After an 0-3 exhibition season in which most of the key starters never played a snap, Falcons owner Arthur Blank has a hopeful outlook for the coming season.
“I am optimistic that our team will be competitive this year,” Blank said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday. “Hopefully, very competitive this year, and we will see where it takes us. The record will be what the record will be. I don’t know. … I think we’re going to have a very competitive team.”
After the team started 0-5 last season, Blank fired general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Dan Quinn. Dimitroff had the most successful reign in franchise history, with six of his teams going to the playoffs and one reaching the Super Bowl.
Quinn became the second coach to guide the Falcons to the Super Bowl.
The Falcons finished the 2020 season 4-12, with interim coach Raheem Morris going 4-7. After that, the Falcons looked to the Saints and the Titans for answers.
Terry Fontenot, a longtime Saints executive, and Arthur Smith, Titans offensive coordinator, were hired as the general manager and head coach.
“I think the coach and Terry have done an excellent job in putting together the team from the start of free agency all the way through the draft picks, and through OTAs, through camp and the exhibition-season games,” Blank said on the day the team cut to its initial 53-man roster. “They have followed a plan.”
Blank also has been pleased with Smith’s coaching staff, which has several long-time NFL assistant coaches.
“I think the coaches make a difference, too,” Blank said. “I don’t want to pick out one, but when you look at someone like (defensive coordinator) Dean Pees. He has an outstanding track record of playing defense at the highest level. Competing in Super Bowls. Winning Super Bowls and what have you. There are a number of coaches that have a great experience base.”
Blank was not taken aback by the 0-3 record. He learned early in his ownership that wins and losses in the exhibition season don’t really matter.
“I remember when Bobby Beathard was here the first year that I was owner,” Blank said. “I said Bobby, ‘We are losing these (exhibition) games, what is wrong?’ He said, ‘let me tell you something, I was in Washington 12 years and four years we went to the Super Bowl. Three out of the four years we won the Super Bowl, we didn’t win one (exhibition) game.’”
Blank, while wanting to see the eventual team like most of the fans, understood that there was a method to Smith’s madness.
“It’s not for winning,” Blank said. “I’ve really learned to understand that over the last 20-odd years, you have to evaluate players in a very condensed period of time.”
Also, Blank was fine with the starters not playing because the team is about to play the first 17-game schedule in NFL history and hope to make the postseason for the first time since 2017.
“It’s a long-haul business, and you have to prepare to play other players,” Blank said. “You want to build a roster that has people that may not start, but they contribute in a significant way.”
Pees repeatedly has discussed that the 2012 Baltimore team reached the Super Bowl and started eight cornerbacks along the way.
Dallas coach Mike McCarthy said that the Packers (where he was coach from 2006-18) used more than 70 players in 2010 on the way to the Super Bowl title.
“Over the course of the season, they are going to be asked to play,” Blank said. “(Exhibition) season is not same as regular season in terms of the intensity, but certainly it is more intense than just a practice. I think for the players they have a chance to work against other players, other schemes and produce at a different level.
“But I do understand the fans. I understand from their perspective, but I also appreciate it.”
Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@
Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@
Smith explained to Blank his philosophy of testing players in exhibition games. Calling a pass play at the 1-yard because he wanted to see Josh Rosen throw was one example. Calling a running play against a stacked defensive front to test the line and running back.
“He wanted to see how well our athletes could perform when things are stacked against them,” Blank said. “When the defense was really positioned to stop a play. Would they give up easy? Would they keep fighting? Would a certain player shine through and continue to excel? That was a little different approach, which I give the coach great credit for.”
The approach basically was not to play starters and to test and evaluate potential backups.
“How do I make the best decisions in (exhibition) season, so I can come to the starting line with the strongest roster that I can,” Blank said. “One where I understand most clearly what the strengths of the players are.”
Blank was not concerned that fans paying full price for exhibition games may want to at least get a peek at the starters.
“We have a pricing system for the season,” Blank said. “There are certain games that people pay a premium for. Certain games, they’ll discount and use (the tickets) as gifts or whatever. People who are really into the game want to see some of these rookies. They want to see some of the free agents play. They want to see how the team is coming together.”
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