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Falcons selling hope with Petrino

ATLANTA -- They were peddling hope here again on Monday. The Atlanta Falcons' hiring of Louisville coach Bobby Petrino on Sunday night provided license for owner Arthur Blank to package optimism and good will as if they were a two-for-one special on silver-plated bathroom fixtures down at one of the Home Depot stores he founded years ago.

But then again, isn't that what hiring a new coach is really all about? Stripped of all the ancillaries, bringing aboard a new coach is the essence of regenerating optimism.

Of selling hope.

In this case, the Falcons just happen to be the first of five teams with head coach openings (and there could be another franchise or two with vacancies before the end of the week) to tie on the huckster's apron and try to make a hard sell to fans who want a winner.

Blank likes to refer to the Atlanta fan base, and particularly his season-ticket patrons, as his "stakeholders," you know, business partners of a sort. And when the stock is faltering, what do you do? Well, you try to raise the expectations again, jump-start the stock, import a new face with an allegedly fresh message, and then raise ticket prices.

It's the NFL way, and only five years into his stewardship, Blank, a marketing maven, knows the blueprint pretty well.

The only flaw with the blueprint is that there are occasions when the lines don't connect. And then you're forced to start over a few years down the road because the primary subcontractor, in this case the head coach, can't make it work.

For now, though, things are, well, peachy here. Although initial reviews on Petrino have been somewhat mixed on the New Age indicators of public opinion, sports-talk radio and blogs, for the most part his hiring has been positively received. So give credit to Blank and general manager Rich McKay for climbing aboard the owner's private jet and flying off to huddle clandestinely with Petrino at some point in recent days.

While the media was focusing on the interviews with candidates such as Chicago defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, San Francisco assistant head coach Mike Singletary and offensive coordinators Ken Whisenhunt (Pittsburgh) and Cam Cameron (San Diego), the Falcons' undercover tandem was headed in a different direction altogether. Clearly, McKay's penchant for going underground at any hint of a crisis paid off handsomely.

By acting surreptitiously, the Falcons got their man and, just as important, got a jump over the rest of the league in selling their brand of hope. From the time they fired Jim Mora to the time they signed Petrino, only a week had passed.

Still, here's the thing: Did the Falcons, in being the first team to fill its vacancy ("They wanted to win the battle of the press conferences," one general manager said Monday morning), get the right guy?

Hey, who knows? That's the great unknown in any hiring, especially of a coach with only modest NFL experience, and as recent history has indicated, with any coach who owns primarily a college background. The same things Atlanta executives were saying about Petrino on Monday, they said about Mora three years ago, and might be saying about another new coach three years hence.

Time, as they say, will tell.

There are, though, some oddities in the decision to hire Petrino and to do so in such an expeditious manner. A few of them:

• At the news conference to discuss Mora's dismissal, Blank stressed the need for organizational continuity, and cited franchises such as Pittsburgh, Denver and Philadelphia, and the stability those teams exhibit, as his model. Petrino, to be sure, doesn't exactly define stability. He has been a coach at the college level or above for 24 years and held a dozen jobs. In any man's math, that's an average tenure of two years, and the only position Petrino held for more than two years is the one he is leaving. Sure, young coaches (Petrino is only 45) hopscotch across the country all the time, often for modest raises, to find the right spot. But Petrino clearly is one of the all-time grass-is-greener guys.

• Petrino possesses just three seasons of NFL experience, having served on the Jacksonville Jaguars' staff from 1999 to 2001. He was the quarterbacks coach the first two seasons, and the offensive coordinator in 2001, when Jacksonville ranked just 20th in total offense and posted a 6-10 record.

• Blank has never claimed the role of moral arbiter, but he is a man of ethics and conviction and, to him, image is almost as important as victories. He fired Mora, at least in part, because of the coach's public flirtation with his dream job at the University of Washington during his ill-fated radio interview. But only two years ago, Petrino went one step beyond Mora. He boarded a private jet that was provided by a big-money Auburn booster and met with the school president and athletic director about the Tigers' head coach position. So what? Well, the school didn't have an opening at the time, because Tommy Tuberville was, and remains, the head coach. The clandestine meeting was inexcusable. And then there's the matter of Petrino's recent interview with Blank and McKay, the session no one will discuss. Suspicion is that the Falcons met with Petrino before Louisville's bowl appearance. Given the tawdry Auburn affair, it's not surprising Petrino doesn't want anyone to know when he sat down with the Falcons' brass.

• McKay has insisted Atlanta would hire the best coach for the team. But the addition of Petrino clearly is a last-gasp effort to enhance Michael Vick's productivity. Even more so than Blank, but not by much, Vick is the face of the franchise and the reason the Georgia Dome is filled on Sunday afternoons.

Funny, but here in SEC country, the Big East, the league Petrino dominated, is looked down upon. But winning in the Big East was plenty good enough for the Falcons to consider Petrino an offensive guru. And with his prickly personality and demanding manner on and off the field, he was an obvious fit in hindsight, even if his candidacy was a secret one.

Mora was regarded by Blank as being too close to some of his players. It's the NFL way: Replace a good guy, or a players' coach, with a hard-ass.

The Falcons won't necessarily market Petrino as a tough guy, of course, because he's got all the offensive credentials to sell, and a track record of success. He took a program at a school best noted for basketball and transformed it into a national power. His offense is a unique blend of a power-based running game and a vertical passing attack. Petrino is also a fearless play caller.

So there's plenty there to sell, and the marketing campaign began in earnest on Monday, because that's what hiring a new coach entails. You market hope and cross your fingers that it sells in the market. If it doesn't, you break out the plan again in three more years.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.