For the first time since 1997, the Atlanta Falcons are winless through five weeks. That 1997 season was filled with hope and optimism after the hiring of Dan Reeves. In his first year as head coach, he led the Falcons back from that 0-5 start to finish 7-9, winning five out of their last six games. Much like last year’s 2019 team, the 1997 team finished red hot with the belief their momentum would carry over the following season.
Though there was plenty to look forward to, the 1997 season will always be marked with tragedy, as then team owner Rankin Smith died in late October. The Falcons honored Smith with a commemorative patch for the rest of the 1997 season, but even more so in the 1998 season as the team did, in fact, ride their momentum all the way to the Super Bowl. Inversely, the 2020 season has been filled with inadequate preparation and execution, coercing Arthur Blank into firing those responsible, Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff.
In a press conference Monday, the Falcons owner was asked about the future of Matt Ryan. To which he replied ambiguously, “I love Matt, much like I love Dan and I love Thomas,” Blank said. “Matt has been a franchise leader for us. A great quarterback. One of the leading quarterbacks in the last 13 years in the NFL. So, I hope he’s going to be a part of our plans going forward, but that will be a decision that I won’t make.”
It is apparent that Blank will take a backseat to the new general manager and head coach on personnel decisions. However, even though he assured the media he would leave the choice up to others, he showed his hand as he indicated it would also be up to Matt Ryan whether or not he stays. “That’s going to have be a decision, at the end of the day, part of it will be up to player and part of it will be up to the (new) coaching staff,” Blank said.
It is clear Blank is hedging his bet in this quote as he suggests a possible future with Ryan, perhaps implying a contract restructure or extension. In this week’s edition of Overreaction Tuesday, we will speculate on what a future with and without Matt Ryan would look like.
The obvious must be stated that when Ryan signed his 5-year, $150 million contract extension in May of 2018 that it would be financially detrimental to get rid of him in the future. Since cutting Ryan is not an option due to the massive amount of dead money and nonexistent cap savings, let us look at some other transactional options.
The future head coach’s word should carry great weight in the conversation surrounding Matt Ryan. If the decision is to keep him, there must be a common perception among the HC and GM that this roster does not need to be entirely gutted. In its current capacity, the roster still needs adjusting due to a lack of talent in certain areas and the impending drop in future salary caps. But if the new HC and GM think they can succeed immediately, then Ryan must agree to restructure or extend his current deal to allocate funds elsewhere. Like I mentioned earlier, I believe Blank is hopeful for one of these outcomes, either due to his eagerness to return to the Super Bowl or his fondness for his quarterback.
For this scenario of keeping Matt Ryan, reference the Matt Lafleur hire in Green Bay. In the offseason ahead of the 2018 season, Brian Gutekunst was named successor of long-time Packer GM Ted Thompson. Later during the 2018 season, Gutekunst and President Mark Murphy decided to fire long-time Packer HC Mike McCarthy. Whether Gutekunst and Murphy opted for Lafleur because he said he could win immediately with Rodgers or not, the two were enticed when they heard Lafleur’s future plans for the team. Rodgers was 35, turning 36 with a $30 million cap hit when the 2019 season started; in a new offensive system, he led Green Bay to a 13-3 record and the NFC Championship. Ryan is close in proximity to Rodgers’ age and salary, begging the question of why the same cannot be done in Atlanta.
For starters, the 2019 roster of Green Bay was more talented than Atlanta’s current roster. That is apparent as the Packers are undefeated thus far in the 2020 season. The Falcons will need to economically add talent, and to do so, Matt Ryan will have to agree to a restructured or extended contract. This way, there is no dead cap, only cap savings.
If Ryan agreed on an extension, the cap savings would be somewhere around $17.5 million in 2021, $18.1 million in 2022, and $21.4 million in 2023 depending on the details of that extension. Matt Ryan will be 38 in 2023, and with the combination of Ryan’s playstyle and now a common theme among quarterbacks to play into their 40s, extending Ryan two more years is reasonable. A restructured contract would not generate as much savings as an extension but would present the prospect of drafting Ryan’s successor sooner. Restructuring Ryan’s current contract would result in approximate savings of $14.6 million in 2021 and $11.3 million in 2022.
Either way, there would be some cap relief, keeping the Falcons competitive with Ryan under center. Restructuring or extending him will not prevent the new HC and GM from drafting their franchise quarterback. Like the Packers, the Falcons could draft their future quarterback to sit and develop behind an MVP. If possible, this has to be the ideal approach for Atlanta to seamlessly transition away from Ryan.
Now to ruffle some feathers, the new HC and GM could choose to move on from Matt Ryan this offseason. Thus, giving up hope of a championship run in the present to build a winner in the distant future. Much like the Miami Dolphins have done acquiring future draft capital, if the new HC and GM gut the roster to launch the team into a similar rebuild, Ryan would be an important trade piece to do so.
Matt Ryan’s trade value is astronomical, and if said trade came to fruition, it would be one of the most franchise-altering trades, for both sides, in NFL history. Since the start of the 2016 season, the former MVP is completing 67% of his passes for an average of 30 touchdowns and ten interceptions per year. His presence would immediately turn a non-contender into a playoff-caliber team. Much like Peyton Manning going to Denver or Kurt Warner going to Arizona, leaving Atlanta could result in Ryan getting another shot to add a Super Bowl to his trophy case.
Chicago would be an ideal suitor for Ryan as he lands on a talented roster that is a quarterback away from competing for a Super Bowl. It is evident that neither Nick Foles nor Mitch Trubisky is the long-term answer for the Bears. San Francisco is another potential landing spot, as Kyle Shanahan benched Jimmy Garoppolo this past week. John Lynch structured Garoppolo’s contract to allow the team to move on from him via trade or cut with minimal financial repercussions.
A trade would likely net the Falcons a first-round pick and then some, and the implications it would trigger on the team’s salary cap are substantial. If the Falcons traded Ryan pre-June 1st, the dead money would be $44.4 million in 2021, $26.5 million in 2022, and $8.6 million in 2023. The correlating savings starting in 2021 would be -$3.5 million, $15.1 million, and $28 million in 2023. Essentially, what all these numbers confirm is that Matt Ryan will remain quarterback for the rest of this season. The Falcons would only move Ryan before the trade deadline in November if offered a king’s ransom — multiple first-round draft picks.
As that scenario is unlikely, the Falcons could more realistically trade Ryan with a post-June 1st designation. This would result in Atlanta incurring a much more manageable dead cap figure. The ensuing dead money would be $17.9 million for 2021 and 2022 and $8.6 million in 2023. A post-June 1st trade would be the catalyst resulting in the most cap savings for the team. Savings would be $23 million in 2021 and 2022 and $28 million in 2023.
The dead cap is significant either way, but trading Ryan would indicate the commencement of a rebuild. Rebuilds take years to complete, and the massive dead money in 2021 and 2022 would have little effect as the team would likely be one of the worst in the league in the immediate years following the trade.
There are various routes the new HC and GM can take regarding Matt Ryan. The dead cap number is scary in most trade circumstances, but I again question why a team needs every little cent in a rebuild. Much like a bottom-tier NBA franchise, absorbing expensive contracts from playoff-contending teams for future draft capital is a clever strategy.
A restructured contract is what is most sensical in terms of continued competitiveness for the team while drafting Ryan’s successor to sit and learn. It is simple from there, once the heir apparent beats Matt Ryan out in training camp, you move on from him. Regardless of how the new HC and GM approach Ryan’s situation, something will have to be done for the Falcons to comply with the 2021 salary cap, and with Ryan nearing the end of his career, he could be next out the door.