Sooner or later, the Falcons will have to address the long-term fate of Matt Ryan's contract.
By JOHN MANASSOFS South
ATLANTA — As the debate rages as to whether Tom Brady is selfless for signing a new contract for less than market value or whether Brady managed to enrich himself in the process, one thing seems certain: The deal did create cap room for the New England Patriots.
As reported by
Sports Illustrated's Peter King, the deal will save the Patriots $15 million in cap relief over the next two seasons.
When a three-time Super Bowl winner like Brady signs a new deal, his actions are bound to have repercussions throughout the league.
In some ways, the Falcons and Patriots are in similar situations. Both teams lost in their respective conference championship games. Both clubs were in desperate need of cap relief. Both franchises are trying to maintain as Super Bowl contenders for years to come, while being buffeted by the constraints of the cap.
Just last Friday, it was reported the Falcons plan to cut running back Michael Turner, a move that will put the club between $8 and $9 million under the salary cap. Even at that, Atlanta might not have enough room to sign its players with expiring contracts, notably left tackle Sam Baker, safety William Moore (coming off a Pro Bowl season) and cornerback Brent Grimes.
Significantly, the Falcons' cap situation also could impede their ability to make a big move in free agency. Running backs Reggie Bush and Steven Jackson are two players of potential interest, and that does not even include a much-needed upgrade to the pass rush. Plus, if tight end Tony Gonzalez decides to return (holding off retirement), he will not come cheaply.
All of it means that more painful moves likely lie ahead. But as Brady did — his restructured deal might enable the Patriots to re-sign wide receiver Wes Welker — the Falcons could pull off a similar deal with Matt Ryan (4,719 yards passing, 32 TDs last year).
In 2013, Ryan will be in the final year of a six-year deal worth between $66 and $72 million, and the Falcons are expected to pursue extension talks soon. Because Ryan was drafted in the same year as Baltimore's Joe Flacco, the newly crowned Super Bowl champion, the Falcons and Ryan might wait until Flacco's deal gets completed and sets the bar for Atlanta’s negotiations.
Restructuring contracts and making them fit into a cap-friendly puzzle, in order to maintain a perennial winner, is no short-term endeavor. In Ryan’s five seasons, he has led the Falcons to the playoffs four times. Nonetheless, playoff victories have been rare and the biggest prize has remained elusive.
Since his arrival in Atlanta, Ryan has carefully cultivated the image as a consummate team player. Ask him a question about himself and he’ll answer it by saying "we." He constantly deflects credit to his offensive line or to skill position players.
All of which puts him in an awkward position when it comes to a contract negotiation that has the potential to become contentious. If he chooses to take a more cap-friendly deal, it would continue to show that Ryan, like Brady, puts winning and his team ahead of other considerations.
Every year, the NFL's cap brings new challenges. It's possible the cap could grow in coming years and alleviate some of the Falcons' issues. However, unforeseen issues always arise.
Roddy White held out to start the 2009 season. Could fellow wide receiver Julio Jones (79 catches, 1,198 yards, 10 TDs last year) do the same if he produces another big season in 2013? Jones caught three more touchdown passes than White last season. The average salary of White's deal pays him roughly double of Jones' first contract.
The Falcons also have a decision to make about 14-year veteran center Todd McClure, a key player who makes the calls that ensure Ryan is protected. Ryan was sacked only 28 times in 2012, less than twice a game.
When Ryan was at Boston College, Brady was not far away, quarterbacking the Patriots to championships. Ryan studied his elder. In the 2010 offseason, Brady also was among the quarterbacks whose game films Ryan studied to improve his game.
If Ryan wants to help keep all of these skilled players around him — plus more in the future — with the goal of ensuring future winning seasons, he might consider continuing to follow Brady's example.