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Falcons deserve all the criticism they’ll get for this Deshaun Watson fiasco

The Falcons fired up the Hot Mess Express and drove that train straight into a shitshow of their own making.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Buffalo Bills Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

I’ll be honest — I’m glad the Falcons weren’t able to trade for Deshaun Watson.

It’s not just the 22 pending civil suits against him alleging various acts of sexual harassment and assault, though I’m deeply troubled by those allegations. It’s also about the lack of talent on the Falcons’ roster and the many, many holes they need to plug. It’s the exorbitant cost of acquiring a player like Watson in light of how much work the Falcons need to do to even be competitive in this division, much less within the league.

Given all of that, it never made sense for Atlanta to even be involved in these trade talks, but after a grand jury in Harris County, Texas, declined to bring charges against Watson on nine criminal complaints, teams — including the Falcons — started falling all over themselves to trade for the Texans quarterback.

And the Falcons deserve criticism for this and especially for the way they’ve handled it.

The Falcons may have pissed off Matt Ryan

The Falcons drafted Ryan in 2008, on the heels of a disastrous 4-12 2007 season. Michael Vick was in prison, having been convicted for operating a dog fighting ring. We sat through 16 games of Joey Harrington, Chris Redman, and Byron Leftwich at quarterback. Bobby Petrino decided to leave notes in players’ lockers (well, he didn’t leave the notes — he had a staffer do it because he couldn’t even be bothered to do that himself) and he snuck out of town in the middle of the season under cover of darkness to Woo Pig Sooie it up as the new head coach at Arkansas. The Matt Ryan/Mike Smith era brought hope to a franchise that desperately needed it.

Ryan would have been entering his 15th season here. He’s continued to play at a high level. He’s been a consistent face of the franchise the team, the city, and the fans can be proud of, and he’s easy to root for.

That’s why it wasn’t a huge surprise when news broke that the Falcons and Ryan had agreed to restructure his contract. The team needed the cap space, the Falcons said they’d considered trade offers for Ryan but didn’t seem too inclined to move the veteran, and the restructure sounded beneficial for both sides.

But then we found out that Ryan’s restructure hadn’t been filed with the league, and now reports suggest there is no agreement on a restructure. And you’d assume that, as the team was actively pursuing a trade for another franchise quarterback, they’d keep their veteran franchise quarterback, the one who’s played his entire career in Atlanta, apprised of the situation.

According to Ryan’s sister-in-law, Maggie Marshall Ryan, the team did not do that.

Meanwhile, the Falcons were reported to have “rolled out the red carpet” for Watson at Flowery Branch. Arthur Blank was reportedly on hand to try to convince Watson to come to Atlanta. It’s flat out disrespectful if the team didn’t keep Matt Ryan informed on what was happening.

If Ryan refuses to sign off on a contract restructure now (it’s possible the team could do it without Ryan’s agreement, but the reporting suggests the restructure includes void years, and that would require his approval), what does the team do then? He’ll count $48.6 million against the cap this year. Cutting him would result in over $40 million in dead money. Ryan had a $7.5 million roster bonus that was going into effect on Friday, March 18, and they pushed it back to Tuesday, March 22 to give Ryan time to vet potential trade destinations, so the clock is still ticking here. And if Ryan demands a trade — which is a possibility given the way the team handled this situation — the Falcons are left with ... Feleipe Franks.

Arthur Blank talks a lot about quality leadership in his book Good Company, but he sure hasn’t demonstrated that in this situation. If Matt Ryan refuses to work with the team on this or asks for a trade, I won’t blame him a bit. He deserves better than this from the Falcons.

Acquiring Deshaun Watson would not have guaranteed improvement

First of all, Watson is almost certainly going to be suspended by the NFL under its broadly written personal conduct policy. Does the NFL care about women? No, but they care about optics, and that’s why Watson will serve a suspension. My expectation is that he will be suspended for six games this season, and I don’t think the league will be willing to reduce the length of the suspension given the overwhelming number of women making these allegations.

The Falcons have Kyle Pitts, Olamide Zaccheaus, Jake Matthews, Chris Lindstrom, and a whole bunch of question marks on offense going into this season, with top wideout Calvin Ridley serving at least a season-long suspension for betting on NFL games last year. Reports have suggested the Falcons’ trade package for Watson may have included A.J. Terrell, arguably the best player on a defense that was pretty lackluster last year.

It’s a big swing that would have created another roster hole on a roster that really can’t afford it.

I’m just going to leave this here.

Those allegations shouldn’t be ignored

I’m anticipating the comments filling up with “innocent until proven guilty” and “due process” based on my Twitter mentions this week. The most important thing to understand here is that neither of these terms apply to this situation.

Innocent until proven guilty and due process are legal terms that are only relevant in the criminal justice system. Nobody has an inalienable right to play in the National Football League.

I personally think the league could have (and should have) avoided all of this mess by placing Watson on the commissioner’s exempt list when the allegations surfaced and letting him remain there until the civil cases have been adjudicated.

But since they didn’t, we can only assess this situation based on what we know for certain.

We know that Watson has been accused of sexual misconduct by more than 20 women. We know that the grand jury declined to bring charges on any of the nine criminal counts it considered. We know that the allegations these women raised wouldn’t have left them with much, if any, physical evidence, which is a common obstacle for prosecution in sexual assault cases. We know that massage therapists experience sexual harassment in the course of their jobs on a regular basis.

We learned a lot of details around the allegations against Watson from the reporting of Jenny Vrentas at Sports Illustrated. This article Vrentas wrote telling the story of one of the massage therapists Watson allegedly sexually harassed and assaulted is an explicit account of the massage therapist’s experience. This massage therapist has not filed a civil suit against Watson and was not one of the women pursuing criminal charges, so she has nothing to gain from it. The woman claims she wanted her story told to protect other massage therapists from this predatory behavior.

Although the Harris County prosecutor will not pursue any additional charges against Watson, that doesn’t mean he’s in the clear. The refusal to charge Watson is far different from being found not guilty by a jury, as additional evidence, or even claims outside of Harris County, could mean new charges against Watson. Bill Cosby was finally charged for sexual assault after dozens of allegations spanning decades based on incriminating testimony that came out as a part of the civil suits against him. Cosby is now free on a technicality, a stark reminder of the flaws within our criminal justice system. It’s noteworthy that Watson did plead the fifth for several hours in depositions last week related to the 22 pending civil cases against him.

And yes, Watson has rights. So do the women who have raised these allegations against him.

Nobody is saying Deshaun Watson’s life or career should be ruined based on these allegations, but that also doesn’t mean the Falcons get a pass for “rolling out the red carpet” for a guy who would bring this much baggage to Atlanta. If not for the allegations, this would have been a delightful, feel-good story about a hometown kid, a former Falcons ball boy, coming home to play for the team he grew up rooting for. But those allegations exist, and coupled with the way the Falcons have handled this situation, it’s a hot mess.

I don’t really understand why the Falcons even wanted to get involved in this fiasco. There’s very little potential upside. Acquiring Watson won’t necessarily make the team better, and might make them worse this season and for the immediate future due to the capital the Falcons have to give up to acquire him. And in the process, the team has alienated fans who cannot look past these allegations, and possibly Matt Ryan. I get that Arthur Blank wants asses in seats at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and I think that’s clouding his judgment here.

If Arthur Blank wants asses in seats, the Falcons need to put a good product on the field. Nothing that’s happened with the team’s attempt to trade for Deshaun Watson this week helps them accomplish that in the near future.