Imagine how publicly intolerable the Browns’ acquisition of Deshaun Watson was that we’re sitting here after the Falcons had to trade Matt Ryan to the Colts due to their own failed pursuit of Watson – for scraps, by the way. – and eat the biggest dead stopper reached in NFL history at the same time and thinking: well it could be worse!
Of course, hardly so. The Falcons, like the Panthers and Saints, are set to play a comically sad season after lining up and tap dancing for a quarterback who has been accused by 22 different women of sexual assault or misconduct. Teams suspended their offseason while the rest of a bustling quarterback carousel played out just for a lottery ticket in the draw that could go down. Cleveland obviously won by rewarding a player accused of serious wrongdoing with a record-breaking, fully guaranteed contract. But everyone is going to have a crack at the walk of shame here. Monday was Atlanta’s turn.
In the days and weeks to come, I’m sure the Falcons will try to convince everyone that this was part of the plan. That Ryan was always going to move on and they were just kicking around in these formal presentations that took a whole lot of research, due diligence, time and effort to organize, celebrity cameos and possibly a promise to rename the building Deshaun Watson Arena. Head Coach Arthur Smith, in a statement on Monday, said: “We are always evaluating and looking for opportunities to improve our team over the long term. This move is another step in that direction, and we look to the future.
While I admittedly haven’t studied the full extent of roster-building strategies throughout NFL history, where trading our franchise quarterback for a third-round pick in a draft where there aren’t even any good first-round quarterbacks, sucking up a massive $40 million cap, and handing Marcus Mariota a two years to be among the best avant-garde plans? Remove the professionalism assumption here and tell me this doesn’t sound like drunken button mashing on your favorite football video game.
There’s an element of schadenfreude here to watch every club that took part in the Watson draw lower their heads and return to an empty glass case with only a small handful of options remaining at the sport’s most important position. At this point, only Baker Mayfield and Jimmy Garoppolo remain on the winning quarterback shelves, and their price is likely increasing by the minute. The Saints had to pay Jameis Winston $14 million per season on a multi-year deal to see how he can get by without Sean Payton. The Panthers are, would have, browsing college options, which is interesting considering how contentious the owner-head coach relationship was just a few months ago, when Matt Rhule’s name came up frequently during the college coaching cycle. They could find themselves doing Sam Darnold all over again in Week 1.
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And then there’s Atlanta, which hired a coach who recreates his own version of the Kyle Shanahan system — the one Ryan was most successful in and used to lead the Falcons to a Super Bowl — and cut the bait afterwards. a season of seven victories. Last year, the Falcons traded one of their franchise stalwarts to a team that finished first in the AFC regular season. With Ryan in Indianapolis, they hope to scratch another block on the my-bad bingo card.
The question remains: Why? At the very least, it didn’t have to be that way. Ryan, who was a consummate professional in Atlanta despite years of stubbornness and self-indulgence around him, never tried to force his way out. He won an MVP, made four Pro Bowls, threw competitive numbers and kept the ball moving. Although older than Watson, Ryan’s best seasons compare favorably to Watson’s body of work. Watson’s best season statistically came in the middle of a 4-12 losing campaign.
Atlanta carried over Ryan’s roster bonus, treating it like some kind of foreign deck furniture to be rearranged based on conditions.
It’s been eye-opening to see teams reveal their true colors while chasing Watson. The Browns, who defiantly backed Baker Mayfield for so long, are now pooping him anonymously on the way out, which is a fascinating strategy considering it simultaneously drives down Mayfield’s asking price. Even though Matt Ryan sat as a shotgun during the entire Falcons charade, Atlanta veterans should take note of how he was treated on the way out. If they can’t handle Matt Ryan, what are they going to do for you?
The realists among us felt that this saga would produce more losers than winners overall; just no idea it would happen so fast. A promising young quarterback has been alienated. A franchise legend was run over en route to the parking lot. You have to wonder if they all think it was worth it.
More NFL coverage:
• How the Browns came back in pursuit of Deshaun Watson
• How 22 women and a star quarterback got here
• The Browns will never live in the Watson trade
• Here’s how far teams will go for a franchise QB