No one would particularly blame Terry Fontenot if he told fans and media that the Falcons were a rebuilding team. Regardless of their decision to keep Matt Ryan and push forward with the team’s franchise quarterback for at least one more season, Atlanta’s dealt with an impossibly tight cap situation, traded away their star receiver and generally fussed with but not overhauled a roster that just went 4-12 a year ago. Few people would begrudge the Falcons a little couching for their 2021 expectations given that they did not appear to make the kind of radical improvements that would suggest a massive turnaround.
That’s why it’s noteworthy that Fontenot simply won’t do it, even if he’s not tying himself to the idea that this is definitely a playoff team. In a very interesting interview with AtlantaFalcons.com managing editor Scott Bair that you should read in full, Fontenot doubled down on his frequent proclamations that this team is not rebuilding and took that one step further, calling the notion that they are “disrespectful.”
“There is a bunker mentality with us,” Fontenot said. “It is disrespectful to say we’re not going to be a good football team or that we’re in a rebuilding mode. The players, coaches, staff, and everyone here, we put a lot into this. We’re excited about it. We have confidence in ourselves, and we believe in the people here.”
We’re well past the stage where this feels like lip service, especially with Fontenot telling Bair “we love where we are and the players we were able to sign,” when he could’ve just touched on the team’s cap difficulties and left well enough alone. The general manager and the new head coach came into a situation where the owner and team executives knew full well there was major work to be done, but were hoping new hires would agree that they could still push for contention in 2021. Fontent and Arthur Smith have made it clear from the outset that they think they can be a good football team and in the mix in the NFC South, a prospect likely aided by the Saints collapsing in real time this offseason. They’re declared that Matt Ryan can win games for them right now, imported a stratospherically-ceilinged tight end as a sign of their confidence that they have enough pieces for Kyle Pitts to go nuts and lured one of the league’s most well-regarded defensive coordinators out of quasi-retirement to try to put some victories on the board this year.
Of course, saying it is different than doing it. After the sickening allegations of child sexual abuse against Barkevious Mingo became public, the Falcons dropped a player who was expected to be a contributor on defense and special teams, and they’re currently down five players on the reserve/COVID-19 list and three more on the physically unable to perform list. Even though most of those guys should be back sometime during training camp, it’s not yet clear whether key reserve Matt Gono will be back any time soon. The roster is going to be hugely dependent on rookies being major contributors (Richie Grant/Kyle Pitts/possibly Jalen Mayfield), players who struggled or were hurt last year taking major steps forward (Dante Fowler, Marlon Davidson) and part-time starters who may be set to step into full-time starting roles (Mike Davis, Josh Andrews). The coaching staff is being asked to squeeze better preparation and production out of just about everybody, and that’s a big ask.
Either way, the timeline for this team’s arrival as a bonafide Super Bowl contender is almost certainly down the line. Fontenot and company have been transparent that they were not going to make a series of short-sighted moves to try to really push this franchise toward a championship in 2021—it’s not clear how many they really could’ve made, but the sentiment is welcome—and this roster is not constructed to make a deep playoff run unless literally everything goes as well as it possibly could. Neither Fontenot or Smith are blind to the fact that the ceiling for this team is probably something like we saw in 2008, another rebound year where the Falcons were unexpectedly good but were also bounced in the first round of the playoffs. It’s just that they clearly expect the team to come close to that ceiling, and bristle at the idea that all their hard work this offseason will have them slumming it in the basement of the NFC South again.
If the Falcons crater in 2021 again, Fontenot will certainly get his fair share of blowback for his confidence from skeptical analysts and fans who are very tired of losing. It still feels like this team is more likely to do that than make a major, playoff-enabling leap, but I am bullish about their chances of hovering around 8-9 wins and that would validate the idea that this roster is not beyond hope and help. Let’s root for that outcome and some validation for Fontenot, whose confidence is at the very least nice to hear.
In the meantime, read the full article and let your friends and enemies here at The Falcoholic what you think will happen in the season ahead.