It has been a long time since the Falcons were so clearly in year two of a rebuilding project. Atlanta clung to the ghost of relevance from 2018-2020, never quite admitting that they were getting further and further away from the 2016 Super Bowl team and tearing down the roster. The budget offseason of 2015 gave way to big spending in 2016 with the addition of Alex Mack, the 2013 re-tool that saw Todd McClure and John Abraham depart gave way to the ill-fated spending spree of 2014, and so on.
The situation Atlanta’s currently in, where they’ve logged four straight losing seasons and are clearly in the midst of significant roster turnover without the advantage of a major spending spree, is basically without precedent in the last decade. There are two teams in the past 20-plus years who, while not exact fits for the current situation, are close enough.
The first is 2008. Atlanta had turned over the coaching staff twice in three years—once by choice—and were fresh off three .500 or worse years, flush with draft picks and not exactly loaded up with cash. Today’s situation, where the Falcons don’t have a brand new coach and general manager at the helm, are in urgent need of a long-term solve at quarterback, have a ton of draft capital and need to nail the upcoming class, and aren’t major players in free agency, probably last came in 2001.
Let’s take a look back at what happened the last couple of time the Falcons found themselves in an uncertain situation after a handful of lousy seasons with a bridge quarterback at the helm of the offense.
We all know what happened here. The Jim Mora came to an end in disappointing fashion as the greatness of 2004 gave way to the mediocrity of 2005 and 2006, with Mora openly talking about taking a college coaching job in the middle of the latter season. There was a sense that Vick’s development had stagnated, and so Arthur Blank and Rich McKay brought in a new face to coach him: Hotshot offensive guru Bobby Petrino.
After Vick was arrested and convicted, Petrino was suddenly a quarterback whisperer with no quarterback to whisper to, and he left a note in players’ lockers and bolted partway through the 2007 season. That marked the third straight mediocre-to-crummy season for Atlanta, and when the team brought Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff on, they were hoping to get out of the morass with competence and some dignity.
Atlanta was not quite as cap-strapped this offseason under Dimitroff, but he wasn’t exactly in a position to set a big pile of money on fire. Very few of us expected the Falcons to do much of anything in 2008, but Dimitroff effectively trimmed dead weight from the roster and made some tough calls with beloved players, pulling off some of the best signings of his entire tenure in Atlanta that offseason with the addition of all-world bruiser Michael Turner, quality starting safety Erik Coleman, and kicker Jason Elam.
The draft, though, was where the Falcons had to nail it. While many of us were out stumping for Glenn Dorsey, the Falcons decided not to try to make Chris Redman or another bridge quarterback work and drafted Matt Ryan third overall, setting the team up for an unprecedented run of success. They would not have been as good as they were right away if not for Dimitroff also landing starters with Sam Baker, Curtis Lofton, and Thomas DeCoud, as well as valuable year-one role players like Harry Douglas and Kroy Biermann.
The expectation, I think, was that the draft haul and sensible free agency period of 2008 would beget success in 2009 or 2010, but Ryan was good out of the gate, Turner was an absolute stud, and the combination of Roddy White truly blossoming, the draft picks largely delivering and the surprisingly sturdy bones of the McKay roster contributing turned the Falcons into an immediate contender. They’d go on to rattle off five straight winning seasons featuring four playoff berths from there.
Atlanta was fresh off a pair of bad seasons, with Jamal Anderson’s devastating injury and roster attrition sapping what powered the fantastic 1998 team. Chris Chandler was heading into his age-36 season and his time with the team was clearly coming to a close, and the Smith family was selling the team to some guy named Arthur Blank heading into the 2002 season. This was a team in need of a talent infusion and direction heading into an offseason where they’d have a new owner and more to spend.
How to rebuild? The team focused on budget moves to tee up their draft class, keeping exclusive rights free agents like wide receiver Brian Finneran and budget starting options like safety Gerald McBurrows around, filling roster holes like punter (with 6’4”, 220 pound ex-Bill Chris Mohr), reserve running back (Rodney Thomas, who finished the year with 40 touches behind Maurice Smith and Jamal Anderson), and receiver (June signing Tony Martin, who re-joined the team a few years after his huge 1998 season helped the Falcons get to the Super Bowl). The penny-pinching ethos of the cap-strapped 2021-2022 Falcons was alive and well back then, just with far fewer signings in total.
It was always going to be about the draft, though. The Falcons went into that class with 11 picks, one of which they’d trade to move up and get Michael Vick. General manager Harold Richardson and (editor’s note: appreciate the comments that Dan Reeves had control over personnel, so I should have led with him here) company wound up turning that draft capital into a pretty good haul, nabbing Vick, tight end Alge Crumpler, terrific offensive linemen Roberto Garza and Kynan Forney, and linebacker Matt Stewart. Richardson and the team also found Jay Feely and reserve offensive lineman Dave Kadela as undrafted free agents that year.
The net effect was an improved football team, as the Falcons managed a 7-9 record that year in Chandler and Anderson’s final season with the team. More critically, the Falcons had secured their long-term starting quarterback and started to stock his offense, as Crumpler, Finneran, Forney and to a lesser extent Garza would all play key roles on the great Atlanta teams of 2002 and 2004. Despite his sometimes errant accuracy, Feely would wind up playing a major role for those teams, as well.
The next year, Blank loosened the team’s purse strings and they spent big on the great Warrick Dunn at running back, Ellis Johnson at defensive tackle, Todd Weiner at tackle and Allen Rossum and Kevin Mathis at cornerback, fueling a magical run that saw the team go 9-6-1 and knock off the Packers in Lambeau in the Wild Card Round.
The parallels aren’t hard to see here. These Falcons have been worse for longer than the 2008 or 2001 Falcons had been, but until they blew up the plan with the Deshaun Watson trade pursuit, they were also going to roll with a bridge quarterback for one more year in a budget offseason where they’re flush with draft capital. As it is, the need to solve quarterback and get key contributors in the door on multi-year deals via the draft is just as pressing now as it was in 2008 and 2001, if not moreso.
The Falcons have the advantage of having five picks in the first three rounds this year, an amount of cap space next year Richardson and Dimitroff would’ve been gobsmacked by, and the presence of a potential superstar in Kyle Pitts, which the weapon-starved Atlanta teams of the early 2000s couldn’t boast. For all that, the blueprint here is really not all that different, as this team will not reach its potential in the kind of short-term timeframe it desperately wants to contend within if this draft class isn’t successful.
Atlanta’s all-in gamble on 2023 is not something we saw from either the 2001 or 2008 Falcons, who were trying to build something over the long haul and weren’t facing a truly do-or-die year the following season the way Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith seem to be. It’s no exaggeration to say that if the Falcons whiff on quarterback and can’t put a contender on the field next year with all that cap space, Blank’s probably going to look at six straight losing seasons and the more-or-less continuous loss of fan interest in that timeframe and wash his hands of at least the head coach.
These aren’t 1:1 situations, because what ever is in the NFL? Still, it’s not hard to see that what made the 2001 and 2008 Falcons successful despite their wildly different season results was that they nailed their absolutely critical quarterback selections and did a nice job of putting together foundational draft classes that put them in a position to succeed in the coming years. That was particularly true in 2008, obviously, but Richardson and company did a nice job of thinking long-term given their uncertain futures with the franchise.
The 2001 Falcons wound up being a turning point for the franchise, which would make the playoffs in two of the next three seasons and were at least competitive in 2005 and 2006 before Vick’s arrest and conviction and Petrino’s flight-by-night blew up that iteration of the team. Atlanta’s big splashes in the 2002 offseason, combined with that savvy 2001 draft, were enough to make the team a contender for a brief, shining moment. The 2008 Falcons, meanwhile, locked up the quarterback who would helm the team for well over a decade and kicked off a truly unprecedented run of success for the franchise. The 2022 Falcons, who are likely heading for a fifth straight losing season, have to land a quality draft class at the end of the month to set up their spending spree next offseason and put themselves in a position to enjoy the kind of runs of success that 2008 (and to a lesser extent) 2001 brought the franchise.
That pressure is one of the reasons I believe the Falcons will ultimately draft a quarterback this year, but I’m perfectly comfortable with them eschewing the 2001 and 2008 approaches if they can get a high-end solution one way or the other in 2023. The larger need is to bring success back to a franchise that has been without it for too many seasons now, and in that regard, we’ll hope a decade from now we’re talking about the 2022 offseason being at least as instrumental as 2008 and 2001 proved to be.