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The Falcons are at a critical juncture in their long-term plan

Today begins a short, important stretch of games.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons have tried to speed up their timeline exactly once in the past two years—at least that we know of—with their disastrous pursuit of Deshaun Watson. That appeared to be an owner-led chase sparked by Arthur Blank, who is tired of owning a football team that loses every season and has trouble putting butts in seats, but after it failed Atlanta settled right back into what they were doing before: Moving deliberately.

Remember where the franchise was after the 2020 season. The Falcons had capped off their third consecutive losing season, had continued to spin a sticky web of cap troubles in an ill-fated run-it-back year with Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff, and had no long-term plan to speak of. They brought Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith on not to turn things around in one year, the way Mike Smith and Dimitroff were able to, or in two years, as Quinn and Dimitroff managed. This was a franchise in need of fumigation, in terms of its outlook, its cap situation, and its overall talent level.

Atlanta has spent the last two years methodically doing just that. Fontenot was part of a Saints front office that clung to relevance with cap gymnastics and big swings, but he’s proven to be a canny executive for the Falcons, one who outside of the very large exception the Watson trade negotiations represents has not taken shortcuts. He’s mined the draft, leaned heavily on short-term deals for interesting gambles, and made trades and cuts with an eye on absorbing short-term pain in the service of long-term gains. The roadmap has given the Falcons two up-and-down years where they have survived on guile to contend, but also a clear path to relevance in 2023, one the team has transparently been building toward this entire time.

To summarize something you already know, the Falcons will head into the 2023 offseason with the second-highest cap space total in the NFL, one that might clear $80 million once they cut Marcus Mariota. They have nine draft picks again after two robust classes, and those classes should pay dividends and give Atlanta the chance to head into next season with exciting young running backs, receivers, tight ends, and defenders, even if the holes on this roster are real and varied. Given the shaky state of the NFC South, though, this is an enviable position to be in, where the Falcons can spend big, add talent in late April, and put together a roster that can contend in the NFC. After five straight losing seasons, it’s a beacon of hope we’ve been dying to see.

While the destination is clear enough, the Falcons are at their final intersection before the 2023 offseason, and it’s a hugely important one. They’re idling before they have to choose a road that moves them forward with Desmond Ridder at quarterback versus a road that sees them travel ahead with a new quarterback. The implications associated with which fork the team chooses are massive.

Take the Ridder path first. In this scenario, four games go by and Ridder is operating the offense effectively, showing signs of growth and progress, and clearly in possession of the upside necessary to get an extended look as the starting quarterback. In that scenario, your quarterback costs in 2023 are vanishingly small once you cut Mariota, allowing you to open up the checkbook and get the pieces you need to make your second-year quarterback successful. That means adding at least one impact offensive lineman, a compelling second receiving option, a savvy veteran backup, and all the defensive pieces you need to ensure the offense isn’t fighting a lonely battle on Sunday. Everything you do will be around building up the roster around Ridder and stars like Kyle Pitts, Drake London, Grady Jarrett, and A.J. Terrell.

In the other scenario, you still have plenty of money and draft capital, but you will have to sacrifice one of those to address the quarterback position. If you sign someone like Daniel Jones, a young mobile quarterback with a big arm who might be a good fit, you’re paying well north of $10 million and possibly close to $20 million next year to bring him aboard. If you draft a C.J. Stroud or Bryce Young or Will Levis, you may need to move up and sacrifice current and future picks at the altar of getting your long-term solution. If you try to make a big trade for, say, Lamar Jackson, you give up a huge amount of draft capital and cap flexibility to acquire one of the league’s elite options. There are no cheap and easy ways to get a franchise quarterback if Ridder makes it evident that he can’t be the guy, and while you’ll accept that in the name of getting better at the most critical position on the roster, you have to understand that the roster you build around that player will be a little weaker.

This makes the final four games incredibly important for the Falcons. Ridder does not need to be an elite quarterback out of the gate to prove he belongs, but it’s a huge deal for the Falcons if he shows he can be a quality starter over the next month, and it’s not a stretch to say it’s the ideal outcome for Atlanta. You don’t have to have a phenomenal starter to be successful in the NFL if you have the other pieces and coaching staff to carry you—the 49ers have been proving that for a while now—but having a good one who costs you virtually nothing gives you a very nice window in which to contend.

This is the one of the last big question marks before we get to the 2023 offseason and what we all hope will be a more successful Falcons franchise going forward. It will be worth watching what happens next, but the hope is that Ridder is the guy and everything flows from there. The Falcons have been a franchise without a good plan or a clear path forward for far too long, and even with the detours and near-derailments along the way, they’re due to see where all this careful work is taking them.