Given the way Atlanta Falcons fans have reacted to what the team has done (or, more accurately, not done) this offseason, I was expecting Arthur Blank to pull out earmuffs as he reached into his pocket just before the start of an interview last week.
It didn’t happen. Instead, the owner of the Falcons pulled out a pair of sunglasses. This was a rare step outside during the NFL owners meetings in Palm Beach, Fla. He slipped on the shades, surveyed the Atlantic Ocean, sat down on a bench and started explaining, in great detail, the course his team has chosen.
Maybe this will, once and for all, stop all the screaming in Atlanta about how the Falcons didn’t pursue LB Mario Williams and didn’t really do much of anything in free agency. Blank has a detailed answer for that and, when you listen, it should all start to make sense.
There was a moment when I looked directly at Blank, but could have sworn I was seeing and hearing Gene Hackman. It was almost exactly like the scene in “Hoosiers," where the basketball coach played by Hackman firmly tells a referee “my team is on the court" after a player fouls out and the coach elects to go with four players instead of turning back to a player who had defied orders.
Blank has said, “My team is on the field."
Yeah, the marquee free-agent signings have been linebacker Lofa Tatupu and guard Vince Manuwai. And Atlanta fans aren’t exactly jumping up and down about the fact that the Falcons re-signed defensive end John Abraham and center Todd McClure; it wouldn’t have surprised anyone if they decided to retire. Throw in the re-signing of role players Thomas DeCoud, Jason Snelling and Harry Douglas, and it’s easy to see why a lot of Atlanta fans believe the Falcons haven’t done a single thing to get better after ending last season with an embarrassing playoff loss to the New York Giants.
But Blank has an explanation, so let’s hear it.
“I feel good about where we are,’’ Blank said. “I know we didn’t make a big splash going into free agency. But that really wasn’t our intention going into this year. We really felt we had a lot of talent. We were fortunate that we had the opportunity to bring in the two new coordinators and a few other coaches. At some point, it’s not even a matter of if the contents are correct. Sometimes, it’s a matter of who is delivering the message and whether the players are hearing it or not.’’
The man makes a good point. The 2011 Falcons team that went 10-6 (and didn't play with much consistency) was essentially the same team that went 13-3 and played with a great deal of consistency in 2010. The 2012 Falcons have largely the same roster as the previous two teams. In the eyes of Blank, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith, the problem last season and the reason this team hasn’t won a playoff game under the current administration isn’t about the roster.
Maybe the roster was just fine, but the coaching staff and the schemes were holding back the Falcons. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey left after the season to become head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder left after the season to become the defensive coordinator at Auburn. Both men left on their own, but I get the impression that if they hadn’t, they might have been shown the door.
Let’s be honest here. Mularkey’s offensive system reached its peak in 2010 and didn’t get any better even with the addition of talented rookie receiver Julio Jones last season. VanGorder’s defense was solid but never dominant, which was a disappointment because the Falcons have some individual talent on defense. Mularkey has been replaced by Dirk Koetter, and VanGorder has been replaced by Mike Nolan.
“I love the selections that Smitty and Thomas made,’’ Blank said.
I get the sense that the days of QB Matt Ryan rolling out and almost always checking down are over. I get the sense that the days of sitting back in the Cover 2 are long gone.
“Dirk and I have had numerous discussions in terms of what our players are capable of doing,’’ Smith said during the meetings. “I think, first and foremost, you have to design your schemes toward what the players are capable of doing. We’ve spent a lot of time identifying the strengths and weakness of all our guys and what they do well and what they don’t do well, and we want to put together an offense that accentuates their strengths.’’
In other words, the Falcons aren’t going to be handing the ball to Michael Turner 300-plus times a season. They’re going to try to take some shots downfield with Jones and Roddy White, and they’re going to get versatile second-year running back Jacquizz Rodgers more involved in the offense. They also will try to put Ryan in a position where he can go from being a good quarterback to an elite one.
Smith said he’s had similar discussions with Nolan, the former head coach of the San Francisco 49ers who has had success as a defensive coordinator elsewhere. Nolan is noted for producing aggressive defenses. Some minor tweaks to attitude and scheme could provide an upgrade over the VanGorder units that never were able to establish any sort of identity.
Blank made quite a bit of noise after the loss to the Giants about how simply getting to the playoffs wasn’t good enough. He wants his team to win playoff games and contend for the Super Bowl.
That really hasn’t changed. But after the heat of the moment cooled a bit, Blank, Smith and Dimitroff sat back and realized they weren’t all that far from where they wanted to be. Early in his days as an owner, Blank was portrayed as hands-on and reactionary. I don’t think those descriptions really fit him anymore and I think he’s learned from his past. I think Blank is at a stage where he remains plugged in but trusts Smith and Dimitroff to make the football decisions.
“I went back and studied this over a long period of time in the NFL and studied the great teams,’’ Blank said. “Consistency is very important in terms of leadership with coaches and players. The great teams, what they have done is they’ve kept their head coaches for a longer period of time, kept their general managers for a longer period of time, and they identified early enough their core players and they extended them. The football staff has done a great job of identifying the players that can help us and keep them.’’
The salary cap also was a factor in the Falcons’ approach to the offseason. Pursuing Williams or some other big names in free agency would have meant sacrificing continuity. The only key player the Falcons lost was middle linebacker Curtis Lofton -- and that was a calculated loss. Lofton wanted a lot of money and Atlanta placed a limit on his value. If the Falcons had made just one or two big free-agency moves and kept Lofton, guys like Abraham, McClure, DeCoud, Douglas and Snelling wouldn’t be on the roster. The team would have had to cut other players to free up cap room. The Falcons could have made a splash, but it would have left them with all sorts of holes.
“What you have to look at is, this is not like baseball,’’ Blank said. “There are limits. This is real money and not monopoly money … one of the beauties in the NFL is that in July and August fans of every team think their team has a chance to go to the playoffs or to go to the Super Bowl and win it. The salary-cap system forces you to make some tough choices. Thomas and Smitty and their staffs made these choices because they believe they were the ones that will give us the biggest bang for the buck going forward. I certainly tested their logic and asked questions, but I think their plan was all very sound and well-formulated.’’
Like it or not, Blank is putting his team (the one chosen by Smith and Dimitroff) on the field this fall. You might not like it now and that’s fine with Blank. He thinks you’ll like it a lot more as the season goes along.