The firing of Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff just a few weeks before the November 3rd NFL trade deadline has the rumor mill buzzing. Will Matt Ryan be traded? Could Kyle Shanahan offer the Falcons the farm for his old drinking buddy in an effort to solve the San Francisco 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo problem? Could Ryan be the missing piece that makes the Chicago Bears Super Bowl contenders? Just what sort of Texas-sized deal would Jerry Jones put together to bring Ryan to the Dallas Cowboys as Dak Prescott’s replacement?
Fun scenarios. And all of them are utter bullsnot. Matt Ryan is not getting traded: certainly not before the deadline, probably not before the 2021 season. But the regime change in Atlanta does pose interesting questions for Ryan’s long-term future, with or without the team, and it could lead to an eventual trade once the Falcons select their new braintrust and the NFL approaches its quarterback Extinction Level Event.
What the Falcons are saying about Matt Ryan
Here’s what Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank said about Ryan during his press conference after the Quinn dismissal, in its entirety:
“I love Matt, much like I love Dan [Quinn], I love Thomas [Dimitroff]. Matt’s been a franchise leader for us, a great quarterback: one of the leading quarterbacks in the last 13 years in the NFL. I hope he’s going to be part of our plans going forward. But that will be a decision that I won’t make.
“Matt has the ability to play at a very high level, even at this age. Whether that’s going to continue or not, I’m not sure. I appreciate his willingness to consider doing that, and at the level he’s played for us for 13 years, which has been incredible. So we’ll have to see.
“But then again, that’s going to be a decision, at the end of the day, part of it will be up to the player, part of it will be up to the coaching staff. And whether or not Matt can keep himself together. God willing, he’ll be able to do that and play at the level that he’s capable of playing at.”
Now, here’s how those comments were interpreted once the spiciest quotes were ripped from context and ran through the spin cycle:
Did you hear that? Blank said he’s “not sure” if Ryan will be the Falcons quarterback much longer. He said he wouldn’t make a decision! Sounds like he’s leaving the door wide open to trade Matt Ryan. He even mentioned Ryan in the same breath as the two guys who just got fired. What does that tell you? I know what it tells me: Bears GM Ryan Pace should be on the phone with Blank right now offering a trade where he gives Eddie Jackson, Mitch Trubisky, and a second-round pick for Matt Ryan!
Here’s an interpretation which is somewhat closer to what Blank was trying to say:
I am trying to attract the best available head coaching candidates, so the last thing I want to do is sound like a hands-on owner who declares that I hold veto power over trading my favorites. I’m also realistic about the fact that a complete roster rebuild is coming and that Ryan is 35 years old: he might not be the same player when we are more ready to compete two years from now. So please let me get through this press conference without saying anything controversial so I can hide in my office until it’s time to interview Eric Bieniemy and Brian Daboll in January.
Falcons CEO Rich McKay emphasized Blank’s point, but with fewer heart emojis around Matt Ryan’s name. “This will not be a situation where we’re gonna predetermine the roster for the next head coach and general manager. We’re gonna let them come in, let them evaluate this roster, let them see the moves they want to make,” McKay said (quote via Mike Florio at Pro Football Talk).
Pretty unequivocal, right? But McKay did say he would listen to offers (that’s his job, after all) in the best interest of the team. So, what if the 49ers want to trade for Matt Ryan and offer two first-round picks two weeks from Tuesday? Huh? Huh?
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The problem with trading Matt Ryan
Ryan currently has three years and $59 million remaining on his contract. The Falcons, meanwhile, will remain on the hook for roughly $42-million in dead cap space (the prorated roster bonuses from his 2018 contract) even if they find a trade partner eager to absorb Matt Ryan’s remaining salary. And Ryan would almost certainly expect a new contract with his next employer: his future Falcons compensation is based in part on hefty roster bonuses for 2022 and 2023 that disappear if he changes teams.
So any team trading for Ryan would also be trading for a budget-altering contract wrangle – not the sort of thing you do because Garoppolo threw a few interceptions. Furthermore, if the Falcons traded Matt Ryan, they would be creating a dead-money crunch that would hamstring their next regime financially for two full seasons, assuming they spread that $42-million cap hit out.
That’s precisely what McKay and Blank don’t want to do because it’s exactly the type of problem that makes a hot coaching candidate hang up the phone so he can listen to the Houston Texans’ offer.
Trading Matt Ryan after the 2021 season becomes easier. That’s when those roster bonuses kick in, making him less affordable for the Falcons, and his dead space cap hit is about $18-million lower. The Falcons could even release Matt Ryan after 2021, though it’s possible that he will still have considerable trade value by then. That sets up some future scenarios which are much more interesting than some trade-deadline blockbuster pipe dreams.
A realistic plan for the Falcons and Ryan
Let’s assume the Falcons ride out this year with their current roster and finish about 4-12, within range of selecting Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State’s Justin Fields, or North Dakota State’s Trey Lance in the 2021 NFL Draft.
They then hire their top candidate as head coach — let’s name him Daboll Bieniemy — and allow him to handle personnel responsibilities under McKay’s auspices.
Daboll Bieniemy wants “his guy” to groom at quarterback. But he also took the Falcons job, in part, because Ryan’s presence would allow for a smooth first season: spruce up the defense a bit, go 7-9 with a quarterback who doesn’t panic at the first blitz, and look like a folk hero. So, the Falcons go the Alex Smith/Patrick Mahomes route for one year where they draft a rookie so he can spend a year on the bench watching a real franchise quarterback, not some mentor-for-hire.
By the end of the 2021 season, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger are either retired or deep in Johnny Unitas-with-the-Chargers denial: the Quarterback Extinction-Level Event. Despite Sean Payton’s insistence that Taysom Hill can replace all four of them simultaneously, this mass exodus creates a buyer’s market for veterans who can still win. Having bided their time, the Falcons then pull the trigger. This then nets them draft picks to help the Daboll Bieniemy administration complete its rebuild.
There are many moving parts to that scenario. But it’s built on a foundation of what the Falcons plan to do moving forward, and similar to the way well-run organizations operate.
And yes, the Falcons are a well-run organization: They’ve reached the playoffs eight times, gone 13-3 twice, and nearly (sigh) won the Super Bowl since Blank bought the team in 2002. The Falcons don’t make knee-jerk decisions that blow up their budgets or hog-tie future decision-makers. They certainly don’t make trades, including one that involves Matt Ryan, because they like making headlines.
So any team hoping to acquire Matt Ryan via trade had better be ready to wait.