Five weeks into the 2020 NFL season, there are already two head coach and general manager openings—and somehow, neither are with the Jets. The Texans made the first move, firing Bill O’Brien—formerly the NFL’s only coach to simultaneously hold a GM title—after Houston started 0-4 following another offseason of questionable transactions. After a 23-16 loss to the rebuilding Panthers on Sunday dropped the Falcons to 0-5, they fired coach Dan Quinn and longtime GM Thomas Dimitroff. Amid the season’s rough start, Atlanta has blown a handful of sizable leads, eerily reminiscent of its infamous Super Bowl loss almost four years ago.
For both franchises, it’s been the same old sad song. Atlanta owner Arthur Blank made his issue explicitly clear when asked which of his team’s problems most disturbed him. “Uh, it’s called lack of winning,” Blank told reporters Monday. The Falcons went 24-29 across the last three-plus seasons since Quinn guided them to Super Bowl LI, missing the playoffs each of the past two years. They are now almost guaranteed to whiff a third straight time. Meanwhile, the Texans have won games and reached the playoffs in four of six seasons, but failed to ever build on their success, pointlessly spinning their tires with O’Brien in the driver’s seat. Despite the fact that Houston’s 0-4 start came against teams that entered the year as expected playoff contenders (Chiefs, Ravens, Steelers, and Vikings), CEO Cal McNair had seen enough.
“It’s not my favorite phrase, but it’s the product on the field. … It just wasn’t there,” McNair told Texans All Access. “After [losing to the Vikings in Week 4], I just really felt it was the right thing to do. With 12 games left, the season isn’t over.”
Neither franchise needs a total teardown—they need a reset. With solid quarterbacks under center and relatively recent playoff appearances, both jobs should be attractive to head coaching candidates. But how do the two compare? Which team would an up-and-coming coach rather helm? How about a GM? Let’s break it down:
Matt Ryan and Deshaun Watson are each franchise quarterbacks. However, they are at entirely different stages in their careers.
Last month, Watson turned 25 and inked a four-year, $156 million extension. He’s still heading toward what should be the prime of his very exciting career, and when he’s at his best, he’s shown that he’s capable of playing at an MVP-caliber level. It’s an attractive situation.
Meanwhile, Ryan, 35, is on the back end of his career. The one-time league MVP is still productive, but since his special 2016 campaign, he hasn’t been the same. Ryan hasn’t made a Pro Bowl since he won the MVP award. His QBR dipped to a career-low 60.4 last season—the first time it’s been lower than 64.9 in his career—and currently sits at 60.8 and ranks 20th among qualified passers this season. He’s far from his elite playing days, despite having a top-tier receiving corps.
Next season, Ryan’s cap hit swells from $19 million to $40.9 million, per Over the Cap, followed by $41.7 million and $36.6 million in the remaining two years of his contract. Ryan, like many other franchise QBs, has said before that he’d like to play into his 40s. If that’s the case, it’s unclear whether he’ll get a chance to do that with the Falcons. It’s not even clear whether he’ll see his contract through next year considering his declining play and enormous cap number. Blank expressed hope that Ryan, whom Atlanta drafted no. 3 overall in 2008, would continue playing for the Falcons, but notably stopped short of making a commitment to keep him.
“That will be a decision that I won’t make,” Blank said. “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 the level of what he’s played for us for 13 years, which has been incredible. So we’ll have to see.”
The Falcons entered Week 6 on pace to land the no. 2 pick, perhaps in position to select one of Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence or Ohio State’s Justin Fields, the top quarterback prospects in the upcoming draft. The biggest potential free-agent QB is Dak Prescott, who will be returning from a gruesome ankle fracture. Veterans Cam Newton, Jameis Winston, Jacoby Brissett, and Mitchell Trubisky are the other intriguing names currently set to hit the market this offseason, and Atlanta’s new brass could face the prospect of determining whether to continue forward with Ryan on an expensive deal or seek another option.
The Falcons should be positioned to upgrade their roster in the upcoming draft. The same can’t be said for the Texans. Prior to O’Brien’s departure, he relinquished draft compensation to acquire left tackle Laremy Tunsil ahead of last year, then did so again to add running back David Johnson and receiver Brandin Cooks this offseason. That’s left Houston’s cupboard bare—of the Texans’ seven 2021 draft picks, their third-round slot is the only choice within the first three rounds. Whoever assumes Houston’s GM role won’t be able to inject the squad with high-end, cheap talent via the draft. They’ll be stuck looking for diamonds in the rough in the later rounds.
Atlanta owns each of its seven 2021 picks, so it’s on track to make one pick in each round. Considering the Falcons have the NFL’s oldest roster (average age of 26.9), retaining their picks to inject some youth makes sense. But would it make sense to completely start a rebuild under a new regime?
“You can’t begin to look at the roster in that way and try to tie the hands of the next people who are going to lead this franchise,” Falcons president Rich McKay said. “The head coach and the general manager, they’ll make those decisions.”
Atlanta’s next GM will have plenty of flexibility. The Falcons could use the upcoming drafts as a foundation for a rebuilding squad or provide youthful value to a veteran team. The Texans’ next GM might have to wait until at least 2022, when Houston has a full arsenal of picks, before they’ll be able to make similar choices.
There are some intriguing parts of the Texans roster. This offseason, O’Brien secured a franchise left tackle to protect Watson for the foreseeable future by completing Tunsil’s record-setting three-year, $66 million extension. That’s something McNair expressed contentment with.
“We have the franchise left tackle, who’s a huge piece of the puzzle,” McNair said. “And we have a franchise quarterback, who we’ve been looking for for years and what every team is looking for and trying to get. And we have a firm belief that Deshaun is our guy.”
The glaring problem with Houston is that its collection of skill players still leave something to be desired. Trading away All-Pro wideout DeAndre Hopkins has fully exposed this issue. Receivers Will Fuller V and Brandin Cooks are starting caliber, but they aren’t dynamic superstars. Johnson has not yet recaptured his 2016 form, and it’s looking like he never will. The offensive line has been mostly mediocre. Aside from Tunsil, only center Nick Martin (68.0) has earned a PFF grade north of 65.0 this season. Per Pro Football Reference, the Texans have allowed pressure on 27.6 percent of dropbacks, tied for seventh most in the league. There’s room for upgrades across the board.
Defensively, the Texans don’t boast as much upside, but do have a star. When healthy, three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt is still one of the NFL’s best defenders. Houston’s defensive front seven could stand for greater investment, though. Twenty-three-year-old edge Charles Omenihu has been a pleasant surprise early in his career, and could continue to develop into a capable starter. Linebackers Zach Cunningham (53 tackles, tied most in NFL) and Benardrick McKinney (37 tackles) are productive, but haven’t been consistent. Safeties Justin Reid and Eric Murray are solid contributors in the secondary, and cornerback Bradley Roby is a decent veteran presence on the outside. It’s a solid roster, but the next regime will be tasked with either somehow maximizing the group or finding a way to add bonafide stars.
The Falcons have a relatively talented squad on both sides of the ball, but have struggled to stay healthy and play consistent ball. At least, that’s what Blank seems to think.
“You look at that many games over a long period of time, you adjust for injuries—which every NFL team has—we just haven’t performed at the level we’re capable of,” Blank said. “We think our talent is better than our record at this point. And for a variety of reasons, we weren’t getting the results that we needed to get.”
Russell Gage Jr., Atlanta’s no. 3 receiver, is the only member of the Falcons’ offensive starting lineup who isn’t a former first-round pick. Wideout Julio Jones is a seven-time Pro Bowler and Calvin Ridley appears ready to assume the mantle as Atlanta’s no. 1 receiver sooner rather than later. Through five weeks, Todd Gurley is fourth in the league in rushing (375 yards) and is averaging 4.7 yards per carry. The offense has tangible talent.
While the defense doesn’t boast as much star power, defensive lineman Grady Jarrett is one of the game’s most talented interior linemen, and Dante Fowler Jr. and Takkarist McKinley form a solid edge pairing. Linebacker Deion Jones’s play has dropped off some this year, but he’s only in his fifth season; a bounceback to top form—even later this year—isn’t out of the question, though the linebacker corps need a boost. Atlanta’s secondary has struggled for a second consecutive season. Injuries have hampered the unit, but perhaps cornerback A.J. Terrell, a 2020 first-round pick, can live up to his potential. Safeties Keanu Neal (who tore his ACL in 2018) and Ricardo Allen (who underwent shoulder surgery in January) were once a lethal safety pairing, but their play has dropped off each of the past two years. Safety Damontae Kazee is a quality defender, though. It’s clear that this side of the ball will need more attention from whoever is in charge of roster construction moving forward.
The Texans are currently projected to be $11 million above the 2021 salary cap, per Spotrac. Tunsil ($19.4 million), Watt ($17.5 million), Watson ($15.9 million), Cooks ($12 million), linebacker Whitney Mercilus ($12 million), Cunningham ($11.4 million), Roby ($11 million), and receiver Randall Cobb ($10.6 million) have the largest expected cap hits. It’s possible that Houston moves on from Cooks, who won’t carry any dead cap if he’s released after this season. That would get the Texans back to the salary cap ceiling, but it won’t solve all their problems, especially with Fuller set to hit unrestricted free agency.
Atlanta is in a similarly tight position, projected to be $25 million over the cap, with a handful of players inflating that figure. The cap hits of Ryan ($40.9 million), Jones ($23.1 million), Jarrett ($20.8 million), Matthews ($20.2 million), and Fowler ($18.6 million) loom large, and Atlanta does not have a way to cut these players without accruing a large amount of dead cap space. Gurley, Neal, Kazee, center Alex Mack, and cornerback Darqueze Dennard are all scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency this offseason, meaning the Falcons will have to decide whether or not they are worth re-signing. McKay explained that club leadership won’t predetermine the roster for the next head coach and general manager to manage. Instead, he said, the Falcons plan on letting the new regime evaluate the roster and decide which moves to make.
“The salary cap is something that people talk about—and they should—because it is definitely a constraint,” McKay said. “We have a lot of really good football players paid at a very high level that impact our salary cap. That said, I’ve always believed the salary cap is something that you can maneuver around, you can work within, and you can operate within. I’m not intimidated by it.”
Evaluating the Situations
There are worse positions for an incoming coach and GM. Both the Texans and Falcons present opportunities for a regime to either go all in from the outset or rebuild a squad altogether. The shared expectation from ownership from both the Falcons and Texans is to not only win, but contend for Super Bowls. It’s the goal of every team in the league, obviously, but neither franchise has been too far off in recent seasons; the Falcons were within grasp of a Lombardi just a few years ago and the Texans were in position to reach the AFC championship game this calendar year.
But it’s also not all about Super Bowls. McNair joked that he and his wife want to see Houston’s players have fun again. Maybe J.J. Watt’s tweet following the Texans’ 30-14 win against the Jaguars last week is proof to how important that is.
“I wanna see Deshaun playing the air guitar,” he said. “I wanna get back to having fun and have the guys flying around, playing fundamental [football] and that’ll lead to wins and where we want to go.”
Blank explained that he expects his franchise to produce better results on a more consistent basis, referencing former Raiders owner Al Davis’s “Just win, baby” mantra when asked about what direction he wants the club to go in.
“This is not a .500 ball organization, this is not a .500 ball team, and it’s not what we promised our fans,” Blank said. “We’ll look for the right person.”