The Falcons have a style and a core philosophy under Dan Quinn, one that the front office and even ownership appear to have been on board with these past few years. That philosophy, boiled down to a mash, is that you should build your football team around your stars and your drafting capabilities, free agents should be either home runs or bricks and mortar around the very edges of the roster, and that when push comes to shove you should always bet on the men you’ve assembled on your roster to do the job they need to do.
This is not a philosophy that should be lightly tossed aside, as it got the Falcons a Super Bowl berth in 2016, a very good if frustrating team in 2017 that nearly went to the NFC Conference Championship, and if nothing else several great players. Teams like the Patriots, Steelers, and Packers have followed a similar philosophy over the years and have much to show for it.
But the 2018 season, marred as it was by injuries and sharp declines by several key veterans, showed the limitations of that approach. There will be times when you have to make deep, painful cuts to the roster and bring in outside help to affect change, and the team did not do that. Instead, they largely held on for dear life, won their final three games, and saw enough
Yet the Falcons are heading into 2019 with a very clear plan that is very clearly worrisome to fans: Bet on the talent and their own people again. They’ve made no move to cut ties with Ryan Schraeder, a hellaciously expensive backup right tackle if they don’t move him or Ty Sambrailo to guard. They’ve elected to keep Vic Beasley despite a $12.8 million price tag and the small fact that Beasley is coming off the worst season of his career. And they’ve carried out this offseason in such a way that their biggest moves certainly won’t be in free agency, not with Grady Jarrett and Julio Jones demanding contractual attention. That’s not to say they didn’t make cuts—Robert Alford and Matt Bryant were big-time contributors and big names—but they seem to truly believe that keeping the bulk of the roster together and infusing more young talent into the team will be a winning strategy in 2019.
That makes sense when you remember that they have Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, Austin Hooper, Jake Matthews, Alex Mack, Grady Jarrett (please and thank you), Deion Jones, Desmond Trufant, Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen, and Damontae Kazee. It makes less sense when you consider that they have problem spots at guard and potentially right tackle, a dearth of proven contributors along the defensive line, an unproven starter at cornerback in Isaiah Oliver, health questions for Free, and a potentially massive downgrade from one of the most reliable kickers in the NFL to a relative unknown with upside. There are holes and challenges here that probably would be impossible to fix in a single offseason, but they are almost certainly impossible to fix if you’re relying purely on the draft to do so.
None of that seems to be rattling the Falcons, who were only too happy to bring back Matt Schaub and whistle their way merrily through their roster cuts. This team has circled the wagons in the way a team does when their backs are against the wall and they’re bristling at the criticism and questions that come with a lousy season, as is their right and frankly probably a benefit to them. But the questions and the criticisms are borne out of a concern that this team is betting hard on its own evaluative abilities and talent when last season suggests both need to be looked at with a wary eye, not trumpeted alongside a neat and tidy narrative about injuries. The Falcons can carry on like this because Arthur Blank is not a reactionary owner, but also because they are well aware that their top-flight talent is as good as anyone else’s in the league, and the best teams in the NFL tend to be the ones who build a core and keep it.
It’s a gamble, full stop. Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff both could be out of jobs if things go south, and nobody wants to be sitting here a year from now with a genuine roster shakeup looming because things went poorly again in 2019. But it’s a gamble that is very much in character for this football team, with staff and players who believe in themselves in a way that can win over cynics, and it’s a gamble we very much hope pays off handsomely.