The Falcons went into the 2020 season betting on continuity, and that bet failed. As shrewd as Thomas Dimitroff could be and often was, and as well-liked and respected as Dan Quinn was inside the locker room and outside of it, the duo made lofty promises for the past season after Blank surprisingly decided to retain them following two straight losing seasons. After an 0-5 start, the duo had delivered one stupendous season, one brief but fun playoff run, and about 3.3 disappointing seasons by the time Arthur Blank finally pulled the plug, and Atlanta wound up wasting yet another season waiting for things that didn’t work to start working.
It was always going to be incumbent on this team to take a hard look in the mirror and figure out how to reverse a slide that’s been more or less continuous since February 2017, and that was going to start with replacing Dimitroff and Quinn with a new general manager and head coach who had fresh ideas. That search ultimately led them to Terry Fontenot, a seasoned executive from the hated Saints, and Arthur Smith, who piloted a terrific Titans offense the past two seasons.
We’re a ways away from knowing what their plan is and how successful it will be, leaving plenty of room for projection, deeply entrenched cynicism, or even wild optimism. For the first time on Tuesday, however, both spoke to the media and we got a high-level glimpse at what they’re planning to bring to Atlanta. Here’s what we heard.
Accountability is a theme
Multiple reporters and columnists have noted that a jumbled power structure in the Falcons organization from Arthur Blank down to the coaching staff was an issue in recent years. Jeff Schultz at The Athletic went further and repeatedly asserted that players got too comfortable and the Falcons wrestled with a leadership vacuum, something he mentions again in his latest column.
Smith appeared to allude to that in his remarks Tuesday, though he was quick to qualify it.
“We’re going to hold our best players accountable,” Smith said. “Drop the entitlement. Not to say that was going on here. But that will be a big message in the locker room. And we want to be adaptable because things change.”
Whether Smith knows that’s the case in the locker room or he’s simply looking to shake things up right away, we don’t know. We do know that he appears to be stressing accountability and flexibility coming into the building, part of an effort to get more out of the players who will be here and get them ready for the changes that are going to come.
That kind of accountability, Smith stressed, will extend to him and his coaching staff.
Smith: The last thing you want is a bunch of yes men on staff. You want to share the same values, but you want to challenge each other. That's a challenge as a HC, to make sure you're getting accurate information from everyone. We want sustained success.— Kevin Knight (@FalcoholicKevin) January 19, 2021
These are just words at this juncture, but all often over the past couple of years, we heard a lot of “we’ve just got to get better” and “I don’t know what’s wrong but it’s unacceptable” without the kinds of significant changes or improvements that would give those statements any weight. Raheem Morris dug his heels in and made lineup changes and even jettisoned Takk McKinley, but change is on the wind right now and we’re going to see more of that. The lineup changes, I mean, not jettisoning Takk. You can only do that once.
These Falcons can’t panic
Where Smith spoke about accountability and adaptability, Fontenot stressed the importance of process, culture, and not getting sucked into panic moves. The big headline yesterday was Fontenot essentially saying he believes in the best player available draft approach, saying the team will not pass up a great player just because that player is at a position Atlanta’s seemingly set at. What Fontenot is describing, though, is a consistent process that does not lend itself to being hijacked by an anxious owner or a sudden acute need.
Fontenot: I believe that it's about the process. Not just the immediate results. I believe success is doing things the right way, and being consistent. I have to operate the right way and do things the right way. Then success is going to continue to come.— Kevin Knight (@FalcoholicKevin) January 19, 2021
If the Falcons do develop a winning process and do stick to it, it’ll be very welcome. In recent years Thomas Dimitroff in particular sometimes seemed to be operating with his knees cut out from under him, as was the case in 2019 when the team panic-signed two expensive free agent guards and ended up using two first round picks on two more offensive linemen. That was also the year where the team clearly planned to ride out Giorgio Tavecchio’s struggles until pressure from somewhere became too great and they dumped him at the last minute to re-sign Matt Bryant, the longtime kicker they seemed so dead set on moving on from. At times it was evident that due to pressure from Blank, fear of losing jobs, or simply feeling like past failures had created massive roster holes that had to be addressed, Thomas Dimitroff and Dan Quinn in particular felt forced to cut ties with coordinators or push through with new players in a way they might not have otherwise.
It also means there won’t be throwaway picks, if all goes well.
Consistently great organizations rarely do that, and what Fontenot is describing would be welcome if the Falcons can stick to it. It will require patience at times, from ownership and the fanbase alike, but let’s hope the process is good and the process is sustainable.
No sacred cows
Both Fontenot and Smith pointedly refused to say much of anything about the actual roster, despite being prompted multiple times to do so. Fontenot talked about the need for a thorough assessment and Smith did the same, with both stressing they’ll be involved and collaborating in deciding the future of players who are here.
Fontenot: We really need to assess our roster, and then develop our plan. Get on the same page with the coaches and set the stage for what we're going to do this offseason.— Kevin Knight (@FalcoholicKevin) January 19, 2021
Otherwise, the picture the duo painted was of an exhaustive evaluation process that’s going to be designed to develop players the team wants here for 2021 and excise the rest. The closest thing we got to confirmation that anyone will be here was from Arthur Smith regarding Matt Ryan, as he said he was looking forward to working with the veteran quarterback. He notably did not rule out anything else, including a quarterback at #4.
Smith on the potential for taking a QB at 4: We've got a long way until the draft. Matt Ryan has been a terrific QB and I look forward to working with him.— Kevin Knight (@FalcoholicKevin) January 19, 2021
This is the right stance for a brand new head coach and general maanger to take, of course. They no doubt have preconceived notions and ideas of what to do with some players, but without staffs in place and without the time to properly evaluate anyone, it’d be foolish to outline clear plans that might change tomorrow. What is clear is that Fontenot and Smith feel empowered to make those decisions, and to echo Mike Smith back at the end of his tenure, there don’t appear to be any sacred cows in Atlanta at this point, even if realistically I don’t see them moving Matt Ryan or Grady Jarrett or even Julio Jones.
Overall, both were polished and said encouraging things, but an opening press conference means only so much. If Fontenot can deliver on his promises of a consistent, thoughtful process of building this team and Smith can create a Falcons squad that’s tough, effective, and adaptable, Atlanta will be back to relevance and victories before too long. If not, it will be just talk, something we’ve grown too used to in recent years.