The Atlanta Falcons' season came to an end on Sunday, and the organization officially put a bow on it Monday during a season-end press conference with owner Arthur Blank and team president and CEO Rich McKay.
As was expected, much of the conversation focused on the future of the organization. The Falcons just wrapped up a third straight losing season and are currently in the midst of a search for their next head coach and general manager, who will usher in a new chapter for the franchise. The previous decade was the most successful in team history, and that is largely thanks to players like quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones.
However, despite what they've accomplished in Atlanta and what they mean to the Falcons, there remains at least a possibility that the team continues into the next decade without them.
"What I think is important, most important, is that we hire people who are, number one, the very best at their jobs," Blank said. "That goes without saying. Who will come forward with a plan for us to have a championship team, a competitive team, et cetera. And that may include Matt and Julio for now, for the next two years, three years, or may not. I have no idea."
Monday was not the first time Blank has been asked about the future of the two All-Pros, and his answer has remained the same. Whoever he and McKay hire to move the team in what they hope is a championship direction will have say in how they go about accomplishing that goal.
There's no way to go about determining a path for Atlanta to again achieve a high level of success without considering Ryan or Jones, they are the focal points of the current roster after all. But that doesn't mean there's no path forward without Ryan or Jones. If the future head coach and general manager come to the conclusion that the best strategy for short-term and sustained success does not include two potential future Hall of Famers on sizeable contracts, Blank says he won't stand in their way.
"You cannot hire the very best people you can hire, whether it be general managers or head coaches, and then tie their hands and tell them, well, this person is off limits and that one is off limits and that one," Blank said. "What you're asking them for, which is not off limits and needs to be probed deeply, do they have a championship plan, do they have a plan on turning around the franchise sooner rather than later so we're winning in 2021? Do we have a plan that's sustainable over a long period of time so we can make sure this team is competitive not just for the next year or two but over a longer period of time than that? … However that affects certain players, it affects certain players."
While it may be difficult for some fans to come to grips with the Falcons moving forward without Ryan, the NFL's MVP in 2016, or Jones, widely regarded as one of the very best receivers in the league, that's something all teams must deal with. In many ways, the most successful teams are those who effectively balance the cost of losing a player with the cost of keeping a player.
Life in the NFL is filled with change, a reality all involved are fully aware of. After Sunday's game, Ryan laid that out clearly while also expressing optimism that he will be in Atlanta in 2021.
"I think I'm here," Ryan said. "I feel like I can be a really good football player for this team for a long time, but no one knows. You never know in this league what can happen, but I feel good about it."
There's also the matter of how it would be perceived by the very candidates the Falcons are currently interviewing if Blank declared an unyielding stance on certain players. Blank explained that he believes ownership ranks pretty high on the list of factors that make a destination appealing for a candidate. In that area, he thinks the Falcons get "fairly good marks."
"I think it's a mistake for an owner to lay out a set of dictates like that for general manager and head coach," Blank said. "If I was a general manager or head coach considering this opportunity and I heard an owner say that, to me I'd be a little nervous because I think that's crossing a line for me that I don't believe an owner should ever cross."
If there was a theme to Monday's press conference it was Blank's desire for the Falcons to become a team that achieves sustained success. He wants to hire people who present a clear vision for how to make that happen and support them in that effort.
Part of sustaining success means having succession plans in place. Jones, himself, is a perfect example of how the Falcons have excelled in accomplishing that succession at times over the years, and it's an example Blank pointed to.
When drafted in 2011, Jones arrived in Atlanta with immense talent but still considered the No. 2 to Roddy White. At the time, White was entering his seventh season and was coming off an All-Pro 2010 season that earned him a fourth-straight Pro Bowl selection. Jones developed alongside White, giving the Falcons two top-flight weapons, and he eventually surpassed his mentor as the team's No. 1 threat.
Something similar is unfolding once again. With Jones banged up for much of the 2020 season, Calvin Ridley showcased his elite skills as Atlanta's No. 1 receiver. In his third year, Ridley gained 1,374 yards, tied with Green Bay Packers star Davante Adams for fifth-most. When on the field, Jones remains one of the league's best. But now, the Falcons know they've got someone capable of taking the mantle whenever Jones is not around.
"That's the healthy transitions that fans should expect us to go through and be prepared for," Blank said. "It doesn't mean we love any of these players less. We love them all just as much, whether they're with us or whether they move on to something else in their lives."