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The Falcons can’t and won’t start over in 2020

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The Falcons tried to go all-in on 2019, and that will cost them for years to come. That doesn’t mean a teardown is in the offing.

Minnesota Vikings v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

In a last-ditch effort to get bigger and tougher on the lines of scrimmage, the Falcons sank an enormous amount of money and draft capital into the offensive line and prioritized upgrades at defensive tackle. The idea, simply put, was to quell concerns that the team was too light, too finesse, and not strong enough to push others around. An offseason of hype followed, but when the games arrived, things did not go as planned.

That was 2014. All the team’s moves that year backfired, more or less, with only Jake Matthews, Devonta Freeman, and Ricardo Allen proving to be long-term impact players from that offseason’s flurry of moves. The sunk draft capital hurt—the Falcons put four picks into linebacker and came away with zero starters and only one multi-year roster holdover, and Ra’Shede Hageman didn’t quite pan out—but the dead cap and lost opportunity were the real problems.

With a new regime coming into town in 2015, Dan Quinn and company were saddled with players and contracts they clearly did not want. Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai combined for over $16 million in dead money, making them uncuttable. Jon Asamoah, who the team tried to swap for a better scheme fit in Andy Levitre before an injury torpedoed that plans and forced an injury settlement, spent just a year in Atlanta but stayed on the books. The team’s long-term deal for Sam Baker, which came after his long great season in Atlanta, wound up costing them $6.4 million in 2016, alongside another $3.9 million for Asamoah and $1.4 million for Soliai that year. In 2017, they were still carrying a combined $4.4 million in dead money for Soliai and T-Jax, the latter of whom was finally released.

The last, desperate spending splurge for a coaching staff on thin ice wound up having real impacts on the team’s cap for years to come, and limiting in a small but appreciable way what the Falcons could do under a new regime.

The ghosts of 2014 and the ghosts of Falcons future

Despite that very recent and very real history lesson, the Falcons have done it to themselves again. Jamon Brown has been solid enough to go into a starter’s role next year, but if the next coaching staff doesn’t care for him, his $8.1 million in dead money for 2020 makes him uncuttable. James Carpenter, who the team seems almost certain to move on from given his so-so 2020, carries a hit of $4.1 million. Brown and Carpenter will represent north of $3.5 million in 2021 dead money, too, if neither are here. That’s not crippling and the team isn’t currently slated to have any other lost contracts still impacting the books that year, but it is still aggravating given how unnecessary making both those moves were for a team apparently planning to draft Chris Lindstrom. With Wes Schweitzer hitting free agency and Lindstrom ready to step into a starting role, it sure would be nice not to worry about being saddled with money for at least one guard the team will be looking to move on from, but that’s a pipe dream at this point.

Where am I going with all this, you may wonder? Simply this: The Falcons have set themselves up to exist in a sort of no man’s land for the next year or two unless the new regime proves to be brilliant at drafting and their incumbent players bounce back in a major way. They’re saddled with huge contracts at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, soon-to-be tight end, left tackle, center (though not for much longer), defensive tackle, linebacker, cornerback, and soon-to-be safety, if they re-up Keanu Neal. If this year proves to be a miserable blip on the radar for most of those guys, the Falcons will probably return to contention sooner than later. But in their efforts to win right now and during the final years of Ryan’s prime, they’ve removed their flexibility at a time where the holes on defense suddenly look crippling again.

Where does Atlanta go from here?

Those weighty contracts pair with an owner who is clearly getting impatient for success. I can’t prove to you that Arthur Blank and perhaps Rich McKay drove the offensive line focus at the expense of everything else, or that the team that was content to sign Blair Walsh suddenly reversed course and re-signed Matt Bryant because the owner saw fans freaking out and demanded action, but I strongly suspect that both of those things did indeed happen.

Blank is never going to be on board with trading his franchise quarterback away, nor Julio Jones, and their dead money hits make that untenable in the first place. A full-scale rebuild that could take 2-5 years to complete—especially one with no guaranteed chance of success—is not something he’s ever been interested in, and he’s certainly not going to be interested in it now. This Falcons team has Ryan, Julio, Jarrett, Debo, Ridley, Hooper (soon), and a partially rebuilt offensive line, plus some legitimately interesting young defenders who are starting to find their footing as the season slips away. Blank is not going to be interested in hearing that team can’t emerge from their 2019 morass and at least be competitive next year, especially if and when he installs a new, shiny staff. Frankly, I don’t think he’s wrong to think that, because guys who were good-to-great just a year or two ago didn’t suddenly forget to play football.

But the margin of error is thin, and will remain thin. The Falcons were careful in 2017 and 2018 to keep spending in free agency reasonable because they were banking on keeping their own guys and nailing their draft picks. As the picks have stopped delivering and the cap space has tightened—and the team spent more freely in 2019—they’ve ensured there’s no big pot of cap space coming. If this team has truly fallen off because of talent this year, there’s no way they’re going to be able to dig out of this little hell until contracts start coming off the books, likely in 2021.

The Falcons have failed to learn that short-term thinking has long-term consequences, with 2014 and 2019 offering eerie echos of the same lesson. Whether the Falcons can thread the needle and actually contend in the next couple of years will depend heavily on getting the right staff in the door, and whether the stars on this team can be the stars they’re supposed to be.