From high above the field, in the otherwise comfort of a luxury suite, Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot saw the same things you did. Two offensive penalties on the first possession. A backup quarterback throwing two interceptions (one nullified by replay). A pass thrown a yard behind a receiver on a 7-yard crossing route. An offense that finished with 138 total yards, and 52 of those came on a scramble. A team that played so poorly at times that head coach Arthur Smith was moved to crack at the end of his postgame news conference, “You guys should get an award for sitting through that.”
Fontenot had similar thoughts in a later interview with The Athletic.
“That was ugly. Just ugly. Arthur’s going to coach who he’s playing, but you still expect a certain brand of football,” Fontenot said.
So, good news: The Falcons’ new head coach and general manager are on the same page.
Also, anything that happened in the relative faux debut of Fontenot and Smith in Friday’s 23-3 exhibition loss to Tennessee doesn’t count, except possibly to the players who were caught on tape doing unwatchable things while trying to win jobs. Exhale: Most of the team’s players who don’t have to worry about their employment were not in uniform. Put it this way: If you own a Falcons jersey with a player’s name on the back, he didn’t play.
First-round pick Kyle Pitts was suited up, but I’m assuming it was only because the marketing department liked the idea of a model on the sideline. But if there is one concern coming out of the first game, it’s that some mistakes were committed by players who will be on the roster.
The Falcons have some proven players. What they don’t have is depth, a situation stemming from the residual hangover of salary-cap constraints that will continue for at least two more seasons. The depth chart includes a thick layer of undrafted free agents and minimum-salary veterans. Together, they constitute the largest group of low-paid players in the NFL.
OverTheCap.com recently broke down the league’s 90-man rosters, slotting players in eight salary-cap levels, from a high of $30 million-plus at the top to $1 million or less at the bottom. The Falcons had the largest percentage of bottom-tiered-salary players at 71.1 percent (64 out of 90 players).
This doesn’t necessarily mean all of those players are bad. Everybody has to start somewhere. Just a few years back, as a high school junior, I covered a high school football game for the Santa Monica Evening Outlook and made $5, and I thought, “Wow! I’m going places!”
(The losing head coach after that game told me, “Either we’re the worst football team in the league, or I’m the worst coach,” and I wondered if angry people always said stuff like after games because that would be cool. The head coach called the newspaper the next day and told an editor that the punk kid reporter misquoted him. After being pressed, he admitted he said it. I have had trust issues ever since. Sorry for going off on this tangent. I have difficulty letting go.)
So back to the Falcons. Only well-constructed teams win in the NFL because injuries cut into depth and the effectiveness of starters, and if the second tier can’t play, especially in times of situational football and changing player groupings, there are going to be problems.