The Falcons started the offseason by pointing to longtime quarterback Matt Ryan as their 2022 starter. As free agency drew closer, they publicly left the door open for a potential change. Then, after former Texans star Deshaun Watson avoided criminal charges related to allegations of sexual misconduct, Atlanta recruited the QB as Ryan’s replacement. On Tuesday, team owner Arthur Blank told NFL Network that he helped lead the failed pursuit of Watson, who’s since landed with the Browns, adding that the Falcons’ subsequent trade of Ryan to the Colts was years in the making.
“That was, initially, it was driven by a group of us — myself, and our president/CEO Rich McKay, our head coach Arthur Smith, Terry Fontenot our general manager, so it was a group discussion,” Blank said of Atlanta’s interest in Watson, who still faces 22 civil lawsuits alleging sexual assault or misconduct. “And I think we felt that it was worthwhile exploring. We had one virtual meeting with Deshaun and his team … It didn’t turn out, (but) it was fine. We’re happy moving on and moving ahead.”
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Moving on, it turned out, also meant parting ways with Ryan, who is now in Indianapolis after spending the first 14 years of his career in Atlanta. Ryan has indicated in some of his first remarks as a member of the Colts that he initiated final discussions to be traded from the Falcons, partially as a result of Atlanta’s willingness to explore Watson as his successor. Blank, however, suggested Ryan’s departure was all but inevitable anyway, twice emphasizing the team’s dire salary-cap situation.
“It’s like being on a credit card,” he said. “Eventually you have to pay the bank off … Matt, who’s been an incredible athlete and leader for us for 14 years now … arguably the best draft pick we’ve ever made, he was consuming 23 or 25 percent of our cap this year … It’s not like golf; this is a team sport. So after 14, going on 15 years, it was time for us to make that transition. And we wish Matt the very best. We definitely have a love affair with him, and he does with us. And that will always be the case.”
Asked why the Falcons didn’t look to deal Ryan prior to the 2021 season, when other veteran QBs were available to acquire, Blank indicated that coach Arthur Smith, then entering his first season atop the staff, knew Ryan well and was more concerned with evaluating players’ long-term futures after a full season together.