Terry Fontenot’s Saints work makes him good Falcons hire

Credit: NFL

Credit: NFL

It’s hard to evaluate Terry Fontenot’s ability as an NFL general manager because there’s no track record to judge. I can’t say how he will manage the salary cap, which is job No. 1 for the next Falcons GM. There are no trades or free-agent signings to evaluate. Fontenot’s NFL scouting background is on the pro side, not college, so there are no draft picks to scrutinize.

But, at the risk of ruffling some feathers among the Falcons faithful, the best case for Fontenot as the team’s next GM is that he’s worked for the Saints for nearly two decades. The Falcons, a losing organization, seek a football man from a winning organization to help change their fortunes. That Fontenot has spent his career working for their despised rivals is irrelevant.

It’s business, not personal.

AJC Falcons beat writer D. Orlando Ledbetter reports that the Falcons are set to hire Fontenot to replace Thomas Dimitroff, who was fired after the team’s 0-5 start in 2020. The Falcons can’t confirm the hire now because of league tampering rules. An announcement is expected once the Saints are finished in the playoffs. Eventually the Falcons also will hire a coach, presumably with Fontenot as part of that decision.

I don’t know that Fontenot is a better hire for the Falcons than their other finalist, Brad Holmes. I do know that the Saints have a better and longer track record of recent success than the Rams, where Holmes had worked in college scouting. The Lions hired Holmes to be their GM on Thursday.

Fontenot has been with the Saints for 16 seasons, including working in player scouting roles from 2008-20. He’s been director of pro scouting for the past six. Last year Fontenot was promoted to the executive level with a vice president/assistant GM title under Mickey Loomis.

The Saints have owned the NFC South during Fontenot’s 13 seasons in the scouting department. They have a 133-75 record and six division titles over that time, the most in the South. That’s 20 more victories and three more division crowns than the Falcons since 2008.

From 2008-20 the Saints made the playoffs eight times with an 8-6 record (and one jobbing by refs in an NFC Championship game) and won the franchise’s only Super Bowl trophy. The Saints are favored by three points over the Bucs in Sunday’s divisional playoff game in New Orleans. The Falcons qualified for the postseason five times during that period with a 4-6 record, and blew the franchise’s best chance to finally win a Super Bowl.

It’s hard for outsiders to know how much and in what ways Fontenot has contributed to the Saints’ success. That’s part of the homework for Falcons franchise owner Arthur Blank. He got it right when he hired Dimitroff as GM in 2008. But Blank got it wrong when he allowed Dimitroff and Dan Quinn too many chances to keep going all-in to win, and now Blank has losing seasons and a salary-cap mess to show for it.

Fontenot has had a close view of the Falcons’ rise and decline. His time as a New Orleans scout mirrors Dimitroff’s reign as Falcons GM. Fontenot’s pro scouting duties for a South rival mean he should have a good read on the players on the Falcons’ roster.

According to his Saints bio, Fontenot’s responsibilities as director of pro scouting include: “recommending player acquisitions by evaluating players from all professional leagues, including the Saints roster, monitoring the waiver wire and supervising the advance scouting of upcoming opponents.” The advance scouting helps Saints coaches with their game plans and builds a player-personnel file for potential future acquisitions.

The success of the advanced scouting part of Fontenot’s job is baked into the Saints’ record. The success of their pro player acquisitions can be measured by how much those players contributed to winning. No team gets every acquisition right, but the Saints have the kind of hit rate you expect from a team with four consecutive division titles.

Since Fontenot moved to scouting in 2008, the Saints have acquired four veteran players who were selected for the Pro Bowl and/or All-Pro teams while on the roster: Demario Davis, Larry Warford, Ben Grubbs and Darren Sharper. Davis and Warford hadn’t earned such an honor before joining the Saints. Sharper seemed washed up before earning his fifth Pro Bowl and second All-Pro selection at age 34.

Fontenot had some part in evaluating those players before they were Saints. As GM he’ll also oversee the evaluation of college prospects. Drafts are the best way to build a talent base because rookie-scale contracts offer a chance to get good players at below-market rates. But the shape of their salary cap means the Falcons also will have to sign bargain free agents, so Fontenot’s background should help there.

Fontenot starred as a marketing intern for the Saints before Loomis tapped him to move into scouting. Fontenot’s role expanded in 2015 when top Saints executive Ryan Pace left to become Bears GM. Fontenot interviewed for the Jets GM gig in 2019, then had VP/assistant GM added to his Saints title last year.

“There isn’t really a major shift in terms of my responsibilities because Mickey’s philosophy is kind of, before you actually get a promotion, you are already doing (the job),” Fontenot said during an August interview with the team’s website.

On his level of input in the front office, Fontenot said: “I was comfortable with my voice when I was a pro scout. I was comfortable with my voice, honestly, when I was a scouting assistant. And that’s because that’s what the culture has built. I was in Mickey’s office talking about players a long time ago.”

The Saints’ culture has been toxic in the past. The NFL suspended Loomis eight games in 2012 after it determined he didn’t shut down the “Bountygate” program as ordered by team owner Tom Benson. The Falcons have “Noisegate,” but pumping in crowd sounds doesn’t come close to the same level of shamefulness as a scheme to deliberately injure players.

Sean Payton was suspended for a season for his role in covering up the bounty plan. He’s still Saints coach. Payton taunted the Falcons with a choking gesture during a 2017 game. Fontenot should bring the winning, but leave behind the classless parts of Saints culture.

Fontenot is from Lake Charles, La., about 200 miles west of New Orleans. He attended college in New Orleans at Tulane and played safety for the football team. Fontenot told the team’s website that his father would be disappointed if he got a job for another franchise “because he’s still going to be rooting for the Saints on Sunday.”

Falcons fans are going to have to get used to pulling for a Saints guy. I’m sure they’ll get over it if Fontenot can build the Falcons to the point where they are once again better than their hated rivals.