The tone of Atlanta’s wrapup press conference featuring General Manager Terry Fontenot and Head Coach Arthur Smith wasn’t a grim post-mortem on a losing season, but a forward-looking wrapup of a season the team clearly hopes precedes great things.
That’s understandable, given the team’s position. Smith and Fontenot have endured big dead money hits, threadbare rosters, unexpected suspensions and retirements, and the need for tenacity and savviness to replace talent and salary. Now the Falcons can spend big, add a third draft class featuring a top ten pick, and hopefully build on the foundation they’ve put together with their limited resources up to this point.
Here’s a summary of what we heard from the pair today on topics ranging from the search for a defensive coordinator to Desmond Ridder’s future.
Looking far and wide for a defensive coordinator
The Falcons have a vacancy with Dean Pees’ retirement. After two seasons of trying to get Atlanta’s defense from punching bag to respectable, Pees has decided to retire for a third and likely final time. That leaves the Falcons with a young defense about to receive a major influx of talent (we hope) through free agency and the draft and no one to pilot it.
While it’s obviously an urgent, crucial hire, Arthur Smith stressed on Wednesday that the team is not in a huge hurry to get someone onboard. Instead, the Falcons plan to cast a wide net, look at a number of candidates, and not worry about how quickly that hire happens.
“We’re going to take our time, which I think is important,” Smith said. “There is familiarity with schemes [and people] you want to talk to, but we’re not going to be close-minded about anything. I think it’s important. I like the setup they have now. I think it helps. I don’t feel rushed. In years past, if you’re in this situation, you may feel rushed. Things have slowed down. We’ll be mindful of that. I want to talk to a lot of different people; I have already talked to a few so far.”
The only names that have been reported thus far are not inspiring ones—longtime defensive coordinator and former head coach Jim Haslett and Packers passing game coordinator Jerry Gray—but the hope is that an exhaustive search will turn up a great candidate, no matter what the name may be. I wouldn’t necessarily expect a new defensive coordinator to be announced before late January or even early February, given that.
Ridder impressed, but Falcons are still evaluating quarterback
The Falcons wound up giving rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder a fairly short audition for the 2023 starting job, just four games in total. While he didn’t exactly blow anyone’s doors off, Ridder did improve over the course of those games, making some sharp throws and displaying toughness and leadership the team clearly liked when they drafted him.
Where does that leave him? Smith had kind words for Ridder, as he has throughout the past several weeks, but stopped short of anointing him the starter. That’s not a surprise.
Arthur Smith on whether Desmond Ridder as starter in future:— Michael Rothstein (@mikerothstein) January 11, 2023
"Certainly encouraged by the progress that he made," but too early to make that determination right now.
The Falcons also stopped short of declaring that Marcus Mariota is gone—he was in the facility this past week to clean out his locker for the year—but the working assumption is that the veteran will be playing for another team next year. That would leave the Falcons to acquire another quarterback, and the smart money is on them choosing to bring in a veteran to compete with Ridder regardless of who good they feel about the second year player. Obviously, the spring will give us more of a clue as to Ridder’s future based on who the team acquires, but they’ll remain mum about his prospects until at least the summer.
I still think they’ll ultimately roll with him for at least the 2023 season, but the Falcons are going to make him earn it and not tip their hand. Those hoping to know who the starting quarterback will be—and that’s all of us—will have to wait.
Plans will be kept mum
This threads in nicely with what the duo had to say about Ridder, but you won’t be surprised to learn that the Falcons aren’t planning on tipping their hand about who they’ll be targeting or who they’ll re-sign.
That’s typical for front offices, but the Falcons have done a nice job over the past couple of years of tamping down on any leaks ahead of major moves, including the surprise Calvin Ridley trade to the Jaguars.
Still, Fontenot did seemingly give us a clue about one of the team’s priority re-signings, praising Kaleb McGary for the impending free agent’s career year.
Terry Fontenot: "We’re not going to negotiate in the media, but Kaleb (McGary) did some really good things this year."— Josh Kendall (@JoshTheAthletic) January 11, 2023
Higher expectations are fair for the next phase
The Falcons haven’t shied away from higher expectations since Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith arrived in Atlanta, even if it was fair to meet those with skepticism. Now, though? As Fontenot said on Wednesday, the team has entered a “new phase” compared to where they’ve been the past two years.
“We’re in the next phase of the plan,” Fontenot said. “We had a plan from the very beginning, and now we’re in the next phase of that. This is going to be a different offseason than we’ve had the previous years.”
That next phase involves going from feisty team with massive holes to complete team that builds on the best pieces Atlanta has assembled over the past two years with their limited resources. It involves spending tens of millions of dollars to acquire really good players at positions that have been chronic weaknesses, something the Falcons haven’t been able to do in a good long while, and reward stars like A.J. Terrell and Chris Lindstrom with new deals.
As you’d expect from someone who has spent the past two years focusing on making it through a major overhaul while trying to stick to a strict plan, Fontenot is making it clear all that money isn’t going to make this Falcons team reckless. NFL history is littered with the burnt-out hulls of franchises who gave up massive contracts in free agency to try to contend and wound up bad and hamstrung for years, and god willing, Atlanta won’t be one of those teams.
“Just because we have more resources this offseason, we still have to have discipline,” Fontenot said. “We still have to set parameters. We’re trying to put together a puzzle.”