Guerry Clegg commentary: With cuts, Falcons have opportunity to shore up defense

sports@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 2, 2013 

Politicians call it sequestration. NFL executives call it salary cap management. The 98 percent of us who comprise the real world call it what it is: living within our means.

The collective bargaining agreement that ended the 2011 lockout reduced the salary cap and set minimum payrolls for the first time ever. In today's NFL, unlike in baseball, which has no salary cap, building a championship team is not so much about spending large sums of money as much as managing budgets.

The only commodity as important as a franchise quarterback is salary cap space.

Barring catastrophic injury to Matt Ryan, the Atlanta Falcons have their franchise quarterback for the next 10 years.

Now, after releasing defensive end John Abraham, cornerback Dunta Robinson and running back Michael Turner, the Falcons have the critical cap space to surround Ryan with the help he needs.

The Falcons exited the Georgia Dome last month trying to swallow the bitter reality of coming within one play of getting there. Some have misguidedly attributed this short-fall to Ryan's two turnovers in the second half against San Francisco and his final two incomplete passes. But the truth is they blew a 17-point lead -- and the week before blew a 20-point lead against Seattle before Ryan rescued them from what would have been the most crushing loss in franchise history.

Look at it this way. The Falcons had the worst defense of all the teams in the final eight. Yet, thanks to Ryan, they were one play away from going to the Super Bowl.

Granted, it's not as if Ryan has been asked to carry the team completely by himself. They invested heavily to draft receiver Julio Jones to go with receiver Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez to give Ryan as good a set of targets as there is in the NFL. But as good as this trio is -- or was, if Gonzalez sticks to his plans to retire -- Ryan makes the offense go.

Somehow, Ryan is unappreciated. The national media that covers the NFL remains fixated on Tom Brady, the Mannings, Aaron Rodgers and now Joe Flacco. Then there are the new kids on the block -- Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick. Of course, during the season, there's also the daily discussion of how brilliant or terrible Tony Romo is. (The middle ground seems non-existent.)

Not that it necessarily matters. How Ryan rates among the top quarterbacks in the league is irrelevant.

The point is Ryan is not the problem. He's a big part of the solution. In his five years with the Falcons, Ryan has directed more late-game comebacks than any quarterback in the league during that time. There are two reasons for this. The biggest reason is Ryan himself. He plays his best with the game on the line. The other reason is the Falcons' defense has routinely blown late leads only to be bailed out by Ryan's heroics. The Seattle game was a microcosm of Ryan's career, just on a bigger stage.

Abraham was the team's best pass rusher. But his production -- and, at least it seemed, his effort -- were sporadic. He was serviceable but is certainly replaceable, especially given that his salary would have more than doubled this year, from $1.5 million to $3.25 million. In their confusing accounting system, they actually cleared up $4.4 million in cap space. Overshadowed by Friday's moves is the fact that the Falcons had already cleared $5.2 million in cap space for 2013 by releasing defensive end Ray Edward in mid-season.

Dumping Robinson frees up another $6.4 million in cap space, much of which presumably will be redirected to re-signing Brent Grimes, their best defensive back before he was injured. Retaining Turner would have counted $7.5 million against their cap, a pricey sum for an aging running back.

Now, how to spend this shopping money is their next challenge. There's plenty of defensive talent available in the upcoming free agency class and the draft. The defense can't be much worse than it was last year, and it was almost decent enough to get to the Super Bowl. Imagine what Ryan, Jones, White and hopefully Gonzalez could do if they had a defense that could protect leads.

-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. Write to him at sports@ledger-enquirer.com.

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