Two weird weeks leave the Falcons where they need to be

Two weeks ago, this correspondent posited that the Falcons – yes, the Falcons – might be the best team in their division. Alone among the four NFC South teams, they had an established quarterback. Events would, as events will, intercede.

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On March 11, a Houston grand jury declined to indict Deshaun Watson on allegations of sexual abuse and harassment. Two days later, Tom Brady unretired. The latter event meant the Falcons no longer had the division’s only real quarterback. The grand jury’s decision led them to believe they could land Watson.

The Falcons entered the offseason having expressed no urgency to shed Matt Ryan, their quarterback since 2008. Arthur Blank mentioned the need for a succession plan, but this seemed the sort of thing the owner of a team that hasn’t had a winning season over the past four says when the most expensive part of his roster is a quarterback closer to 40 than to 30. It didn’t bear the ring of a declaration of immediate intent.

The grand jury’s decision rendered Watson a de facto free agent. Within five days, he’d met with the Browns, Panthers, Saints and Falcons. It was thought he’d choose between the latter two. He picked Cleveland.

Three days later, the Falcons traded Ryan to Indianapolis. The received a Round 3 pick in this year’s draft, a return so meager general manager Terry Fontenot concedes his team didn’t much care what it got back. (The Falcons’ intent, Fontenot said, was to make Ryan happy.) That same day, the Falcons signed Marcus Mariota, a quarterback who last started an NFL game Oct. 13, 2019.

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.