of Round 4. They filled what they saw as their biggest need, which was, in time-honored Falcons fashion, to outfit Ryan with yet another prime-time receiver.
Maybe you’re not crazy about the Kyle Pitts pick. I understand your objections, but with all due respect, I don’t care to hear them. I don’t imagine Fontenot and Smith do, either. They were hired to do a job. This is how they’ve chosen to do it. If it doesn’t work, they’ll get fired. If it does work, we’ll name streets after them.
Said general manager Fontenot, speaking Friday: “This is our draft, right? This is our draft. This is our process. A lot of people put a lot of work into this. … As we talk through these players, there’s a very clear vision for what we want them to be here.”
There was a vision under Quinn, but it got blurred with all the blown leads and bromides. This correspondent has long insisted that there was no reason the Falcons should have gotten and stayed that bad. By sticking with Ryan and drafting a tight end the likes of whom no NFL quarterback has ever had, Fontenot and Smith just seconded, as the great song goes, that emotion.