Blank realizes his mistakes, but looks to take Falcons to future

ATLANTA -- The 377th wealthiest person in America leans back in his chair, tugs ever so slightly at the monogrammed cuff of his crisp white dress shirt and then does a swan dive on his football sword.

Yes, says Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, he believed Michael Vick when the quarterback first assured him he wasn't involved in a massive dogfighting operation.

No, says Blank, despite a supposed close relationship with Vick, he had no idea the face of his franchise was killing dogs.

Yes, says Blank, in retrospect he screwed up by trusting Vick enough to give him a 10-year, $130 million contract in December 2004.

No, he says, he won't desert Vick after the quarterback serves his prison sentence. In fact, Blank sent him a letter of encouragement several weeks ago and says he would be willing to vouch for Vick if another NFL owner called for a recommendation.

Yes, he says, Bobby Petrino's 337-day reign of terror as the Falcons' head coach in 2007 was ultimately a Blank brain cramp.

No, he says, he doesn't apologize for doing employment dances with Bill Parcells, Bill Cowher and Pete Carroll before settling on his current management and coaching team.

Blank says all of this during an interview at the faux French chateau that houses the Arthur M. Blank Family Office. The complex comes with a gated underground parking garage, artwork out the wazoo, and enough quality sports memorabilia to keep eBay busy for years. The chateau is so imposing you half expect to see people wearing ascots and carrying brandy snifters.

A little more than 11 months ago, Blank's franchise was in danger of capsizing. On Dec. 10, 2007, Vick had just been sentenced to 23 months in prison for his role in a dogfighting ring. On Dec. 11, Petrino, despised by his players, quit with three games remaining and bolted to the University of Arkansas. The Falcons finished the season 4-12.

Now look at them. They're 6-4, in play for a postseason berth, and Demi Moore keeps asking for tickets to their games. Maybe she sees what we see: a rookie quarterback (Matt Ryan) who looks like he's going to play in this league a very long time, a running game (Michael Turner, Jerious Norwood) to die for, a head coach (Mike Smith) who doesn't have a generalissimo complex.

Or maybe Demi and Ashton are just killing time while she films a movie in Atlanta. Whatever. The Falcons and Blank are headed in the opposite direction of the Vick/Petrino era, and that's a good thing.

"It's kind of like Moses," says Blank. "Led a lot of folks through the desert, out of the desert. I think they've done a pretty good job. It took Moses 40 years. It's not going to take these guys 40 years. We were in the desert, no question about it. But we're out now."

Blank, 66, made his bones and his fortune in the hardware business. He co-founded Home Depot, sold his interest in 2001, and took over the Falcons in 2002. He knew how to run a business, but he wasn't prepared for the media scrutiny that comes with owning an NFL franchise, for the swings in emotion he felt following a victory or a loss, or for the costly reality of injuries to his players. At Home Depot he never lost a chief financial officer to a torn ACL.

I watched him work the Georgia Dome sidelines before last Sunday's game against the Denver Broncos. This was Demi territory. Mover and shaker territory. There were advertisers. Former Falcons players and coaches. Deep-pocketed friends of the franchise. Blank did the hummingbird thing, moving from one person to the next.

The man is no dummy. Some NFL owners big-time their security detail. Blank, whose lead security man is a 24-year veteran of the Secret Service, always makes sure to thank the local cops. He stops to say hello to the officiating crew. He chats with Broncos owner Pat Bowlen. He ducks into the locker room before kickoff to wish his players well.

He's a people person. His head coach is a people person. His general manager, Thomas Dimitroff, is a people person. Dimitroff, who drafted Ryan with the No. 3 overall pick, is the guy who got a lump in his throat when the rookie's first regular-season pass of his pro career went for a 62-yard touchdown. At last, everybody is on the same page, or at least on the same chapter.

"You go through life, you make mistakes," says Blank, whose Flushing, N.Y., accent sticks out here in the land of Southern twangs. "If you're smart, you learn from them. If you're not, you make the same mistakes over again. I've learned from the Petrino hire. I've learned from the Michael Vick situation."

Blank takes his lumps on both.

"Petrino hire, bad hire," he says. "I had to sign off on it and I did sign off on it. So I've got to take responsibility for that. Take responsibility for the decision, and responsibility for the folks who made the decision as well. They work for me. He's not a bad person. He's a good guy. Good family, etc. But just a bad hire. You know, obviously should have stayed in college."

Petrino Xeroxed his players a goodbye note before skulking off to Arkansas. He isn't missed. But Vick's involvement in dogfighting caught Blank, a supporter of local Humane Society efforts, completely by surprise and nearly knee-capped the franchise. After all, it was Blank who had giddily signed Vick to that 2004 extension.

"Retrospect, it's a bad decision," says Blank. "The time we made the decision … everybody in the organization felt that Michael was going to be a lifer in Atlanta and would be our franchise quarterback. Obviously [we] weren't aware of all these other issues, as the world wasn't aware of them. People with him every day weren't aware of them."

They are now. That's why Blank, before he signed off on drafting Ryan and agreeing to a 6-year, $72-million deal, learned everything he could about his prospective quarterback's background, character, family, associates, personality and community ties.

"With Michael, when Michael was in Atlanta, everything was pretty good," says Blank. "When he disappeared, that's when trouble began."

Blank was close to Vick. Or at least, he thought he was. He put his trust in Vick, and has the scorch marks to prove it. So does he feel betrayed?

"I wouldn't say 'betrayed,'" says Blank. "I think Michael probably betrayed himself. At his heart, I don't think Michael is a bad person, I really don't. I think basically he's a good guy, a good person. He did very bad things, but I think he was a product of his environment he grew up in. The neighborhood pressures. Friends. Family. A variety of things went on in his life. He was unable to cut the umbilical cord effectively from those roots, even when he came to the NFL.

"… He's got to take personal responsibility for not only what his friends did when they were together, but for what he did. Because he had his hand in a lot of that as well. And he has [taken responsibility]."

Blank initially believed Vick's version of the truth when the dogfighting allegations became public. But that didn't last long.

"I certainly believe in redemption, second chances, sometimes third chances," says Blank, who has continued to correspond with Vick during his jail time. "Hopefully, Michael won't need a third -- but he'll need a second -- and he'll be back playing professional football at some point."

If NFL commissioner Roger Goodell reinstates Vick after his scheduled release from prison next July, Blank says "I would certainly encourage another owner to look at him in a very serious way." He adds, "I would be first satisfied that Michael is going to live differently than he's lived in the past."

But if a new and improved version of Vick does play again, Blank says the quarterback has the ability to be "a very powerful role model."

In the meantime, Blank and the Falcons live differently than they've lived in the past. New coach. New GM. New quarterback. New hope.

"That doesn't mean we're living in the land of milk and honey, but it means we see it and we're moving in that direction," says Blank.

I smell movie rights. Interested, Demi?

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.