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Why the Falcons’ rationale for picking Penix Jr. was sadly flawed

In Sports
May 01, 2024

On a spreadsheet somewhere, it probably makes sense.

The Atlanta Falcons have spent five days defending and explaining their decision to select quarterback Michael Penix Jr., despite signing quarterback Kirk Cousins to a four-year, $100 million guaranteed contract just one month prior.

This is about the long term, they have said. This is about their unanimous opinion that Penix is a franchise guy. This is about how if Cousins plays as he’s expected in the next few years, Atlanta will not be in position to draft as high again and so on and so on.

Fine, maybe the argument has merit and maybe the plan works perfectly, especially the part of Penix being the next Patrick Mahomes or however the spin goes. In a vacuum, there is a case.

The game isn’t played in a vacuum, though. Real life doesn’t exist on a spreadsheet. This isn’t fantasy football.

If this is to work out for Atlanta, it requires not just both Cousins and Penix to maximize their physical abilities over the next three and, say, 10 seasons respectively. It requires a whole bunch of people to navigate it mentally and emotionally as well.

Can this work? Absolutely. Cousins has displayed great professionalism throughout his career. Penix is a heck of a talent.

It’s left the theory stage, though. This is about real life and real human interactions now, and there is no analytic that can predict that.

Start with the two quarterbacks.

Cousins was blindsided by the decision and undoubtedly wondered what he got himself into in Atlanta. At 35 (soon to be 36), he wanted a final crack at success.

The Falcons won just seven games last season and poor quarterback play was a significant reason. With the talent on hand and a high pick to address a weak pass rush (if not additional issues via trading down in the draft), Atlanta with Cousins under center looked like an all-in favorite to win the NFC South.

Atlanta has pointed most often to how Green Bay has twice deftly maintained success by using first-round picks to draft its next franchise quarterback — taking Aaron Rodgers to sit behind Brett Favre for three seasons and then Jordan Love to do the same behind Rodgers.

Atlanta Falcons first round draft choice quarterback Michael Penix Jr., holds a Falcons jersey during a news conference Friday, April 26, 2024, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Atlanta Falcons first-round draft choice quarterback Michael Penix Jr., holds a Falcons jersey during a news conference on Friday. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

There’s a difference. Favre and Rodgers were longtime stars in Green Bay who had deep relationships with teammates, coaches and the front office. Even then, Rodgers balked significantly at the decision to look to the future rather than bolster the present.

Cousins has no such relationships, no such status with the other players or the fans. He’s certainly a respected veteran, a good quarterback who put together some good seasons in Washington and Minnesota.

He’s still the new guy, lacking stature experience internally and arriving at the same time as his designated replacement.

Whereas in Green Bay there was never a doubt who the starter was when the heir apparent arrived — Favre was a three-time MVP when the Packers drafted Rodgers; Rodgers a two-time winner on his way to two more, consecutively — that’s not the case now in Atlanta.

Falcons new head coach Raheem Morris may have the mandate to play Cousins, but Penix is a competitor. He isn’t a 21-year-old Jordan Love, arriving via the 25th pick from Utah State. He’s a soon to be 24-year-old with six years of college experience who started 45 games and overcame two ACL injuries to lead Washington to the national title game just a few months ago.

Penix is about as experienced as a rookie quarterback can be. He no doubt wants to play. Atlanta did him no favors by drafting him eighth and declaring he should sit for 2-5 years. Guys who are that good don’t ever want that.

Can he adjust? It’s one thing to say Penix will just sit patiently for years to come, but will he accept that?

And what if he proves that shouldn’t be the case? What if he shows out in the preseason or if Cousins gets injured and he jumps in for a half or even a game? How do fans and media react to that? Are the Falcons willing to eat a $100 million mistake?

This is a quarterback controversy from the jump. The gap between Cousins and Penix — if there is one — is far smaller than the one between Rodgers and Love was. Which puts enormous pressure on Morris, who will have to manage not just a team, but egos, attitudes and expectations as well.

A plan on paper is just a plan on paper. Real life will determine whether this actually works or not.

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