FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Over the past week, the Atlanta Falcons spent their time trying to replace aging former MVP quarterback Matt Ryan with Deshaun Watson, a quarterback in his prime who is facing 22 civil lawsuits alleging sexual assault and inappropriate conduct during massage sessions.
And now, the Falcons’ pursuit of Watson is over, as he appears to be headed to the Cleveland Browns.
And the Falcons?
They are left as a franchise under scrutiny for pursuing Watson in the first place and, at the same time, potentially alienating their franchise quarterback.
It leaves Ryan in a position of power. Would anybody blame the 36-year-old if he says he’s had enough and tells Atlanta to go away, much like Baker Mayfield has done in Cleveland?
It would be a change in character for Ryan, who has been the consummate professional from the moment he was drafted by the Falcons in 2008. For the past 14 seasons, he has done all of those things right — including this week, when he kept quiet even as the Falcons were very publicly going after an immediate succession plan no one saw coming.
What happens now for the once-happy Falcons-Ryan partnership? There are a few potential ways this could go down.
The nothing to see here
If Ryan chooses the route he’s chosen his entire career, and continues to be player who rolls with every possible problem thrown his way with the utmost professionalism and character, then perhaps Atlanta can salvage this.
Ryan could be professional enough to say he understands what the Falcons did, he’s happy to be here and knows business is business. It would take a massive amount of fortitude for Ryan to do that after the way this was all handled, with leaks and speculation galore from all angles.
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For the Falcons, they may want to try to play this route if they can. Admit you went after Watson but downplay how hard the push was before committing to Ryan in a meaningful way.
Does that mean a short contract extension? It shouldn’t — and would be another piece of risky business by Atlanta, but if the Falcons want to make their quarterback happy while keeping him in Atlanta, perhaps that’s the way to do it. Finding him a reasonable receiving corps — which currently doesn’t exist — would be another way to show him commitment.
But the Falcons’ foiled pursuit of Watson won’t fade away any time soon — although perhaps if they do want to try to mend fences publicly, a news conference with Ryan, coach Arthur Smith, general manager Terry Fontenot and owner Arthur Blank sooner than later could help.
In this scenario, Ryan is back in Atlanta for 2022 and perhaps beyond.
The Pandora’s box route
When the Falcons pushed the timeline of Ryan’s $7.5 million roster bonus from Friday to Tuesday, so he could explore trade options, it opened up the possibility of Ryan wanting to move on no matter what happened with Watson.
Ryan may have started to do his research and found that another team — perhaps the Indianapolis Colts or Seattle Seahawks — is a more palatable option at this stage of his career, and closer to winning. While Ryan was optimistic in January about the direction of the Falcons and his space in it, this type of public ignominy may have changed that.
If Ryan wants a trade at this point, the Falcons would almost have to grant it. They already lost some public face in pursuing Watson and then losing him — and now if they don’t grant the wishes of the quarterback they just put through the public wringer, that would make the Falcons look, well, worse.
Of course, in this scenario, it’s also possible Atlanta has decided it doesn’t want him to return regardless of whether it wanted Watson. If that had been the case, the Falcons could have found a better way to handle that, too.
The path of succession route
This might be the most sensible path for both sides. In this case, the Falcons and Ryan realize the partnership is coming to an end but also realize the best option is to make 2022 work and see what happens from there — kind of like what happened with Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.
In this path, the Falcons potentially end up taking a quarterback high in the draft, perhaps even at No. 8, despite that being a questionable use of resources for a team in need of talent. This would allow Ryan one more season to play and win in Atlanta while also preparing his eventual replacement for the future.
Ryan has always come across — whether it’s with young receivers or even with last year’s backup Josh Rosen — as being willing to mentor young players. In this scenario, especially if everyone understands the endgame (even if they don’t discuss it publicly), the Falcons can bring along their future at a reasonable pace while Ryan can get one more season to figure out where his own future might play out.
How does all of this end up happening? It may all come down to Ryan and whether he wants to stay or go.