The Buffalo Bills are still one of the better teams in the NFL. The Atlanta Falcons are decidedly not. Over the past five seasons, the Bills have the third-best regular season record in the NFL at 53-28 and have been to the playoffs four times, while the Falcons have the 25th-best record in that span at 32-50 with zero postseason appearances.
Yet the Falcons are clearly trying to emulate the Bills, and if all goes well, this is the year where that emulation becomes a little more lifelike and a lot more successful. The question is just how closely they’ll follow the model.
You may recall that I’ve written about this a couple of times before. In December 2021, ahead of a snowy matchup against Buffalo, Arthur Smith praised the Bills and said the team they had built was “not dissimilar” to what Atlanta was hoping to create. Last May, fresh off a wild offseason that saw the Falcons try to get Deshaun Watson, trade Matt Ryan, and draft Desmond Ridder, Terry Fontenot said he saw “a lot of parallels with Buffalo” for the team’s 2022 and future plans.
What were they referring to? The short version is that the Bills ate a huge amount of cap space in 2017 with a new regime in town, continued to slog a bit through 2018 while building a foundation and snagging their quarterback of the future, and have a consistent force of nature and playoff team since then. The Falcons didn’t exactly follow that path, choosing to eat their heaping plate of cold dead cash in year two instead of year one, but it was in service of following the path the Bills did. Buffalo had to clear cap space and part with aging franchise icons to try to put together a consistent winner, and they did it.
The appeal of that road for a new regime is easy to understand. Terry Fontenot inherited contracts that proved to be terrible or just plain onerous, and while I’m not saying the intent was to buy time, taking flexibility-limiting dead money hits in the service of clearing things out for the future has the dual benefit of taking pressure off of you to contend in the here and now while putting you in an excellent position to flex that cap space down the road. The Bills came out of their mini-exile with space to spare, and it earned them some patience and goodwill while they scuffled with a very green Josh Allen and a limited roster in 2018.
The Falcons have an owner who is at least publicly talking a good game of understanding that the past two years were part of the plan and seems genuinely excited about the team’s young quarterback, and have now completed the teeth-gritting part of the Bills rebuild blueprint. If all goes well—hardly a guarantee with Atlanta football—they should follow that Buffalo timeline and arrive here in their third year. There are real obstacles here, from the lack of clarity around whether the Falcons have their quarterback and the cost of getting one if not to
Fontenot and Smith didn’t bring up the Bills on a lark, and I continue to think of Buffalo as the most plain sight example of what Atlanta is up to here. We tend to think of Fontenot as being part of the cap-discovery machine that New Orleans runs, but he was with the Saints when they first became relevant owing to the arrival of Sean Payton. Drew Brees, and a truly impactful draft class. As he recalled to NFL.com’s Cameron Wolfe, those (gross and terrible, standard disclaimer) Saints proved to be tough, resilient, and talented, showing Fontenot that the right roster building and the right makeup of the players and coaches on your team can lead you places. The opportunity to put his stamp on this team, to build from the ground up with the draft and a wealth of cap space, and the chance to put together a team that could enjoy a multi-year run of real success is what this team wants to be about.
The Falcons are unquestionably further away from that kind of success entering Year 3 than Brandon Beane and company were in Buffalo, given that the Bills had Josh Allen and a more settled roster than Atlanta, while the Falcons have an unproven Desmond Ridder and a ton of holes. This is still the moment to prove the last two years have been about more than saving for a rainy day and going outside without an umbrella, given that the Falcons can reasonably add several high-end starters and quality depth to the roster with their combined resources.
The question for the Falcons remains whether they have their quarterback or have to go get that player, and barring a jump back into the Lamar Jackson sweepstakes, they certainly won’t have Josh Allen. Regardless, they hope to emulate the Bills in one very significant, very simple way: By winning a lot in the third year under a regime that was willing to endure a couple of frustrating, cap-strapped years to get here.