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Terry Fontenot confirms Falcons never seriously considered 2021 rebuild

Atlanta’s general manager talked to Robert Mays on The Athletic football show for an interesting and wide-ranging conversation about the offseason.

NFL: Altanta Falcons OTA Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Terry Fontenot inherited a messy situation in Atlanta. That’s the reality of the situation, given that the Falcons were coming off a 4-12 season and were fairly deep in the red in terms of cap space. One of the big questions of the offseason for Atlanta was whether they’d try to push through that the best they could while also trying to field a competitive roster, or whether they’d accelerate a rebuild by dealing key veterans, refusing to extend or restructure contracts, and generally setting a timeline for contention that begins in 2023 or even 2024 rather than 2021. Rich McKay and Arthur Blank indicated they wanted the latter, and they hired the right general manager and head coach for that.

We got a few mixed signals—trading away Julio Jones is the kind of move you make if you’re a team that doesn’t expect to go somewhere, in my book—but the Falcons ultimately did not handle this offseason like a team eager to wave the white flag on 2021. In a wide-ranging interview on The Athletic Football Show podcast with Robert Mays, Fontenot touched on that topic and said “rebuilding really isn’t in our vocabulary.”

Mays asked Terry Fontenot about the situation he inherited, the shaky cap picture and the first thing he thought he had to do in his role as general manager. Fontenot noted that “it’s easy” to look at the situation from outside the building and come up with a clear plan of action, but it’s one that is missing a lot of critical details you only have access to after getting into Flowery Branch and getting to know the people, the cap situation and how they want to build the team. He did call the cap situation “very difficult,” but said the Falcons never considered a rebuild.

“If you know much about myself and where I’m from or Arthur Smith and his mindset, rebuilding just doesn’t make much sense to any of us,” Fontenot said. “Rebuilding really isn’t in our vocabulary. We want to be able to put together a competitive team, yet we have challenges in those areas.”

One interesting remark directly following this was Fontenot acknowledging the path the team has chosen will lead them to have to hold their noses and make financial decisions they’d rather not make, which Jeff Schultz at The Athletic suggested some time ago was the case with the Matt Ryan contract restructure. Some of those decisions would likely have to be made anyways, of course.

“We have to make decisions, really in these next couple years, converting contracts and doing some things that you don’t want to do, it’s not good business operation. But, in the next couple years, we have to do that just to fill the 90 man roster, just to sign your draft class. You’re going have to make some decisions you don’t want to make, but we want to have balance, and we want to do make sure we can do our best to put together a competitive football team,” he said.

Fontenot hit on what is already becoming a familiar theme for him, mentioning the desire to build a sustained winner in Atlanta, even if that means making some short-term sacrifices in the name of building for the future. One of those moves was obviously trading Julio, a trade that weakens Atlanta right now but that the team hopes will create cap flexibility and opportunities for young receivers in the future. The Falcons’ desire to thread the needle by not truly rebuilding but also not killing their cap space in future years by making a huge push this year is a tough balancing act, one that they’ll hopefully be able to pull off without ending up mired in mediocrity for a lot longer.

It’s readily apparent that 2021 will be a bit of a test case for the Falcons, who will have to see for themselves whether better coaching, the team’s existing talent base and what we all hope is a savvy offseason is enough to carry this team back to contention. What they learn this year will help them determine how heavily they’re willing to invest in a 2022-2023 contention window versus clearing out unproductive contracts and trying to build a long-term winner on a different timeline. Either way, it doesn’t sound like there will be any appetite for blowing this thing up and starting again, so a swift return to contention is what we should all be hoping for.