Way back in December, a small lifetime ago, Arthur Smith compared the Falcons’ rebuild to the Bills. He didn’t call it a rebuild because nobody in Flowery Branch is interested in using that language, but the first-year Falcons coach did have some praise for the way Buffalo went from afterthought to one of the league’s leading lights in a relatively short span.
If you’ve forgotten, here’s what he had to say.
Arthur Smith with high praise for Buffalo. Thought it was interesting he made the comment that seeing the trajectory of the Bills is "not dissimilar to what" he and Terry Fontenot are "trying to build" in Atlanta.— Tori McElhaney (@tori_mcelhaney) December 29, 2021
Many fans here reacted pretty thoughtfully to that statement rather than just being like “lol good luck,” and some of you predicted that the Falcons were about to go on a contract dumping spree that might even include Matt Ryan. Atlanta appeared to be standing firm on keeping Ryan for one more year until the ill-fated trade attempt for Deshaun Watson, but this offseason they let Foye Oluokun, Russell Gage, and Josh Harris walk, extended Grady Jarrett to free up cap space, and may still be moving Deion Jones. In the past two seasons, almost every big contract on the roster has either been launched into the sun or re-worked significantly, and out of the top 10 contracts on the books for the 2020 season, only Jarrett, Matthews and Jones remain.
As I wrote back in December, the Bills memorably put together the biggest single season dead cap charge in NFL history in order to clear out a lot of dead weight from their roster and start over. They nailed their franchise quarterback selection, have used the money they freed up extremely wisely in free agency, and have put together solid enough drafts to put themselves back on the map. The Falcons are going to lean a little more heavily on the draft than Buffalo has, one hopes—Brandon Beane’s track record has been a bit mixed on that front—but it’s not hard to see both why emulating the Bills would be desirable and how the Falcons are trying to do so. They’re carrying the most dead money in the NFL this year in the name of getting to a younger, cheaper and (hopefully) better roster in 2023, with the cap space on hand to
Now Terry Fontenot is weighing in on the Buffalo example, as well. In an excellent longform piece from Cameron Wolfe at NFL.com,
“I see a lot of parallels with Buffalo,” Fontenot said. “They took a step back to take a step forward as they went through their cap issues.”
The Falcons, without their clear version of Allen, might have further to go than that Bills team. Two rival front office executives told me they’d rank the Falcons among the five least-talented NFL rosters going into the 2022 season.
“This is not a complete teardown,” Fontenot said. “We still have some core pieces here we want to keep. We also know we have a lot of work to do. We’re ready to do the work and bring in the right guys.”
This is the closest Fontenot will get to admitting that this team is in a rebuild, a transition period, or a franchise phoenix rising from the ashes of what was, depending on what terminology you favor. It’s also beyond obvious that Buffalo provides the example that Fontenot and Smith admire and want to emulate, and while every rebuilding team can probably say the same thing, few have actually tried to follow that blueprint as closely as Atlanta has to this point. It’s not easy in the NFL to get the job security and to have the confidence necessary to get rid of fan favorites and essentially announce you’re going to continue losing, which is part of why the Falcons danced around the notion that they’re not going to be a great football team the past two offseasons. Even now, Fontenot continues to emphasize that the team intends to compete.
The question is whether this team, having done the teardown work necessary to free up cap space and set themselves on a better path, can walk that path. 2019 was the critical offseason for Buffalo, as they had their quarterback of the future (which the Falcons are hoping will be Desmond Ridder) and splurged on crucial additions like receivers John Brown and Cole Beasley, a retooled offensive line and other help for Josh Allen to go with a a smartly rebuilt defense that was dominant that year. The Falcon are further away from a great defense and almost certainly didn’t just draft Allen 2.0, so the need for these past two draft classes to be terrific and set them up well for next year are readily apparent. If Ridder can be even a good starter, that would also help a great deal.
In the end, the Falcons’ team won’t be the Bills, even if the road they take to get there has its undeniable similarities. Whether they can be as good as the Bills soon is the central question, and even if it’s not going to be a huge year, 2022 will tell us a lot about whether the walls they’ve torn down and the foundation they’re building back up are worthy of the comparison.