‘We have something to prove’

Since trading longtime quarterback Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts this offseason, the Atlanta Falcons have set about locating their next franchise signal-caller for the first time in 14 years.

Atlanta’s signing of former first-round QB Marcus Mariota and drafting of Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft suggest the Falcons will patch the wound left by Ryan’s absence in 2022, but not completely heal it. It’s a shrewd, cost-effective strategy for the cap-strapped Falcons, especially with a well-regarded crop of throwers possibly available in the 2023 draft.

But don’t expect Atlanta to be distracted this season by the possibility of what could be in the future, even to the point of not trying to win as many games in 2022 to secure a higher pick. No, the Falcons are trying to win now.

“This is a waste of your time and my time if you want to talk about ’23,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith told The Athletic’s Jeff Schultz in a recent interview. “It’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard — that a team would try to not win football games. If you don’t, there’s going to be consequences. OK, you’re at the top of the draft — I got it. But you’re in a very transactional phase of the National Football League right now. Trades in the draft. Trades for quarterbacks. It’s a different landscape than when Jimmy Johnson took over the Dallas Cowboys in 1989. It was pre-free agency. The famous Herschel Walker trade. They blew it up and went 1-15, and … it was a long rebuild. That is not the same NFL as today. Back then, people would’ve given their first born before they gave their picks away. People are still going off old narratives, and it’s comical.

“Any good team knows how to rebuild every year.”

The Falcons are trying to be one of those good teams. In addition to replacing Ryan with Mariota and Ridder this offseason, Atlanta re-signed do-everything back Cordarrelle Patterson, added Damien Williams to its backfield, signed reserve receivers Damiere Byrd, KhaDarel Hodge and Auden Tate, traded for Las Vegas Raiders wideout Bryan Edwards and drafted Drake London with their top pick to pair with star tight end Kyle Pitts. Those moves might not scream “Super Bowl LVII, here we come,” but they do resemble an attempted rebuild on the fly, and the Falcons trying to improve on Smith’s first season as head coach, a 7-10 campaign that the analytically minded saw as overperformance.

To those folks sure to write off the Falcons’ ability to win games in 2022, Smith has no time for their games.

“There’s a lot of people who are invested and love the strategies of team building,” Smith told Schultz. “They’re engaged, and they play pretend GM online. They pretend they know the salary cap, and they pretend they know what the locker room is like, and they pretend to know what it’s like to put a game plan together, and they pretend to know about life in the NFL. But they have no idea.”

The Falcons currently rank last among all 32 NFL teams in cap spending this season ($131.4 million), though much of that is due to the fact that Atlanta ranks first in dead money ($63 million) with much of it tied to departed legends in Ryan and Julio Jones. That figure and its effect on Atlanta’s spending habits are reflective of the Falcons’ attempt to move on from the Thomas Dimitroff era and fully embrace the Smith and Terry Fontenot future.

“This is not a complete teardown,” Fontenot told NFL Network’s Cameron Wolfe after the draft. “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.”

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