Falcons owner Arthur Blank spoke briefly with a small group of reporters on a teleconference Wednesday from the Super Bowl, discussing his team’s outlook as it enters the third year of the current regime.
The Falcons went 7-10 for the second consecutive season under general manager Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith. Still, the team was better than many expected, given it had moved on from long-time quarterback Matt Ryan and was weighed down by a historically poor cap situation.
Blank expressed his optimism about the organization and answered questions regarding the team’s past, present and future:
On the 2022 season and coming offseason:
Blank: “How I really feel, I think we achieved again at a very competitive level. I think when you view the fact this last year, we had 86 million dollars in dead money, which is the most in the history of the NFL going back, you know, 102 years, as opposed to going into free agency this year with the second-most cap money available, 60 million dollars. I think we’re in a very, very good position going forward.
“And I think that coach Smith and his staff, and Terry and his staff, have done a remarkable job the last two years really transitioning from the roster that we had to the vision that we had and the roster that we’re building to the future. I love our draft picks the last two years. I love the number of players that they were able to pick up in free agency on one-year deals that we’ll be able to extend now and actually be part of the Falcons roster going forward. So I feel very good about this last year. I know I’m going to feel better about this coming year. We have nine picks in the draft. So I’m excited about where we are. It doesn’t happen automatically, but I’m excited about where we are.”
On potentially pursuing a high-profile veteran quarterback, specifically Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson:
“The organization, I think, we’re very excited about Desmond Ridder (the rookie who started the final four games). I think from the time he came into training camp last year, he showed great capabilities as a leader amongst the rookies and then amongst the vets. He learned a lot from Marcus (Mariota) during the year. In December, when (Smith) decided to make a change based on performance, (he had no reservations). He has full confidence in Desmond. I think, from my viewpoint, those last four games, he played better in each of the games. Important as anything else, he was never confused about which team he was throwing the ball to. Interceptions are a big deal in the NFL. At that quarterback position, turnovers are brutal.
“We’re excited about him. But do we need other quarterbacks on the roster? The answer is yes. Where they’ll come from, I’m sure Terry and Arthur (will figure that out).”
On the benefit of the quarterback making a rookie salary while trying to build the roster:
“You have that opportunity, that’s a perfect set of circumstances, a perfect storm if you will. But in a positive way, not a negative way. When you have a quarterback you draft, and you have him under a rookie contract for five years, that’s a really big deal. There hasn’t been, in the history of the Super Bowl, one quarterback who’s represented 20% or more of the roster compensation. So, you know, we were actually at that point, reaching that point with Matt. I think, yeah, there’s a unique window there.
“And then, of course, beyond that, once you do the second contract, you want to make sure you do it in a balanced way where you can continue to build a roster. As good as a quarterback may be, and they’re certainly part of a winning formula, they can’t play by themselves. There are 21 other players that need to play as well. So we’re committed to the position, obviously, and we know we need a good leader. And I think we have it in Ridder.”
On his confidence in the franchise’s direction under Fontenot and Smith:
“Yes (I have confidence in them). One of the important facts, which you guys (media) probably will understand, but our fans may not fully, is that both on offense and defense we have (one of) the youngest teams in the NFL. That speaks to the quality of the drafts we’ve had in recent years. And we performed well, our offense was third in the league in rushing. We have work to do on our passing game, for sure, get a more balanced attack. And we have work to do on defense. But the younger players we have in those positions, on both sides of the ball, are playing at a very high level. So it’s a continuation of the activity this year in free agency, we were very limited last year and in the past, and going into the draft, I think we’ll be in a good place to build a roster.”
On how the instability of the NFC South factors into his optimism/expectations (Tom Brady retired and Buccaneers have holes, Panthers hiring new staff, Saints in cap trouble; each lacks answer at quarterback):
“The thing I’ve learned in 21 years of ownership is you can look at a division one year and say, ‘That’s going to be an easier division because of the facts (written above).’ It’s all accurate. However, as the season unfolds and players fall in place, be it free agency or draft picks or (executives and coaches), whatever it may be, you have to go into every Sunday assuming it’s going to be a battle. That’s the beauty of the NFL. This year, you have over half the division leaders are new again. You see that kind of parity throughout the NFL. That’s one of the reasons the ratings are what they are. It’s one of the reasons fans come to games because games are decided in the fourth quarter, and even when you think they’re decided, they end up being – you have teams coming back now from deficits that are bigger and bigger. The league itself and (its competitiveness) is very healthy. The thing you cannot assume is what you see today is going to be what you see on the field in six months.”
On if he has any benchmarks for what would make the 2023 season successful:
“I would say that my expectations in terms of competitiveness would be higher. And I think (Smith) would tell you that, I think Terry would tell you that. And, you know, if it’s higher, that should translate into more wins. But we’re not in the business of really projecting wins. We’re in the business of going out every Sunday or whenever we’re playing and put on our best effort. I think for all the reasons I described earlier (expectations are higher), and I give credit to the coaches and the roster and the players, the players in particular. We have a lot of young players that have developed at a very nice level and really have their best capabilities going forward. So I feel good about where we are. And I think I have every reason as a fan, as an owner - and I will say as a fan first, an owner second – to feel better about our team than even we have the last couple of years.”
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