One of the most common words in football vernacular is process. You stick with your process. You don't waiver from your process. Trust the process.
The Falcons seemed to break from the process that GM Terry Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith set in motion more than a year ago with the exploration of a DeShaun Watson deal – a pursuit that owner Arthur Blank said consisted of one video interview – and subsequent trade of franchise quarterback Matt Ryan.
While those moves might have been 11th hour detours – and that's always a major risk – what has otherwise transpired and will transpire are pretty much playing out to the predetermined script.
As for the quarterback situation, Marcus Mariota was signed to compete for the starting quarterback job. I spoke to Mariota earlier this year and he's as motivated as ever to prove he's not just as a bridge to the next QB, who could be drafted this year or acquired via trade, or through draft or free agency in 2023.
The rest of the roster and the pending construction of it is no different than it would have been if Watson or Ryan were the quarterback. This is a reality that has gotten lost in the emotional backdrop of Atlanta not acquiring Watson and trading Ryan.
The Falcons had little money to spend in free agency and planned to sign veterans hoping to reinvigorate or extend careers to short-term contracts. That has been the case.
Fontenot and his staff have signed cornerback Casey Hayward, edge Lorenzo Carter and wideouts KhaDarel Hodge, Damiere Byrd and Auden Tate, as well as underrated running back Damien Williams in free agency. The re-signing of running back Cordarelle Patterson and safety Erik Harris and cornerback Isiah Oliver keeps some certainty in positions of need.
The draft is how the nucleus will continue to be built.
In a season where so many teams have made blockbuster trades and free agent signings – and Tom Brady un-retired to remain in Tampa Bay and Aaron Rodgers stayed with the Packers – the Falcons are in a place where Smith's ability to coach players up and guys competing with chips on their shoulder will be common refrains.
Blank, at the NFL annual meetings in Palm Beach, Fla., last week, said this was the year where they opted to pay the bank for the salary-cap juggling they've done in the past to try to get back to the Super Bowl. He told me that the inability to re-sign players like linebacker Foye Oluokun, who signed with the Jaguars in free agency, and De'Vondre Campbell, who they let walk in 2020 because they couldn't afford them, pained him.
He's tired of it. So now, they’re paying off all their debts.
Next year, they'll have the money to pay players from elsewhere and from their own team who they want to keep and build around.
It's a circumstance most teams have dealt with and plenty of teams who are wheeling and dealing and doing salary-cap Rubik's cubing right now will have to contend with in the future. It's still an uncomfortable reality, especially for a first-time coach and first-time GM who hoped to be making progress off a 7-10 record in 2021.
"You know what you sign up for when you sign up for an NFL job," Smith said at the annual meeting in Palm Beach. "You're going to have different obstacles come your way and you better be able to handle them."
As much as it seems like there are rain clouds fixated over Flowery Branch, recent history shows things can turn around quickly if done the right way with the right quarterback and talent.
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Last season's AFC champion Bengals were 4-11-1 in 2020. The 49ers were 4-12 in 2018 and went to the Super Bowl the next season. The Buccaneers: 7-9 in 2019; Super Bowl champs in 2020.
Again, each of those teams had solid rosters and healthy, play-making quarterbacks for their rapid ascents. The Falcons seemingly don't have either right now.
Smith worked his career to earn this shot and he's not going the excuses route. Salute to him. He won't let his players use them so why should he? There have been plenty of coaches and execs who've used a prohibitive salary cap or certain roster limitations as reasons why they've failed.
Smith seems bent on showing he can overcome them. Based on what he did last season, why doubt his ability?
Even he admits the process was re-routed, though.
"There were things that happened that were certainly unexpected that may have altered a plan or two," he said. "That led us to the situation we're in now."