The Michael Penix Jr. era begins in Atlanta: ‘I've got to produce’

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Michael Penix Jr. hasn’t even been in Atlanta 48 hours. He hasn’t yet found a place to live. He hasn’t scoped out the best spots to fish. He hasn’t braved Atlanta’s traffic. He knows that regardless of what the depth chart may say, he’s carrying all the expectations that come with being a first-round draft pick.

“I can’t sit here and be star-struck no more,” Penix said Friday afternoon, shortly after his first practice as a Falcon. “I’ve got to produce.”

Atlanta Falcons head coach Raheem Morris has a term for a rookie who goes all-out from the very first practice. “Cat in the Hat,” he calls them, a term he picked up from Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin when the two were Tampa Bay assistants under Jon Gruden in the early 2000s. The Cat in the Hat runs faster than everyone, even when he doesn’t need to … and doesn’t leave anything in reserve as a result.

In his rookie training camp debut Friday, Penix wasn’t the Cat in the Hat; that honor probably belonged to undrafted free-agent quarterback John Paddock. But over the course of multiple cone drills and short routes, Penix looked calm, secure and deeply at ease in the pocket.

“I’ve just got to find the open guy and throw it to him,” Penix said and smiled after practice. “It’s not that hard.”

That steadiness is good news because the rest of the Falcons universe, from team owner to front office to coaches to fans, is in a nervy situation, a long way out on a very skinny limb.

The Falcons enter the 2024 season under perhaps the most intense — and self-inflicted — pressure in the entire league. Just weeks after signing free-agent Kirk Cousins to a massive $180 million contract, the team used its first-round draft pick, No. 8 overall, on Penix. The Falcons thus created a quarterback controversy where none existed, before Cousins had even strapped on a helmet.

Atlanta Falcons first round draft pick quarterback Michael Penix Jr., runs a passing drill as quarterback coach T.J. Yates looks on during an NFL rookie minicamp football practice Friday, May 10, 2024, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

The team welcomed Cousins as a franchise cornerstone, but it’s clear now that the Falcons did so with eyes wide open. Cousins is only a few months removed from a torn Achilles, one which he himself has acknowledged isn’t completely healed. He’s closer to 40 than 30. While he can stack up fantasy numbers in the regular season, his playoff record is a woeful 1-3. Cousins is good enough to get Atlanta into the playoffs; the question he’ll face is whether he’s good enough to get the Falcons very far.

So Penix serves as a long-term investment and a short-term break-glass-in-case-of-emergency. He’s an expensive insurance policy, an all-in gamble that potentially won’t start showing returns until the 2026 season, if then. That has the makings of an uncomfortable couple of years in Atlanta — any hint of struggle for Cousins, any garbage-time brilliance from Penix, and the calls for change will come. Atlanta has missed the playoffs for six straight seasons — only the Broncos and Jets have longer droughts — and fans aren’t inclined to give the Falcons the benefit of the doubt.

“There were a lot of reasons to say, ‘What are you doing?’ The biggest one being, you didn’t help this year’s team,” says longtime local sports radio host Chris Dimino, who’s spent the past two weeks fielding calls from perplexed and infuriated Falcons fans. “You could have had any defender up on the board. … If they don’t win a playoff game because they couldn’t bring the quarterback to the ground, a cornerback gets burned, the story is going to be, maybe you would have won that playoff game had you not picked the guy who was sitting on the bench watching.”

Penix, for his part, attempted Friday to squelch any hint of division between himself and Cousins, even though both are in an awkward situation neither one expected.

“We on the same team,” Penix said. “I’m super blessed to able to be right here in this position, right now, with a veteran in front of me, learning from him. I’m going about my business each day, finding ways to improve and get to where he is."

The signing of Cousins brought a shot of hope to the fan base; if he’d been in an Atlanta uniform last year, the Falcons likely would have reached the playoffs, and the NFC South hasn’t gotten appreciably better since then. Some reasonably consistent play from Cousins, and Atlanta should be in the postseason. Meanwhile, Penix has a rare opportunity in the NFL: the chance to grow at a measured pace, unhurried by a need to start and prove himself instantly.

The Michael Penix Jr. Era in Atlanta could culminate in a Super Bowl, or it could cost a whole lot of people their jobs. Either way, it began in earnest Friday, and nobody knows where it’s going from here.