Terry Fontenot is a straight shooter. That’s one of the many reasons the Atlanta Falcons hired him as their new general manager back in January. So, when Fontenot attended a recent football game for his son, Kaiden, he gave an honest assessment of what he saw out there on the field.
“He’s 10 years old and plays for Buford U-10 football,” says the 40-year-old Louisiana native. “We played against the Dacula Falcons, and we got smoked. That was the Buford Wolves’ first loss. The Dacula Falcons could play. Usually, there are a couple of good kids that kinda run circles around everyone else. But here, every kid that was coming in [was playing well]. One kid made a mistake, and they pulled him out. The next kid they put in ran a touchdown. Oh my goodness!”
Be it active adolescents or NFL Pro Bowlers, Fontenot is gonna tell it like it is. Since the Falcons bellyflopped in the 2017 Super Bowl, the team has gone a combined 28-36 in regular-season games. Fontenot, who comes to Atlanta after a 18-year run in the New Orleans Saints organization, knows that brand of blah ain’t gonna cut it an NFC South division patrolled by the Saints, Carolina Panthers, and defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“Let’s bring the right people into this building,” says Fontenot—the first Black GM in Falcons history—about changing the locker room culture. “Whether we’re talking about coaches, scouts, players on the field or anyone, we’re going to bring in the right types, so you know what kind of football team you’re going to have. You’re going to have a football team that goes out there and battles. When you have that, man, you’re going to be in every single game.”
Head coach Arthur Smith is one of the new faces in the building. Big tight end Kyle Pitts arrives with even bigger expectations from the University of Florida. Mike Davis comes from Carolina for his first real opportunity as the top option in the backfield.
But on the flip side, familiar names like wide receiver Julio Jones, veteran center Alex Mack, and rising defensive stud Damontae Kazee have all left for other teams. Give frustrated Falcons fans about a month and they’ll let you know if the roster flipping made a positive impact or not.
“We gotta put a winning product on the field that people want to come watch and are excited about,” says Smith, who served as the Tennessee Titans’ offensive coordinator the past two seasons. “We need the fans. We gotta do our part and put a good product out there and make Mercedes-Benz Stadium a really hard place to come in here and play for other teams.”
As you can see, Coach Smith isn’t one for holding back, either. That might explain why he and Fontenot hit it off so quickly. “Terry and I didn’t know each other when we took this job,” says the 39-year-old Smith. “We’ve become fast friends. We both like to listen. We don’t have huge egos. This game can make a lot of people really insecure. You know you’re in the limelight. We know what we signed up for. And it can affect decision making. Terry and I are both comfortable in our own skin. Terry’s a great listener. I’d like to believe I’m a good listener, but I guess you’d have to ask other people that.”
Smith and Fontenot certainly hear the whispers around the league. The Falcons front office knows there’s work to be done to get this team back to the playoffs for the first time in five seasons. But they appear ready for the challenge.
“The first conversation I had with Arthur Smith was really cool,” says Fontenot. “We have the same mindset, the same philosophies, in terms of people and players. Both of us feel like it’s about the make-up; it’s about who you are. When you have a smart, tough, competitive team, then you’re going to go out there and battle every game. Sometimes you’re going to go against teams that have more talent than you. Sometimes you’re gonna have more talent than the [other] team. But it doesn’t matter. It’s about the toughness, and the teams that go out there and want it more, they play harder, they’re more prepared, and they’re smarter. It’s about the make-up of the individuals. That’s what really sets the tone for your team.”