Let’s start with the Super Bowl, because it seems nobody can think about the Falcons’ upcoming draft or their roster makeup or whether somehow Kyle Shanahan is to blame for the fact every major thoroughfare in Atlanta is collapsing or opening up a new sinkhole to hell without thinking of their last game.
The franchise took the city for an incredible ride last season, until suddenly in the fourth quarter of the final game, it was like watching an unfinished roller coaster run out of track at the top of a hill.
So now we wonder: Is this team built to last for a while and can get it get back to the Super Bowl again?
In short, yes and yes. Pro athletes can compartmentalize things pretty well, far better than couch slouches in front of their televisions. If the Falcons don’t make it back to the Super Bowl next season, it won’t be because they’re still moping around in some post-Houston funk. It will be because all of those things that need to happen for a deep postseason run won’t fall into place game: good health, timely match-ups, home playoff games, a dash of luck.
They remain built to win. A significant core of their roster last season was comprised of first- and second-year players. Not included in that group are their three best players — Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Desmond Trufant, who have a lot of wear left.
This suggests the franchise’s “window” for a championship will remain wide open for a good while. But predicting these things can be problematic. Two seasons ago, the Carolina Panthers rode an MVP quarterback (Cam Newton) and an aggressive defense to a 15-1 regular season and the Super Bowl. But instead of contending again in 2016, they spiraled to a 1-5 start and a 6-10, last-place finish.
Winning is fragile in pro sports, maybe more so in the NFL than any other league because of the salary cap and depth issues. So is the Falcons’ window really as big as it seems?
“Let me put it this way,” general manager Thomas Dimitroff said Thursday, a week before the draft. “Dan (Quinn) and I, as co-builders, have a strong understanding of what we have now. We’re both driven toward the here-and-now. It doesn’t mean we don’t have a vision for the future.
“But there’s a confidence about our approach that we can continue to make the right decisions. We think the window can be stretched out for years. We don’t sit here thinking, ‘We have to do this within three years. Or five years.’ We talk about trying to capitalize on guys being in the prime of their career.”
I brought up the subject of Carolina’s decline, but Dimitroff wouldn’t comment on whether everybody overvalued the Panthers, saying only: “I’m extremely confidence in the leadership of Dan Quinn as the head coach and Matt Ryan as the leader of the players. That eases my mind, knowing both are incredibly competitive, confident and adept at their respective positions.”
History is not on the Falcons’ side. The last Super Bowl losing team to go back to the title game was 24 years ago: Buffalo went to four straight years from 1990 to 1993. Eventually, the Bills just got too old.
The Falcons have youth, talent and depth. They’re not hamstrung by a lot of “dead money” on their cap. They lost only one free agent of significance this offseason, fullback Patrick DiMarco, who jumped from $860,000 last season to a four-year deal with Buffalo that averages more than $2 million per season.
Other than injuries, there’s one thing that hurts every team in the long run: Players are developed and then leave for more money. Carolina lost cornerback Josh Norman (Washington). The Falcons have a number of significant players with expiring contracts in the next two years, including: running back Devonta Freeman, tackle Jake Matthews and safety Ricardo Allen after the 2017 season, and Ryan, edge rusher Vic Beasley Jr. and running back Tevin Coleman after the 2018 season. (Dimitroff has done some good work, recently signing Jones, Trufant, Robert Alford and Ryan Schraeder to extensions.)
The first potential player to go boom in negotiations? That’s easy: Freeman.
He is a former fourth-round draft pick who in the last two seasons has 2,135 rushing yards, 127 receptions, 27 touchdowns and two Pro Bowls. He has outplayed his contract, which will pay him about $1.918 million in 2017. Freeman is quiet, popular with his teammates and likes Atlanta. But his agent, Kristin Campbell, popped off during Super Bowl week about the need for Freeman to be paid like an “elite” back. Her more famous husband, Luther “Uncle Luke” Campbell, continued with some ominous comments on Twitter.
Negotiations will open some time before training camp and Freeman is going to want a lot of money. This will be delicate, especially given that as good as Freeman is and as much as the Falcons value him, they also like Coleman. And can they pay both? And what of the other deals, particularly Ryan’s and Beasley’s?
Dimitroff is constantly running through the hypotheticals in his head. But he says he’s not concerned.
“We’re going to be calculated about it and, of course, we know there’s only so many of these big contracts you can sign,” he said. “But I’m not worried about any ripple effect.”
The draft comes first. The money talks come later. The Falcons’ window to contend should remain open for a while, but “should” is no guarantee.