Falcons fire Mike Smith

ATLANTA -- Falcons owner Arthur Blank called the firing of coach Mike Smith the toughest decision of his professional career and didn't rule out more organizational changes despite saying Thomas Dimitroff remains his general manager.

Blank addressed the media shortly after the team sent out a news release announcing that Smith had been relieved of his duties with a year left on his contract. Smith compiled a 66-46 record over seven seasons but went 10-22 over the last two. He had a 1-4 postseason record and failed to make the playoffs in consecutive years.

His tenure ended with Sunday's 34-3 loss to the Panthers in the game for the NFC South title.

Blank said the decision would not have been made yet had the Falcons won Sunday's game.

"I would tell you that probably including my 23 years at Home Depot, this was the most difficult decision I've ever had to make," Blank said. "And I mean that very sincerely. It was complicated by the deepest respect that I had, we all had, for Smitty."

Blank said the coaching search begins immediately with plans to submit interview requests later Monday.

The Falcons can begin interviewing coaches from teams currently with byes for the playoffs -- the Seahawks, Packers, Broncos and Patriots -- immediately. League sources told ESPN that the Falcons already have asked permission to speak to Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.

Atlanta has also asked permission to interview Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, sources told ESPN, but that interview isn't permitted to take place until next week at the earliest since the Cardinals and Lions have playoff games this weekend.

"I'll be involved in the search completely, so I'll be in the middle of that process," Blank said. "So we'll go through the process as diligently and as thoughtfully and with as much painstaking detail that we can, and we'll come to a collective decision. But at the end of the day, the decision will be mine."

Blank vowed to give offensive- and defensive-minded coaches equal weight. He also said power would not be an issue in the end, which would indicate the new coach would have to be on board with Dimitroff or else more change might occur.

"Thomas is our general manager," Blank said. "If there are any changes, obviously we'll let you know about that."

Blank was pressed on keeping Dimitroff, who has two years left on his contract.

"Everything relative to football operations, outside of coaching, is up for scrutiny and for discussion," Blank said. "Everything."

Dimitroff will be involved in the coaching search along with the organization's internal team. Blank confirmed consulting with Joe Banner, a former executive with the Browns and Eagles. The Falcons also hired search firm Korn Ferry to assist in identifying candidates.

Korn Ferry assisted in the searches that landed Andy Reid in Kansas City and Bill O'Brien in Houston.

Blank dismissed any notion that hiring the firm was a distraction for Smith and the Falcons going into the final game, considering the news went public well before kickoff.

"It's my job as the owner to look around corners and represent the franchise and to think about the future," Blank said. "It's our job to think about all the 'what-ifs,' just the way a coach does during a football game. ... So the discussions we've had with Korn Ferry firm internally have all been about process. There has not been one phone call made to any coach. There has not been one phone called made to any agent for anybody, either inside or outside of this organization. [Coach Smith] understands that. And I would like you to please be clear when you do that reporting, OK?

"While some people in the room were critical of wherever the leak came from regarding Korn Ferry and how it may have been a distraction to Coach Smith, he would say it was not. But I also would say to you the week before, when CBS reported similar reports and we beat the crap out of the Saints in New Orleans, I didn't hear a lot of reporting about was that a distraction, because obviously it wasn't."

Both Dimitroff and team president Rich McKay sat at Blank's side as the owner addressed the media for more than an hour. Both Dimitroff and McKay answered a few questions.

Blank said he spoke with Smith on Monday morning, and the two expressed affection for each other. Blank also said no coaching staff changes would be announced immediately. He said the new coach would have the option of retaining any of those coaches.

ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter and ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold and Calvin Watkins contributed to this report.