Arthur Blank explains why Falcons’ stayed with the collaborative hierarchy

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Early in the 2020 season, Falcons owner Arthur Blank elected to hit the reset button.

After firing general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Dan Quinn, Blank had several options to restructure the football hierarchy.

The Falcons had the chance to move away from the co-team builder approach they used under Dimitroff and Quinn and revert to a more traditional approach with a powerful general manager.

After deciding to hire Terry Fontenot and then Arthur Smith, the Falcons elected to stay with the collaborative co-team builder approach.

“I think even in those situations, like in New England, Kansas City and Seattle, those teams that have very strong head coaches that control the whole process,” Blank told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Even there, they rely on collaboration.”

He pointed out that while Bill Belichick is in control in New England, he used to rely heavily on Nick Caserio, who’s since left for Houston.

In Kansas City, coach Andy Reid has general manager Brett Veach and Seattle has Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider.

“So, even in those situations where it’s structured where the head coach does everything, if you will, there is responsibility for everything, there is still a lot of collaboration,” Blank said. “Throughout the rest of the NFL you always want to have that connection, regardless of whatever structure you put on paper.

“If you don’t have that connection between general manager/personnel and head coach and coaching staff, you will end up making some really bad decisions.”

During the process, Falcons president Rich McKay noted that -- Bobby Petrino notwithstanding -- Blank had picked successful head coaches in Jim Mora (took the team to a NFC title game), Petrino (flopped in part because Michael Vick went to federal prison), Mike Smith (coach with most wins in franchise history) and Dan Quinn (took franchise to its second Super Bowl appearance).

Over his almost 20 years of ownership, Blank has seen a lot. Having the coaches involved in the personnel selection process is something he believes is vital.

“If players are brought in the building that the coaches really don’t want or don’t (believe they) have all of the assets or attributes that they think are important, then they won’t coach them the same way,” Blank said. “On the other hand, if they are committed to them and they feel like they are good candidates, they are going to work even harder to make sure they are successful.”

In 2014, with the Falcons in dire need of linebackers, they selected four in the draft. They took Prince Shembo in the fourth round, Marquis Spruill in the fifth round, Yawin Smallwood and Tyler Starr in the seventh round.

Shembo played in 16 games in the NFL before he was charged with aggravated animal-cruelty charges and released. Spruill and Smallwood never played a down, and Starr played in one game. That was an example of the personnel men giving the coaches, under the direction of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, players that couldn’t play.

“I think the collaboration builds not only accountability, it places a stronger emphasis on success,” Blank said.

The Falcons decided on Fontenot as the general manager first. He become the franchise’s first Black GM.

“They didn’t know each other before,” Blank said. “When we did our final interview with Terry, he was the first person we hired. We asked him, because he knew what was going on in the coaching market, and we told him he was going to be our general manager.”

The Falcons, with McKay leading the search and Blank and members of his family sitting in on the interviews, also would pick the head coach.

“At the same time, we asked (Fontenot) if he’d studied all of the coaches that were out there, the leading coaching candidates who were out there,” Blank said. “If so, who would you like us to make sure that we consider? Coach Smith was somebody who was very high on his list.”

Before settling on Smith, the Falcons had to figure out if he would be compatible with Fontenot.

“I spent time on the phone with (Fontenot) to see how compatible they would be in terms of the system, how to build a roster and our whole views of the game,” Blank said. “That was before we actually had talked to Arthur, but he didn’t know about that.

“I was very impressed that Terry understood the importance of the relationship, whatever the titles are, it doesn’t really make a difference. What’s most important was that they have a collaborative relationship.”

Blank was convinced that they would mesh together well.

“You don’t want the general manager bringing players in the building the coaches don’t want and don’t want to coach,” Blank said. “They can’t reject it, but they (in essence) can because they don’t work as hard (with the players). There is commitment. Whether it’s a free agent or a college drafted person or a college free agent, you’re going to get a higher level of commitment to make it work.”

Fontenot was coming from the Saints, where he worked his way upfrom being an intern to one of the top personnel men.

“Right away, with the staff, you build some relationships,” Fontenot said. “Everyone from the head coach, there might be some head coaches that might not be as involved or might not do as much work, but right away getting around Arthur Smith, he’s a worker. He’s a grinder. He put a lot into it. He expects his coaches to put a lot into it. He listens to all of the scouts, and we have some great evaluators that put a lot into it.”

If there was any trepidation, it dissolved.

“So, very quickly, I gained confidence in the staff,” Fontenot said. “There were some things that we changed quickly, but we put a lot of work into it, and with every player that we signed, there was a lot of passion and conviction from scouts and coaches on those players.”

Smith contended that the cutdown from 80 players to the 53-man roster Monday and Tuesday went smoothly. The two sides are working to finalize the season-opening roster and still have moves to make.

“Terry and I have been working hand-in-hand since January,” Smith said. “That’s what we were hired to do. Feel very fortunate to be working with somebody like Terry. He’s become a great friend in a short period of time and a great co-worker.”

They are still building their relationship.

“When you’re able to have those kinds of relationships, you’re able to be honest,” Smith said. “Neither one of us have egos. We just want to do what’s best for the Falcons. We both have really good staffs. It’s a collaborative effort.”

Eventually, Blank wants to see the team back in the Super Bowl with an opportunity to hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy for the first time in Atlanta.

He’s learned a lesson from the Super Bowl LI collapse.

“It does make you, I think, more aware of how difficult it is to get there,” Blank said. “You have to go through the whole season, then you have to win a series of games in the postseason. It’s single-game elimination. The ball is not round, and anything can happen on Sunday or Saturday or Saturday night when you are playing in the postseason.

“Just to get in the Super Bowl is just a really big deal and great accomplishment. We’re going to have to work hard to get back there. We’re all committed to doing that and obviously end up with a different result. It’s a long journey.”

Blank is ready to embark on that new journey with Fontenot and Smith.

“I was always a long-distance runner, so I can relate to that,” Blank said. “I can relate to what it takes to perform over a long distance for a long period of time, one foot in front of the other. Dealing with adversities along the way, you will have.”

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