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It’s time for Falcons to think about life after franchise greats

Could a fresh start involve moving on from Hall of Fame talents?

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The Atlanta Falcons hadn’t picked in the top 5 of the NFL Draft since 2008. Then 2020 happened.

The misfortune abounded for many during that cursed calendar year, so the Falcons being downright stinky for a majority of the year shouldn’t have come as such a surprise. Finishing 4-12 is not something good teams do; there’s a reason the most prized NFL Draft prospects are there for the taking for the league’s worst teams. Parity rules the day.

You know how we got here; if you are a fan of this football team, you know the dire straits that flow through the rivers of Flowery Branch. You know Dirk Koetter’s offense is as about as clever and modern as a Windows 95 instructional video; you know the defense is more inconsistent than the quality of your food on any given visit to Buffalo Wild Wings.

The Falcons are about to go through the biggest organizational change since that wretched 2007 season, with a new coach, general manager and, maybe, even quarterback all in play.

Is this really the end of the Falcons team we know and love? It doesn’t have to be, but like Bradley Cooper warbled in A Star is Born, “maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.”

The Falcons have three obvious options on the table: gun it for daylight with the guys they have, wipe the slate clean or find some sort of middle ground to respect the cap. It’s just hard to find any consistency in the fan base as to what folks think would work best.

Sure, the Falcons could go hire an offensive-minded coach who sees Matt Ryan and Julio Jones and wants to pray for health and hope his scheme is enough to elevate this group back to 2016-esque heights. It’s entirely plausible that someone like Arthur Smith (Titans offensive coordinator) or Brian Daboll (Bills offensive coordinator) could see Ryan as an easy transition for their way of doing things and wants to win fast with the, on paper, talented offense the Falcons have. Draft picks go to the defense, and away you go.

Someone like Kansas City OC Eric Bieniemy or San Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Saleh could come in with a sledgehammer and rebuild the Falcons in their image. While cutting ties with Ryan and Jones would be a bit hard to do this offseason due to the dead cap hits, even through trade, they could just bite their lip, run on a low cap this year and do what Carolina did: moneyball and draft your way around your holes. Through this method, the top pick is, of course, a quarterback.

There’s a middling path, of course, one that seems to be likely where we’re headed. There’s probably going to be some sort of coach, any of the ones above or more, who seeks a divergence in the road. They’ll want to start as quickly as possible to get wins with guys like Ryan and Jones on the field, but they also might invest in a future without them through the draft.

With a top-4 pick and a deeply intriguing group of quarterbacks around, the future might be now for the Falcons. This is probably going to be the first offseason we go through where the team makes moves that show life will go on after Ryan and Jones leave the team.

It could be the best move to make. As interesting as it might be to draft a blue chip talent with that fourth pick and run it back, it’s probably the right move for the Falcons to really consider how hard it is to be as bad as they were this year, and how you don’t draft in the top-5 every year for a reason. These types of picks can make or break your team; they’re costly for a reason. The Falcons could trade down, but one wonders if, say, a Justin Fields, Zach Wilson or Trey Lance would be available at 4 (all are possible), and if a new regime wants to let that player sit for a year behind Ryan, learn the ropes and take over in 2022.

It’d sting for the memories, but it might be the most responsible move for a team that needs forward vision. The Super Bowl window is slammed shut. but the future doesn’t have to be nearly as bleak.

Jones is a tougher case; he missed eight games this season, and you can’t pay a receiver, even one as generationally talented as he is, that much money to only play in eight games. Ryan’s success has been deeply tied to Jones’ health over the years. It’s hard to remember a time when the quarterback was at his best while Jones wasn’t in the game. It’s very common for QBs and WRs to strike this type of balance, but it’s harder to imagine a future where one of these guys sticks around and the other is elsewhere. But, you could envision a future where the team wants Jones to help a rookie quarterback find quick success.

It’d be special for both to finish their careers in Atlanta, and it could still very well happen. A new staff and front office could want Ryan to lead the franchise for the next few years, given how volatile first-round quarterbacks can be and the fact that Ryan isn’t 40 (he’d be 36 next fall). The team could want to keep Jones around even if his health is tougher to navigate because he’s a Hall of Fame talent and the franchise’s all-time best player not named Deion Sanders. But it’s also not all that insane to think the draft picks and cap savings had from both at this point in their careers, either in 2021 or 2022, might be too hard to pass up for a new group looking toward to the next five-plus years.

Jones’ successor is on the roster; Ryan’s could be drafted in April. It’s not fun to think about the final snap in Atlanta for players you love being with the team you cheer for, but it might be where we’re headed.

I haven’t a clue how long Ryan or Jones have left in a Falcons uniform; if it were up to me, I’d speed back the clock and have them here forever. They’re big reasons why I love this team so much. But, as David Byrne once sang, “time isn’t holding up; time isn’t after us.”

Ryan and Jones might not have as much time left with the organization as any of us would hope; as deeply uncomfortable as it is to admit, that might be the way this team move forward into an uncertain future.