Oh, poor Falcons fans, I weep for thee.
Not because of the Julio Jones trade; as we have been telling you in this space for months, that was all they were ever going to get in a $15M salary dump. Nah, the real problem is that Jones is the only meaningful – or quasi-meaningful – trade that the perpetually middling franchise has made. The problem is that Matt Ryan isn't gone, too, and it's compounded by the last three trade deadlines in which management was maleficent in its dereliction of duty to retool for the future and deal aging players on bloated contracts while they still could. So they end up dealing arguably the most impactful player in the history of the franchise and surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer for effectively what the Falcons themselves gave to Baltimore a year ago for the right to take backup tight end Hayden Hurst off their hands.
Yeah, it really is that bad.
For far too long, owner Arthur Blank and his underlings – now departed – were all in on the same sick joke; the one where they pretended that they were something other than what the roster and record dictated. They fell into the brutal wasteland of overestimating their own players based on how much they had overpaid them (Jerry Jones specializes in this), and rather than admit defeat as their Super Bowl losing team quickly unraveled and view their team the way the rest of the league did – misguided pretender – they doubled down on their veteran core and continued with a top-heavy roster lacking in depth and youthful production (particularly on defense). Deadly combination in this sport.
Thus they find themselves with a rookie head coach and a rookie general manager tasked with trading their best player, for what would never be much more than a second-round pick (and never any chance of a first-rounder despite what was being spewed elsewhere), while still having a physically-limited 36-year old quarterback bound to the club despite being in wonderful position to draft one fourth-overall (and cutting Ryan in 2022 now carries a $40M cap hit; cap management hasn't really been their thing, constantly pushing more guaranteed money into the future).
So the Falcons have no QB of the future identified. They are still carrying eye-gouging contracts like Dante Fowler ($6M of his $23M guaranteed at signing is still due in 2021), and without a young core to build around, with holes all over a leaky roster and hardly the type of competition you would like for a team that is in the process of being rebuilt, whether it wants to admit it or not.
When you give away Julio Jones so you have cap space to sign rookies (and don't get me started on the Falcons' draft record the last five years or so), yeah, you are rebuilding. But doing it half-assed, backwards, the wrong way.
You are doing it without an arsenal of additional draft picks. You are doing it while still sending mixed messages to your players and fans about what is actually going on here. You are going it without anything much else on your roster that you could hope to reap significant draft capital for. You are doing it at a time when the rampant apathy around this team in Atlanta – as evidenced by the poor attendance in that sparkling new stadium even before the pandemic set in – is becoming a real problem. Rather than see rock bottom for what it was and tearing things down to build back up, Blank chose to keep chasing hollow late season wins to try to stay around the periphery of the wild-card chase, hoping maybe the turnstiles would follow.
You can fool yourself thinking that 7-9 means maybe you aren't that far off … But when for three straight years you aren't playing truly meaningful games after October, there is a better chance you just really are that bad. Rather than acknowledge this and fire Thomas Dimitroff and Dan Quinn years ago, Blank preached patience when, sadly, it was action that was necessary.
Action with new leadership. Action with roster moves made with the long-view in mind. Action with how they spent their money, and being smart about having sufficient cap space and astute asset management.
Somehow, a team that has seemingly been chasing a quality offensive line and quality defensive line and any semblance of a pass rush for as long as I can remember is still no better equipped to prosper in any of those critical areas even now. Everything has been staccato. Nothing has been truly decisive, and even the Jones trade was further hamstrung by Atlanta's need to delay the transaction until June for cap-saving purposes.
How is any of that making them a better football team or better franchise? An already limited market for Jones was further shrunken by all of those receivers we saw receiver-hungry teams draft just a few months back. If that doesn't scream rebuild, nothing does … But Jones is the only guy gone. What amounts to an extra pick, say, somewhere around No. 50, along with a fourth-rounder in 2023, is all they have to show for the future at a time when franchises like the Browns, Dolphins, Jets and Eagles have managed to load up on extra picks along the way as they tried to reposition for the future.
Newsflash: The Falcons are not winning a Super Bowl with Ryan, just like they didn't with Jones. And like Jones, whenever that quarterback moves on he will fetch little, if anything, in return.
In this league, you are far better off being really good, or really bad. Stuck in the middle is no place to be, but the Falcons might have enough talent to scratch out another seven wins next year, find themselves drafting in the teens and needing to trade away draft picks to move up and try to finally land a quarterback. That would be so Falcon.
It would be totally backward after having their pick of several talented passers a few months back, all while they were peddling Jones. It would seem out of sync, desperate, and reactionary. It would seem at least a year too late. And it would be perfectly fitting, considering who would be doing it.