Here’s what was reported about the Atlanta Falcons and their interest in Deshaun Watson: They were finalists, and maybe seemingly the favorite until the Browns swooped in. Watson was calling Leonard Fournette and Jarvis Landry and urging them to come play with him in Atlanta. The Falcons had an approved trade package on the table with the Texans. They asked and got Matt Ryan to defer a roster bonus for a few days while they worked on a trade, giving them somewhat of a hard deadline to keep or move Ryan. They had not talked to the accusers or their lawyer, and were vague on who else they reached out to.
Here’s what the Falcons themselves are saying about that pursuit: They had a conversation with Watson, they were exploring a trade, they never felt it was final. It was a group decision to pursue the move. They did some due diligence—how much is very unclear—but certainly they would have done more if they had felt they were going to actually make a trade.
Arthur Blank stuck to that story today, as you’d expect, in several interviews with the media during league meetings in Florida. He reiterated that it was a group decision to have a conversation with Watson, offered some roundabout thoughts about the grand jury decisions and the civil cases, and talked about the team’s future sans Matt Ryan, specifically the salary cap. He all but pledged to put Ryan in the team’s Ring of Honor, lamented the loss of players like De’Vondre Campbell and Foye Oluokun due to salary cap issues, and said he wants fans to know the team is thinking long-term. Blank has sounded like a man tired of losing for a while now, and what he sees in the team’s less cap-restricted future is obviously a better chance of winning. That’s likely what he saw in Watson, too.
Indeed, this is a team that wants you to focus on the future of the franchise, given that the present is full of question marks, and that desire is only heightened by the clear level of discomfort Atlanta’s brass has with going into any sort of detail about why they pursued Watson and how close they felt they were to actually making a trade. We wouldn’t have gotten that detail even if they had made the trade, but there would have been a pressing need to assure stakeholders and reporters that they had really thought it through and done their homework. Because they didn’t, well, it was an exploration and all of this will make sense if you don’t think too hard about timelines.
The two stories—the reports that the Falcons were favorites to land Watson and the Falcons saying they were never even close to doing so—do not align in any way, shape, or form, but I’m not even convinced they’re supposed to. Atlanta is just trying to get through this media cycle with a vague but consistent front, one that acknowledges interest but does not acknowledge the sort of full-court press that was widely reported, as well as one that asks us to believe the team would’ve held off on executing a trade to take a closer look at the allegations despite competing with the Saints and ultimately the Browns to get a deal done in a tight timeframe, among other things that do not hold up to even mild scrutiny.
If that front is dull enough that the questions stop being asked and enough fans and reporters take even the most unconvincing answers at face value, the Falcons will consider the strategy a success. With the passage of time, we know that playbook has worked for other teams trying to tiptoe past significant legal or ethical issues faced by trade targets, players, staff, or maybe especially team owners. The Falcons know what they’re doing, and they know barring an explosive leak from inside the building that reveals the team was minutes away from getting a deal done, they’ll never have to fully and satisfactorily answer the questions being lobbed their way by reporters.
Watson is in Cleveland with a fully guaranteed deal, where the brass is working hard to sell a man with some truly weird deposition answers to a divided fanbase the same way Atlanta would have. The Falcons, meanwhile, have Marcus Mariota under center now and the NFL Draft right around the corner, and they’d like very much if any discussion of Watson finally faded away and they were left only to talk about a future we all hope is much brighter for the franchise.
With the free agent signings piling up, the Browns left to answer for and build around Watson, and the draft so close, it’s likely they’ll get their wish soon enough.