The NFL is a copycat league. There will be teams clamoring to get their own Deebo Samuel or Cordarrelle Patterson this year because the 49ers and Falcons made that look so attractive. More broadly, there will be teams scrutinizing how the Bengals and Rams got to the Super Bowl so they can do the same. Most of the time, all that emulation leads to nothing but consternation, but that won’t stop teams from trying.
The Falcons will be one of the many teams with their faces pressed up against the playoff glass from the outside, trying to decide on the best approach in 2022 and beyond. Will they be tempted to follow Cincinnati’s blueprint, building a quality roster around an exciting young quarterback? Or will they lean more toward the Rams, who gave away draft picks and spent to the hilt to try to win right now?
Let’s take a closer look at the dueling approaches for these two Super Bowl teams and talk Falcons.
Bengals: Build a team, draft a quarterback, go for it
Cincinnati is a team no one really saw coming this year outside of Cincinnati and hardcore Joe Burrow fans, if we’re being honest. Cincinnati had its moments with Andy Dalton at the helm of the offense and Marvin Lewis providing a steady hand at the tiller, but from 2017-2021 they picked in the top 10 three times, picked No. 11 once and No. 21 once. All that draft capital translated into quite a few misses, but also crucially a few building blocks from running back Joe Mixon to safety to Jessie Bates to defensive end Sam Hubbard.
The team essentially took longer than they would have liked to in order to build up that foundation, but they were able to bide their time until they landed their quarterback, which they did in 2020 when they had the top pick and picked Joe Burrow. After an injury robbed Burrow of much of his rookie year, the Bengals still saw an opening heading into 2021 and were aggressive in free agency and heavily focused on bolstering their offense in the draft.
This is a path that it’s not difficult to see the Falcons trying to follow. As I wrote late last year, the Falcons alluded to interest in trying to follow the Bills blueprint, where a veteran team loaded up with big contracts aggressively swapped away most of them, added their quarterback of the future, and then started loading up on talent anew. That’s effectively what the Bengals did, but they weren’t hamstrung by rough contracts the same way Buffalo and Atlanta were and are. The biggest difference is that the Falcons may still have their veteran quarterback under contract when they’re starting to load up for a run, which brings us to...
Rams: Keep that window open
The Rams, meanwhile, have been building to this for a while. Year after year, they’ve shipped out draft picks in pursuit of elite talent, from Marcus Peters to Jalen Ramsey to Matthew Stafford, while smartly filling out the roster with savvy free agent signings and later round selections. The stars all aligned for them during the 2021 season.
It would be a little inaccurate and unfair to suggest that the Rams have mortgaged their future entirely, but their premium picks are gone. In 2022, the team has just one fifth-round pick and two seventh-rounders, which if they’re extremely fortunate and savvy might turn into three quality reserves. Next year they’ll at least have a second-and-third-rounder along with a mix of later round picks, but they won’t have a first-rounder again until 2024.
That’s a problem for a future team, though, and the Rams were savvy enough to recognize their time to win was right now and do everything they could to get there. Their biggest weakness was Jared Goff at quarterback and they took another big swing to take care of that, swapping Goff out for Matthew Stafford in a blockbuster trade. Stafford’s had some frustrating moments, but he’s a huge upgrade over Goff and has more or less been the quarterback the Rams thought they were getting.
The Falcons don’t have their greatest weakness at quarterback, obviously—whatever you think about Matt Ryan, he’s still plenty capable and this roster has holes Grady Jackson could walk through with plenty of clearance on all sides—and they’re some miles away from being in a position where you’d feel like trading early round picks for high-end talent would put them among the best teams in this conference, much less the NFL. The Rams show that you can, if you’re smart, push your chips in for a short-term run and be rewarded for doing so. That’s a note the Falcons might want to jot down, but not one they’re well-positioned to act on for a while.
The Falcons: ???
Atlanta’s stated intent is to navigate a middle ground that owes more to the Bengals than the Rams. They seem committed to Matt Ryan in the short-term—seem being the operative word this early in the offseason—and are going to try to be a competitive football team while they rebuild a roster in major need of an overhaul. Ideally they’d be a playoff team in the next year or two, possibly with Ryan still at the helm, before a retooled roster in Ryan’s twilight years or with a young quarterback at the helm helps them become one of the NFC’s elite teams.
There’s an instinct a lot of us have that I struggle with a lot, and that’s to think the middle course or the long-term play is probably the wise one. Especially after the Falcons seemingly kept doubling down on a creaky roster in the final years of the Dan Quinn/Thomas Dimitroff era, preaching patience is something that’s worth doing, and we have to brace ourselves for the possibility that 2022 will be a step backwards or at least not a real step forward record-wise. That said, you can very easily put in 2-3 years of rebuilding work and slog through tough years and not make real progress if you whiff on your acquisitions or the people running the team aren’t the right people. We still don’t know whether Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith are the right guys, though I still have hope for both and a lot of faith in Fontenot.
With Tom Brady retiring and Sean Payton walking away, the two best teams in the division are suffering massive losses, and the Panthers are face-down in the flooded NFC South basement. If Atlanta wanted to accelerate their timeline to try to contend for the division now—especially with Ryan playing out the last few seasons of his career—you could hardly fault them for doing so. Ultimately, though, there are light years between the Rams roster and the Falcons roster, and the more patient route is the preferable one, even if there are no guarantees of success. Hopefully we’re talking about teams trying to emulate the Falcons Super Bowl success within the next handful of seasons.