Who’s rebuilding? The Matt Ryan-less Falcons say, ‘Not us’

Falcons head coach Arthur Smith (left) and general manager Terry Fontenot confer during team practice at minicamp Wednesday, June 10, 2021, in Flowery Branch. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Falcons head coach Arthur Smith (left) and general manager Terry Fontenot confer during team practice at minicamp Wednesday, June 10, 2021, in Flowery Branch. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

That Matt Ryan no longer is a Falcon tells us his former team is rebuilding. Those waiting for the Falcons themselves to acknowledge as much will need to wait a bit longer. Maybe until Hades freezes over.

Said coach Arthur Smith: “We’re going to be competitive. We’re not going to say ‘rebuild.’”

Then: “Our charge is to win. I understand where we’re at. You’re constantly rebuilding in the NFL. I understand what you’re talking about. Our charge is to win.”

» Click here to watch a replay of the Falcons’ news conference

Said general manager Terry Fontenot: “We hate the word ‘rebuild.’ We just signed Casey Hayward (a free-agent cornerback). He’s not coming here to lose. These guys are excited. It’s a challenge with all the dead money. We’re going to do the best we can. Going to go out and compete. We would never say (otherwise). It’s just not fair to the players here. ‘Rebuild’ is just not something we want to say.”

Fontenot and Smith met a virtual media audience early Wednesday. On Monday, the Falcons traded Matt Ryan to Indianapolis for a Round 3 draft pick. This was their chance to explain themselves. They put on happy faces and made salient points. (These are bright men.) That they wouldn’t say the obvious – that a team trading its best player for a third-round pick is absolutely in rebuild mode – was no shock.

Teams will do anything to dance around the R-word. To fans, it’s a built-in excuse not to buy tickets until a non-rebuilding season comes along, which could take a while. To free agents, it’s a neon sign blinking “Don’t Sign Here.” Even if their chosen course might resemble a mallard, the Falcons say, “Duck? That’s no duck.”

(Though the Falcons’ new No. 1 quarterback was once, ahem, a Duck. Marcus Mariota, signed double-quick once Ryan was outbound, won the 2014 Heisman Trophy at Oregon.)

Fontenot and Smith spent much of Wednesday’s session insisting that, no matter how it seemed, their frazzled and failed pursuit of Deshaun Watson impelled them to do something they weren’t ready to do – trade Ryan. Said Smith: “Matt and I had several conversations. Matt understood that eventually there was going to be a succession process.”

Then: “We’ve always evaluated this. It wasn’t like it came out of the blue.”

Fontenot: “We had a process, and we looked into everything. From where we are and the information we had (regarding the 22 lawsuits Watson faces alleging sexual abuse and harassment), we decided to explore it. We made a collective decision to explore it.”

What began as a possible Ryan-for-Watson swap with the Texans became something else once Watson picked Cleveland. For the first time since 2008, the Falcons issued a vote of no-confidence to their No. 1 QB.

Smith: “We’re not working at the NSA. You have to understand that if you’re going to have trade discussions, they’re going to get out. You have to have a plan. And that’s why we executed the way we did.”

Fontenot: “We couldn’t have kept Matt Ryan the way his contract was. It would have been the same thing next year.”

Then: “It wasn’t a foregone conclusion. We discussed everything.”

Oh, and about that third-round pick …

During his opening remarks in Indy, Ryan came off as gracious to his former employer. (Freddie Freeman seemed less so re: the Braves.) Owing to Ryan’s contract, negotiated under a previous administration, there was no way his exit could satisfy the wishes of all parties. You’d hope the best quarterback in team annals would yield more than a Round 3 pick, but the Falcons wanted Ryan to have a new home of his choosing. Indy was that place.

Fontenot: “We’re taking it on the chin this year, but it’s going to be different next year. It was more important for us to do right by Matt than it was to get compensation for us.”

The Falcons have Mariota, who might be an OK backup. Fontenot and Smith visited Pittsburgh, home of Kenny Pickett, on Monday and Liberty University, Malik Willis’ college locale, on Tuesday. After Wednesday’s media opportunity, they headed to Oxford, Miss., to meet with Matt Corral. On Thursday, they’ll fly to Cincinnati to visit Desmond Ridder. Those are considered the four best quarterbacks of this draft class.

Fontenot: “We are going to add to the position.”

Having shed Ryan and his contract, the Falcons seek a No. 1 quarterback. They call it “adding to the position.” Just don’t call it a rebuild, OK?