Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank has been asked every which way if there is a victory total that coach Dan Quinn has to reach next season after Blank opted to retain Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff for 2020. Each time, Blank has avoided offering a specific target.
But there’s no question Blank expects the Falcons to be nothing less than contenders.
"Yep," Blank said when asked if the playoffs are the standard. "I can definitely say that’s right."
Blank remains optimistic about his team and Quinn -- despite consecutive 7-9 seasons in which they failed to reach the playoffs. His positive outlook correlates with what he observed in the second half of last season.
“I think the fact that the back half of the year, we were 6-2," Blank said. “That tells you everything you need to know, that we finally got the formula right. Coach [Quinn] made some changes with some coaching assignments. He made changes in terms of playcalling. He moved some players around. We played with some great intensity, winning three very tough games away: the Saints game, the Carolina game and the San Francisco game.
"It’s clear that the players love the coach and want to perform for him at the highest level. So that’s what gives me the confidence going into this year. Plus, the draft will be good for us this year. We have three picks in the first two rounds. We’ll definitely be able to improve our team."
The reshaping of the roster already began with the team’s decision not to renegotiate a new contract with defensive end Vic Beasley Jr., the eighth overall pick in the 2015 draft. Other tough decisions are looming, including whether to re-sign two-time Pro Bowl tight end Austin Hooper to a top-tier deal while up against the salary cap and whether to keep two-time Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman on the roster with three years and $21 million remaining on his deal. Freeman understands the business, but part of the reason he wants to remain in Atlanta is his love for Blank.
“Well, I love him, too," Blank said of Freeman. "But this has nothing to do with love. It has to do with building a roster. The salary cap is not unlimited. It seems like it’s unlimited, but it’s not. And the investments we have made -- which have been very, very substantial with a wide variety of players on both sides of the ball -- have been significant. So personnel, and coach, and [team president] Rich McKay, they’ll be looking at everything and making sure we’re making investments in the right areas based on what the roster has to look like going forward.
“How it’s going to affect one individual player, I have no idea. Sure, I love what [Freeman] brings to the team. I also know we’ve drafted well and we’ve got some really good backups now today. We’ll see how all that works out."
In terms of the draft, the recurring yearly theme for the Falcons is addressing the offensive and defensive lines. Last season, Blank made it clear he wanted to see quarterback Matt Ryan better protected, so the Falcons drafted two offensive linemen in the first round in right guard Chris Lindstrom (14th overall) and right tackle Kaleb McGary (31st). Blank's message seems to be rather clear this year, too.
“No matter who it is, very few quarterbacks -- almost no quarterbacks -- play better when running around thinking about their lives as opposed to their livelihood, so you want to continue to put pressure on them," Blank said. “And obviously, it helps when you have great coverage in the secondary to be able to do that as well."
So, expect the Falcons to look heavily at pass-rushers and defensive backs with three picks in the top 55, starting with the 16th overall selection. They could bolster the pass rush through free agency if they conjure up a way to free up more salary-cap space to pay a quality veteran.
However the roster comes together, the Falcons have to take care of business in the division and avoid another slow start. Quinn always emphasizes winning the NFC South, first and foremost. Last season, the Falcons were 4-2 in division play and finished second behind New Orleans. The Saints have won three division titles in a row after the Falcons won it during their Super Bowl season in 2016.
The only team in the division with certainty at quarterback is the Falcons, with one-time MVP Ryan entering his 13th season as the unquestioned starter.
“Well, I think it will be an interesting year," Blank said of the NFC South. “You’ve got a team in Tampa Bay that’s got a lot of talent, certainly. They’ve got a lot of talent on defense. They’ve got some great receivers. They’ve got a quarterback [Jameis Winston], when he’s on, he’s incredible. When he’s not, he’s equally incredible.
"You’ve got a bright, young, good coach [Matt Rhule] in Carolina with an owner [David Tepper], I think, is committed to winning and will do whatever it takes to win. So that will be interesting. I think the Saints are getting a little bit older. And whether Drew Brees comes back or not, time will tell. But they’ve won with their backup quarterback. So I think we will have a very competitive division again."
Being competitive will mean nothing for the Falcons if it doesn’t result in a playoff berth.