From Tuesday through Thursday, Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith visited the quarterbacks – Kenny Pickett, Malik Willis, Matt Corral and Desmond Ridder – deemed the class of this draft class. There’s no need to soft-pedal anything now. Ryan no longer is here to take offense at the mention of a possible successor.
During a Wednesday Zoom session, Smith and Fontenot gave reasons why they weren’t labeling this a rebuild while not denying they’re rebuilding. Which is fine. We know what they’re doing. We’ve known this was coming. This surely wasn’t how the Falcons imagined a reset taking wing, but it has left them where they need to be.
They were 7-10 in Year 1 under Fontenot/Smith. As coaches do, Smith pointed to the Falcons’ 7-2 record in one-score games as an indication his men were learning to win. That the same team was outscored by 146 points told a different tale – that a bad team kept beating other bad teams because it had a seasoned quarterback and a great kicker.
Football Outsiders ranked the 2021 Falcons the 30th-best team in a 32-team league. They beat both clubs rated below them. Their offense ranked 28th, their defense 30th. A core belief among the analytically inclined is that a team winning a disproportionate number of close games is a team due for a slide, record-wise, the next season.
Blank waited two years too long to fire Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff. Their successors inherited an expensive roster in accelerating decline. Fontenot/Smith traded Julio Jones, long seen as indispensable, to Tennessee. (Update: The Titans just released him.) Fontenot/Smith kept Ryan and his even-more-oppressive contract, but what was the alternative? Hand the job to Feleipe Franks and go 1-16 heading into a draft light on quarterbacks?
Last season was a half-measure, a chance for the new administration to establish a bit of credibility. It did. Kyle Pitts looks great. Smith turned Cordarrelle Patterson into something none of his previous four teams could have imagined. The 2021 Falcons got good value from a bad roster. For anything better to happen, the roster had to undergo a massive upgrade, which meant – apologies for sounding cold-blooded – Ryan and his contract had to go.
Two weeks ago, could anyone who works for the Falcons have imagined Ryan would be gone from Flowery Branch before Gonzaga was eliminated from the NCAA Tournament? Yet here the Falcons sit, minus their quarterback but with a clearer path forward, free to do what needs doing. Flawed though the process was, this isn’t a bad result.