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  1. Austin Hooper is a very good tight end who had a career season in 2019. The Falcons still decided they won’t offer Hooper a contract before he becomes a free agent next month. Salary-cap restraints may have forced their hand but, either way, the Falcons are making the right move to let Hooper reach the market. Hooper has been a very productive player for the Falcons but he’s more possession pass-catcher than big-play producer. Hooper had 75 catches for 787 yards and six touchdowns over 13 games 2019. His yards per reception ranked 19th among tight ends with at least 50 targets. Hooper ranked tied for 22nd in explosive play rate for tight ends, according to Sharp Football. Pro Football Focus notes that Hooper’s numbers are “more a result of Atlanta’s scheme as opposed to a tight end who can single-handily win in single coverage. Over three-fourths of his total receiving yardage since 2016 has come on targets that were underneath coverages or from finding a hole in a zone.” Hooper is a nice piece to have for a team that can spare the cap space. He is not an essential player for the Falcons, who don’t have the cap space. Hooper might get a nice payday in free agency because he’s just 25-years old and still could expand his game. Even if that happens his value is limited by his position, which ranks just above running back in the pecking order. The Falcons can replace Hooper in the draft or with a lower-tier free agent. Darren Fells may be a veteran option. He signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract with Houston last year and went on to rank 29th in explosive play rate among tight ends and third with six TDs. Fells will be 34-years old in April, but he made his NFL debut at age 28 (he played pro basketball internationally) and turned a career-high number of targets in 2019 into a very productive season. Whichever No. 1 tight end the Falcons settle on for 2020 will benefit from playing with Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. They are reasons why Hooper had room to work against zones and underneath coverage. The cap space Hooper is likely to demand is better used on defense. Maybe the Falcons can re-sign free agent linebacker De’Vondre Campbell to a modest deal after he came on as a starter in 2019. General manager Thomas Dimitroff said the Falcons still would negotiate with Hooper and other free agents. He said the team also is considering using its franchise tag. Hooper would be the only candidate for that designation, which would mean a salary of more than $10 million. The Falcons likely would be in line for a compensatory draft pick if Hooper signs elsewhere. That appears to be the most likely outcome at this point. Losing Hooper would leave the Falcons down a good player but they have more pressing roster needs and little cap space to address them.
  2. One NFL Beat Reporter Had The Worst Mason Rudolph-Myles Garrett Take: TRAINA THOUGHTS BY JIMMY TRAINA , NOV 15, 2019 1. We now live in a world where it's completely routine for people to tell you that you didn't see something that you actually saw with your own two eyes. What happened last night was as simple and as straight-forward as it gets. Myles Garrett took a football helmet and tried to slam it on top of Mason Rudolph's head. Nothing else needs to be explained. Nothing else needs to be said. Nothing else matters. Naturally, fans will try to spin it. Players will try to spin it. People who know Garrett will try to spin it. However, you'd expect an NFL beat reporter to be above it all. So it was stunning, to me at least, to see Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionFalcons beat writer D. Orlando Ledbetter die on the hill that Mason Rudolph was just as much to blame for what happened last night as Myles Garret. Again, as you read these absurd tweets, keep in mind that this take isn't coming from some wack-job fan. This is an actual NFL beat reporter. Congrats to Ledbetter. With just six weeks remaining in 2019, he has clearly wrapped up the "Dumbest Sports Take of the Year" award. It's actually a tie, but Lebetter is responsible for both winners with "Mason Rudolph should get suspended" and "Mason Rudolph should get the same suspension as Myles Garrett."
  3. FLOWERY BRANCH — Alex Mack has played in more NFL games than every Falcon other than Matt Ryan and lived more losses than most could stomach, but even with all that, the center hasn’t enough knowledge to offer post-graduate level advice for teammates carrying a six-game losing streak to New Orleans. That’s because when you’re on a 1-7 team that kicked off with high expectations, all the losing is so confusing. The Saints (7-1) will greet a team dropping from a cloud of questions. You might think a season like this feels longer because of the way it’s going. Mack only sort of agrees. “I would say it’s definitely harder,” he said. “I don’t know about longer or shorter. I know it’s more difficult because if you’re winning, what you’re doing is right and you’re being rewarded for your actions with that good, winning feeling. You’re like, ‘I did this last week, I’ll do it again.’ “When you’re losing, it’s tough because maybe you are doing the right thing and you should keep doing it, but maybe you need to change something, so you don’t really know. “Do you second-guess, or is it whatever I’m doing is not working? Do we need to change something or do we need to do whatever we’re doing more? Do we need to do less? It’s uncertain because whatever your payoff is, it is not producing the outcome you want.” Mack is a smart guy. He won scores of academic awards on the way to graduating from Cal with a 3.61 GPA in legal studies. Then, the Browns drafted him No. 21 overall in 2009. And in seven years by Cleveland’s lake, his teams lost double-digit games five times. The Browns were 33-68 in his time. He went through five head coaches and six offensive coordinators, so Mack knows churn. After spending some time in his native California during last week’s bye, the fourth-year Falcon is back to work and trying to figure out what’s what. That’s not easy. “I can see guys that enjoy the time to sit and watch a game or do something like that. I like to get away, refresh the mind,” Mack said. “I like how it breaks up the monotony; each week’s the same. Middle of the year is a really good time, kind of freshen up, catch up on sleep, because it’s hard. “The season’s long. It’s tough. It’s long hours. You’re up early, you’re staying up late, you’re playing games. So, just to have a chance for your body to recover is a big deal.” The NFL season is not year-round, although players spend 11 months or so in the calendar year either in the game or preparing physically for it. And when the season hits, the work becomes repetitive and over-constant. Teams prepare for different opponents each week, sure, but the weekly routine is, other than game-planning, the same every time. It’s like factory work with the background knowledge that at the end of the week you’re going to be in the coliseum, competing, with hundreds of thousands or millions judging in person or while watching on TV. Most weekdays start around 7 a.m. with meetings and more meetings and end around 5 or 6 after practice and then more meetings. If you want to make a difference as a Falcon, you probably need to put in more time than that, at least on Wednesdays and Thursdays. And that is the undergraduate-level advice Mack is offering teammates, particularly younger lads like rookie right tackle Kaleb McGary and rookie right guard Chris Lindstrom, who may return from a foot injury soon. Always, there are questions. “The other thing that’s tough is when you’re winning and you’re staying after and watching film (you think), ‘Oh, it’s totally worth it because it will let me win again,’” Mack said. “When you’re losing, it’s time to stay after and watch film, and it’s like, ‘Oh, God, it’s really tough. Maybe I should just go home and get some sleep.’ “You’re not ever certain of what you need to do, or what your path is, so you second-guess there. You’re not getting the payout of your work.” And there can be self-doubt. “There’s a bit of that. It’s also a matter of not knowing what to do different, what to fix, what’s wrong,” Mack explained. “On the other hand, the sunny side of that, and unfortunately I have some experience of not the best teams, is that the only way forward is to work harder and do better. “If I play a better game and it’s going to help myself and it’s going to help my team. So, every action I do should be towards that goal. If you’re unsuccessful, you need to work harder and get better.” In times like these, human beings – whether they’re six-time Pro Bowlers such as Mack or not – may struggle. There are wrestling matches in the brain. There are battles against doubt, and questions about methods. Offering advice to others may be more difficult for intelligent people when they can’t in the first place put their finger on what’s happening. Mack has played 157 NFL games, starting every one. Other than 11 games missed with the Browns in 2014 when he broke a fibula, he’s always started. He played every snap for Cleveland in five seasons before that. With one more season under his NFL belt, Ryan has played in 181. Mack hyperextended his left elbow earlier this season and is wearing a sturdy brace now to keep him from doing it again. He said it doesn’t affect his ability to do his job, but who knows about that? “It’s still attached,” he said. Alex wishes he knew more about why what’s happening to the Falcons is happening. All he really knows, deep down, is that, “It’s really hard to win games in the NFL and you need to be working really hard every day or your opponent is going to be working harder. You need to be working hard. You can take it as you need to be working harder for the team’s sake, or for your own sake. “But the better you play, the better the team plays. That’s all the team wants from you. That’s all anybody, any fan, any coach, owner wants is for you to play the best you can. That’s your job and should be your goal.”
  4. Who saw this coming? Nobody. If you claim you did, I’ll insist on a polygraph. As bad as last year was, the Atlanta Falcons were 7-9. Now they’re 1-6, and the “1” required a fourth-down conversion, a fourth-down stop and a Nelson Agholor drop. Everyone asks: How did this happen? As a public service, I offer these observations/guesses. Theory No. 1: The coach’s credentials. Dan Quinn began coaching in 1994. Until 2011, he’d been a defense coordinator only at Hofstra, and then only for the 2000 season. That team went 9-4-1 and lost to title-bound Georgia Southern and Paul Johnson in the FCS quarterfinals. PJ’s offense hung 48 points on DQ’s defense. Quinn was Pete Carroll’s defensive line coach/assistant head coach with the Seahawks in 2009 and 2010. Will Muschamp, chosen to succeed Urban Meyer at Florida, tapped Quinn as defensive coordinator. The Gators were eighth nationally in total defense in 2011, fourth in 2012. Though Quinn -- who’d known Muschamp when the two were Dolphins assistants under Nick Saban -- was a key figure, the belief in Gainesville was that the head coach ran his own defense. Quinn returned to Seattle and was part of consecutive Super Bowl seasons – the Seahawks won the first and should have won the second – that featured the NFL’s top-ranked defense. That stamped him as the NFL’s hottest assistant. The Jets made a pitch, but Arthur M. Blank got what he wanted, as Arthur M. Blank invariably does. One reason Quinn came here was that Blank offered control of the 53-man roster, basically making him czar of football. Mike Smith had reported to general manager Thomas Dimitroff; Quinn would report to Blank. This isn’t quite a second-guess, seeing as how we raised it at the time, but granting such sway to someone who’d never been a head coach at any level was unusual if not unprecedented. And the Seahawks didn’t just learn how to defend under Quinn. They were the NFL’s ninth- and fourth-best defense in 2011 and 2012 under Gus Bradley, who left to coach the Jaguars. After Quinn left, they were the NFL’s second- and fifth-best defense under Kris Richard. Those Seahawks were a harmonic convergence of defensive excellence: Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Bobby Wagner, Michael Bennett, Bruce Irvin. Quinn did great work there, but he wasn’t the only one. Theory No. 2: The Shanahan factor. The best season under Quinn took the Falcons to the Super Bowl -- this despite them ranking 25th in total defense. Indeed, Quinn seized the defensive reins from coordinator Richard Smith after Thanksgiving. That team scored 540 points, tying for the eighth-most in NFL annals. It scored 80 more in playoff victories over Seattle and Green Bay. After the opening loss to Tampa Bay until the final quarter of Super Bowl 51, Kyle Shanahan had one of the greatest play-calling seasons ever. Matt Ryan was MVP. Julio Jones caught 83 passes for 1,409 yards. Devonta Freeman rushed for 1,079 yards. The line blocked liked thunder. Everything worked. Nothing has worked as well since. Shanahan left to coach the 49ers. Quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur took a job as offensive coordinator under Sean McVay with the Rams, Quinn having hired Steve Sarkisian as OC here. Sarkisian lasted two seasons and was among three coordinators fired on New Year’s Eve. Shanahan’s 49ers are 6-0. In Year 1 as the Packers’ head coach, LaFleur’s team is 6-1. Theory No. 3: Nobody to say no. Dimitroff’s job changed with Quinn’s arrival. The GM’s mission became to acquire players of the coach/czar’s liking. When the coach/czar reaches the Super Bowl in Year 2, his power is absolute. Quinn’s concept of Brotherhood became boilerplate on official team releases. One of his many bromides – “Iron sharpens iron” – adorned the lobby at 4400 Falcon Parkway. Only once under Quinn has the Falcons’ defense ranked among the league’s 10 best in yards against. That was in 2017, when Marquand Manuel (since fired) was a rookie coordinator. Last year the Falcons ranked 28th in total defense, sixth in total offense. Their top two draftees, both in Round 1, were offensive linemen. Did not the defense require more immediate help? The guess is that Quinn believed that, with him again running the defense and injured guys presumably healthy, he’d coach everybody up. Almost all these players were of his choosing – DQ Guys. Heck, he might relight the fire in Vic Beasley, the 2016 NFL sack leader who’d done little since. Quinn announced his intention to make Beasley his personal project. Duly enthused, Beasley skipped OTAs. Sometimes total control leads to tunnel vision. Shouldn’t somebody – Dimitroff, or even Blank – have said, “Are you sure you can get more from these guys just because you like them? Are you sure there’s more to get?” Or, going bigger-picture: “In trying to keep all these guys happy, aren’t we spending ourselves into salary cap ****?” Sometimes a GM needs to tell his HC, “Whoa.” Can a GM who serves at the pleasure of this HC do that? Was there anybody in Flowery Branch to say, “Maybe trying to be HC and DC isn’t the greatest idea”? (In a nod to reality, Quinn revealed last week that defensive play-calling is now a communal process.) This isn’t to suggest that Quinn was a bad hire. Twenty-four months after he took the job, his team led the Super Bowl by 25 points. But from the first, the Falcons have treated Quinn as if he wasn’t just a coach but a magic man. The cold truth is that, after 71 regular-season games, he has been worse than his predecessor. His record is 37-34. Mike Smith’s was 50-21.
  5. The Falcons’ Arthur Blank had just experienced his second-worst-ever moment here inside NRG Stadium. And when the team you own just had more points scored on it than in any game since 2004, when the defense “coordinated” by your head coach couldn’t have stopped a grandfather clock this day much less Deshaun Watson, that says something about just how miserable the No. 1 ordeal was. But we’ll not dredge up that 2017 Super Bowl again. That’s unnecessarily rough. There are far more current events on the autopsy table. There come certain moments in certain seasons when it is required to ask a team owner if his finger rests upon the button that opens the trap door always beneath the feet of his coach and his executive branch. A moment such as Sunday, for instance, when a team with playoff aspirations loses the fourth of its first five games, and does so in spectacularly defenseless fashion, 53-32 to the Houston Texans. Blank was not prepared to entertain any nuclear option Sunday. Not publicly. Asked if was contemplating any big changes at the top of the Falcons org chart, Blank answered, “No. There are a lot of games left in this season. The staff has performed at a much higher level in the past — and these players have, too. My hope and my belief is that they can find a way to re-mix the puzzle and have a different answer in terms of results.” So, he was asked, you still have faith in those in charge? “Obviously, the faith is being rattled right now and I’m sure our fans feel that way,” Blank said minutes after the Houston loss. “This is an organization starting with the head coach and the general manager who know how to fight and know how to fight back. They don’t know how to lose. They know how to win. They are tenacious, they are not going to lay down. Hopefully it will be good enough to have a respectable performance the rest of the season.” Respectability would be a huge step up from what Sunday delivered. After the Falcons accidentally stopped Houston on its first possession on a three-and-out, the Texans scored on every other possession that wasn’t interrupted by the end of the half. There were no cheapies among any of their six touchdown drives — travelling anywhere between 60 and 88 yards. Throw in a pick-six at the end, and it turns out you can get to 50 points and more with surprising ease. Will Fuller V, the Texans’ second option, had himself quite a season Sunday at the Falcons’ expense, with 14 catches for 217 yards and three touchdowns. On many of his multitude of receptions he was sprinting clear of a confused secondary, the Falcons running what could only be described as a Cover None zone. Watson — 28-of-33 for 426 yards and five touchdowns — put up the third best-possible quarterback rating in the NFL this season. That number is 158.3, which I could explain in detail or just leave it at the fact Watson flew as close to the sun of quarterbacking perfection as any man is allowed. And the Falcons were the wind beneath his wings. Oh, and he also ran for 47 yards. If the NFL had a Heisman, Watson would have won it Sunday. So, they certainly were tickled in this part of Texas, having been gifted a nice diversion until the Astros’ next game. On the Atlanta side, not so much. Afterward you heard about this being a “100 percent gut-check time” (from Quinn). And about the need for more accountability from players that seem to know what they’re doing in practice but then get all dizzy at game time (from safety Ricardo Allen). And the owner spoke of the depth of his disappointment. It seldom is a good sign when the owner is plumbing those depths. To be precise, the level of his disappointment is “extraordinarily high, just like all of our fans,” Blank said. “It’s not the start we envisioned and it’s not the way we’re capable of playing. But as Bill Parcells says, ‘You are what your record says you are.’ ” He continued: “Players, coaches, we’re just not putting it together the way we’re capable of doing. We do have more talent on this team than what we’re showing right now, I don’t think there’s any question about that. The mix isn’t working, apparently, and I feel deeply for our fans. As I know the coach does and the players do. “They’re working their [butts] off, they’re trying to figure out the right solution, the right mix, the adjustments they have to make. That’s really all you can ask them to do, work as hard as they know how to work. We have four head coaches — one head coach and three previous head coaches — so we have a lot of experience. And we have some players who have been in the league for a long time and have played at real high levels for a long time. The capabilities are there but it’s just not coming together the way it should and the way it needs to.” Blank did express a measure of hope when asked what he thought could be salvaged from this season, pointing to another team’s example from a year ago. Can this be fixed this season? “They can turn it around,” the owner said. “The Colts last year started 1-5 and ended up in the playoffs (winning a wild card game). It can happen. We haven’t played a single divisional game yet, that’s obviously an opportunity.” “But,” he added realistically, “we have to play better than we have been playing, that’s for sure. No matter who we’re playing we’re not going to be successful unless we do that.” As Blank Sunday resisted the urge to immediately fire everyone in sight, does that, I wondered, amount to a vote of confidence in this staff? We’re big on votes of confidence in this business. Assume nothing, not with a season so off kilter as this. “It’s not a vote of anything,” Blank said. “I’m sharing my feelings. It’s not a vote of anything.”
  6. Interesting article in the local "rag" today by Sierra Webster. I knew that our short yardage offense wasn't stout the last 3 seasons, but I didn't realize that the Falcons couldn't convert on 3rd and 1 seven times in Super Bowl LI. Forgive me for saying that things might have been different if we had converted just 1 of those! Hopefully, it's now fixed. GO FALCONS!!!!
  7. If DOL put it in print, it's got to be true. Seriously though, what DQ says here makes sense, but it's probably not the total truth. I'm not sure we'll see the "true" Falcons defense until we play Minnesota Falcons coach Dan Quinn said the defense is not switching to a 3-4 alignment. There has been a lot of conjecture in cyberspace – from the self-anointed Twitter coordinators – that the team is switching to a 3-4 because Quinn has been experimenting with standing up the defensive ends. When asked if he was switching to the 3-4 on Thursday, Quinn told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “No.” What Quinn is doing is getting the defense ready for eight games where they play mobile quarterbacks who run read-option packages or zone-read running quarterbacks. The Falcons play the Eagles (Carson Wentz) on Sept. 15, the Titans (Marcus Mariota) on Sept. 22, the Texans (Deshaun Watson) on Oct. 6, the Cardinals (Kyler Murray) on Oct. 13, the Seahawks (Russell Wilson) on Oct. 27, the Panthers twice (Cam Newton) of Nov. 17 and Dec 8) and Jacksonville (Nick Foles) on Dec. 22. ‘”What’s happening so much more from the (late 90s and early 2000s) is that the tight ends move so much,” Quinn said. “Then with the element of some of the teams that are going to do zone-read with the mobile quarterbacks, it’s easier to play them up than from down.” Quinn, who will call the defense this season, plans to continue to look at the tweak of the 4-3 alignment over the exhibition season. “I want them to see some things with all of this movement as opposed to being down and the crack (back) blocks with people trying to get the ball on the edge,” Quinn said. “We are going to try it and I’m not sure where I’m all the way at with it until I go through some (exhibition) season games.”
  8. The Big Hole River wends 150 miles through southwest Montana without a single dam to stop it. Left purely to its own imagination, it cleaves the land whimsically, in random twists and bends, as if its course were drawn in finger paint at the pre-K stage of creation. It is one of the world’s great water features, its banks giving way to copses of willow and cottonwood, wispy fields of wild grass, rocky outcrops that appear almost in ambush around the next turn of the river. At the most memorable places, the scenery comes with the distant backdrop of mountain peaks, here in July still wearing traces of the snow that feeds the river’s flow. Steve Bartkowski, he with an everlasting place on the Falcons’ Ring of Honor, the franchise’s first quarterback who left a mark, was at the moment concerned with a very small, very specific section of the Big Hole. His son Pete worked the oars of the drift boat, keeping Pops in range of where they figured the fish were. They figured correctly. For suddenly, Bartkowski’s flyrod was bent and shivering with a fish just realizing that the presumed insect it attacked had other plans. Bartkowski held the rod high, keeping the pressure on, while retrieving line by hand and closing the gap between fisherman and fish a few inches at a time. He’d not take much credit in the brief post-catch review – “I did everything I could to lose it,” Bartkowski would say. But proof otherwise was soon beside the boat, and officially netted. A fine brown trout, whose name does no service to the iridescent gold of its belly nor the pointillist display of red and black on its flanks. It is like naming a ruby a “red rock.” Posing unwillingly for a few photos, and measured at 19-1/2 inches – “It’s 20 inches, we round up,” Bartkowski insisted with a smile – the beautiful fish was then given back to the water. Bartkowski tries hard to explain the draw of this part of the world, the attraction that ultimately has won him over from the big city where he could have just spent the rest of his life comfortably wrapped in the shawl of his football fame. A man seldom at a loss for something to say, he finds that words can fail him on this subject. “People all want to know what it’s like, they say, tell me what it’s like out there. What’s the attraction?” he said. “I start to try to describe it and I just can’t come up with the words. I tell them you just got to come out here and see it, come out here and experience it. It’s like trying to describe a sunset to a blind man.” The better explanation comes in the snapshot of Bartkowski and a brown trout meeting on the Big Hole River, the kind of moment of natural simplicity that makes him most happy. It’s not all lazy days of fishing and hunting, because this also is a working life out here for the Bartkowskis – Steve, his wife, Sandee, and son Pete. They run the Ruby Drake Lodge, a compound consisting of a main lodge building and five tidy cabins, all of a pine-paneled, mounted-animals-on-the-wall theme. It’s an enterprise built on sharing wilderness with the paying guests, many of them on retreat from the corporate world and many coming from the Southeast, where Bartkowski built so many ties. Pete’s the guide, the one responsible for navigating the five trout rivers within range of the lodge and the wide valleys when it turns hunting season. “Pete has taught me so much about fly-fishing that I could have never learned on my own,” his dad said. “He’s the teacher, and I’m the student now.” Sandee brought the necessary style and taste when it came to revitalizing a lodge that had fallen into grimy disrepair. Steve is the CEO in charge of public relations, a good name and a big personality that comes in handy when fishing for customers. You need someone to maybe scramble an egg in the morning, drag a dead, decomposing skunk out from beneath one of the cabins (that really happened) or wash and dry the dishes, he’ll do that, too. They all are a very long way from Buckhead, indeed. As a young man Bartkowski came to Atlanta as the NFL’s No. 1 overall pick in 1975, a big, blond promise of better days for a franchise that had spent the previous nine seasons of its existence on the outside of the playoffs. He played 11 seasons in Atlanta and lived to tell about it. Cultivated for a town hungry for a hip sporting personality was the persona of “Peachtree Bart.” As a 66-year-old, Bartkowski is the antithesis of all things urban and slick. Peachtree Bart now lives off a dusty gravel road, the view out his front door an alfalfa field, that when newly mown draws herds of deer and squadrons of hungry hawks looking for the varmints flushed from cover. Welcome to one of those where-are-they-now stories that always seem to surprise fans who have frozen a favorite player in another time, another place, another image, another body. He has taken many forms in his 66 years. He was the dashing two-time Pro Bowl quarterback, who took the Falcons to their first three playoff appearances and led the NFL in touchdown passes in 1980. He has produced outdoors TV programming that showed up on The Nashville Network and ESPN. He invented a $3 million made-for-TV golf tournament that had a very brief run. He has survived colon cancer and potentially fatal blood clots after a dual knee transplant. He made a career for himself with the Atlanta firm, DPR Construction, with which he still has ties. And, now, here he is, in a place where the nearest town – Twin Bridges – contains 300 souls and where a traffic jam is defined as waiting for a rancher to move his herd to the other side of the road. This is a place where you can’t throw an elkwing caddis brown dry fly without hitting a Lewis and Clark historical marker, and still maintains just a hint of frontier. This is the setting of his last act, Bartkowski figures. “There is no question about it, my ashes will be dumped right out there in the Ruby River,” he said, nodding toward the gentle stream that runs directly behind the lodge. “I’ve already requested that of Pete, and he said, Dad, no time soon, please.” It was Pete who led the way west. Both he and Bartkowski’s eldest son Phil had followed their father into jobs with the construction company. By 2014, though, Pete was growing increasingly dissatisfied, to the point that he abruptly called an audible at 31. He’d finish one last big job, then pack what he could in his car and head to Montana. “I didn’t have a plan. My plan was to keep driving that way,” Pete said. The family dream of owning a little piece of Montana had gotten as far as buying some riverfront land. But finding the money to actually build on it was proving difficult. That’s where Pete headed, pitching a tent on the property in April and freezing his ideals off. The morning a moose poked its head through the tent flaps was a sign that he might need something more permanent. Pete supported himself working construction in Montana, but events were lining up to push him outdoors. His godmother died and unexpectedly left him $10,000, money he could have used in any number of practical ways. Or just enough to buy a drift boat and scratch an itch he had to become a fly-fishing guide. He got the drift boat. And enter Jim Cox Kennedy, the Chairman of Cox Enterprises, which owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He’s a friend of the Bartkowskis, a big outdoorsman and Montana-phile. Kennedy had another vision of Pete. There was this lodge on his property that needed resurrecting, and Pete might be just the fellow to give it new energy and new purpose. Leading Pete to ask, um, mom and dad, could you come help? “I’d never run a lodge either,” Steve said. “I do know what hospitality is, and I do know a lot about lodges. I think we put together a pretty good team. Give people a nice destination where they feel comfortable. At the end of the day those are the things you can control. Whether or not the fish bite on any given day, you’re at the mercy of the fish.” He was an easy sell, for his son’s plea to come west was like an answered prayer. “I would sneak out here as much as I possibly could (through the years) and every time I got on the plane to go back to Atlanta or wherever I had to go, I would beat myself up. Why are you leaving? Why are you going back?” Bartkowski said. “You can only take so many years of that self-peppering before you finally say this is where I need to be. “Here we are through a series of just-short-of-miraculous events. I’m living the dream.” Sandee, a native Atlantan, had to go a few rounds with the idea. This man she met at an Atlanta racquetball club (remember those?) in the late 1970s was all these years later asking her to move somewhere so remote and far away that it could be another country. A photographer and graphic artist, she was going to have to put all that largely on simmer while renovating a lodge, re-branding the whole business and then giving full attention to running an outdoorsy B&B. “I wondered, oh, gosh, can I do this?” Sandee said. The answer came on an October visit to Montana. “The Aspens were shimmering. The sky was blue. The air was crisp. It was like I heard the voice of God saying, ‘You got a problem with this?” Leasing the lodge and renting a home from Kennedy, the Bartkowskis are in their third summer in Montana (while Pete wintered, his parents can escape to a Hawaiian condo or, like this year, hang around Atlanta and a Super Bowl scene). Montana is a stoic, broad-shouldered place, slow to accept outsiders. But, as Sandee said, “We’ve found something here, a real solitude, a real community.” “I’ve never seen Steve so happy,” she added. “He cooks and cleans and loves it.” (Fixing a brisket for the next night’s meal, the former Pro Bowl quarterback found himself up at 3 in the morning, preparing it for the smoker). For all his medical mishaps, the old football player said he is in surprisingly good health now. Although, with fingers that had been regularly stomped and otherwise displaced, it can be difficult to thread line through the opening on a fly that is about as minute as the commas in this sentence. And out here, so far away from the source of his football fame, a man almost never has to think about January 1981, and what was the Falcons’ most painful playoff loss until a certain blown 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl. Almost. Of the day that Dallas scored 20 in the fourth quarter to beat the Falcons 30-27 in the NFC playoffs, Bartkowski said, “I’m miles away from it, but that’s one of those scabs I’ve got still. That was our chance. We had the best team in the NFL that year.” He’ll still follow certain Atlanta favorites. He loves the Braves and believes his old NFL team is poised to make some serious noise this season. But closer to his current home – the place he chose, not the one that chose him – they play a little ball, too. And on fall Fridays, he might be found on the sideline cheering. It’s high school football to scale, where because of the lack of bodies, they play eight-on-eight. Sometimes, big changes can come with little, almost snickering hints of the familiar. Sometimes, a sign that you might just be where you’re meant to be is posted on a road leading into a Montana mapspeck. Because, like the sign says, this place that Bartkowski now calls home also is home to the Twin Bridges Falcons.