Q&A: Owner Arthur Blank discusses the state of the Falcons franchise

Falcons owner Arthur Blank discussed his team and how it can return to the Super Bowl. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton

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Falcons owner Arthur Blank discussed his team and how it can return to the Super Bowl. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton

LOS ANGELES — Here’s the transcript of Falcons owner Arthur Blank’s interview with D. Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution at Super Bowl LVI on Wednesday:

On whether the team was competitive in 2021. Did they pass the test? I think so. I think when you win seven games on the last possession, I think that speaks to the team’s competitiveness. I think the coaches did a great job in terms of clock management, game calling, defensive, offensive game calls. How the players didn’t wilt under the sun. I think they were prepared to play and played with intensity and competitively, right up to the very end of the games. So, I think that bodes well for the transition, the culture transition that we didn’t have the year before. So, I’m excited about where we are.

I think that we’ve got a great coach in coach (Arthur) Smith. I think he’ll be outstanding for a long time. I think Terry Fontenot, our general manager, has got a great background, great training. He has brought a lot of good ideas to us. I think he did a great job in a year when the cap was dramatically reduced. We tried to bring in a lot of one-year players that played at a very high level. … (We will) try to continue to sign as free agents players that are important to us.

That’s a progression you have to go through. It just isn’t overnight, but we’re moving in that direction. That’s what our commitment is. Then, obviously, we’ll be appropriately active in free agency and then you know, during the draft.

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On how the collaboration is going between Fontenot and Smith: Really well. ... It’s really interesting. I think, you know, we hired Terry Fontenot first and he had never worked with coach Smith which really, in a lot of ways, was really a good thing. Sometimes in the league there is this fraternity, and sometimes it’s who you know, it’s very connected and you hire people you worked with in the past. Which I understand.

On the other hand, Terry had never worked with him. But before when we first started to talk to Terry, after we decided to hire him, about the coaching candidates that we had. He actually, proactively, without us asking him, he’d gotten on the phone and called coach Smith. He spent time with him on the phone. So by the time we had the conversation with Terry, he said, ‘Yeah, I know coach Smith. I’ve had conversations with him about you know, philosophy, systems, schemes, things of that nature. They were very much in line.

So, I think it’s critical that a general manager and head coach, you’ll be on the same page. It doesn’t mean they agree on everything. They don’t, and they shouldn’t. But it means there’s a level of respect, and they want to listen to each other. So, they do it with ears that are wide open. I have a certain view on a player and what’s your view and why is that? You know, I see that almost on a weekly basis. I see them have those kind of thoughtful conversations.”

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On the lack of hiring Black head coaches in the NFL and how can that be fixed: I would start out with this and, you know, rather be positive and negative. Every time I had this conversation with Congressman (John) Lewis or Andy Young. They always said the same thing to me. They both said the same thing to me, independently. Can we start out being positive and talk about you know, history. Where we’ve been and the progress that we’ve made to date. So, if you look at the league office has been tremendous progress.

In 2021, 55% of the associates hired amongst the league officers (and) 1,100 people were women (and) 45% were (minorities). Throughout our organizations throughout the NFL, at the club level, you’ll see positions in the front office and coaching and scouting. Our personnel department, over half of it is Black today, and coaching staff. So, I think we have to acknowledge that there’s progress being made. ...

But we have failed when it comes to (hiring) head coaches. We’ve not made the kind of progress that we would, like to see. So, I think what the commissioner said this morning is accurate. We’re going to have to take apart all pieces of the puzzles and examine every piece and make sure that we are doing all of this correctly. Bring in people from the outside. Bring in versions of (former Dolphins coach Brian) Flores (who is suing the NFL alleging discrimination) throughout the league, wherever they may exist. Listen to them. What are their experiences? Are they similar to coach Flores or not? And really just be a good listener and bring in people from the outside of the NFL that aren’t embedded in the NFL, who’ve got proven track records in these areas and try to understand well, you know, how do they make progress.

What are the things we need to do differently? At the end of the day, you cannot have a situation where you have three Black coaches in the NFL out of 32 franchises where you have 70% plus of your players are African-American. It’s not a defendable position, and it’s not. So, that’s what needs to change. And I think that you know, I happen to serve on the diversity-and-inclusion committee. I’m gonna roll up my sleeves, do everything that I can. I think the devil is always in the details. So, you look at just this year, I would say his position coaches, six from the offensive side of the ball. So do we have enough coordinators that a minority of minorities, because that’s where the pool is coming from. As you well know, our fans. They understand it that the NFL is, is driven by offense, driven by scoring, and we have these young quarterbacks or older quarterbacks that are performing at very high levels and so be able to make sure those pools are as big as they need to be.

On the succession plan from quarterback Matt Ryan: Our fans should look for a succession plan. And I think that’s not improper. It doesn’t show a lack of confidence in Matt, but, you know, I mean, Father Time will get to all of us. It’s just the way it works. Human body isn’t designed to, you know, live to 150. So, you know, Matt has given his great 14 years since 2008. Still playing at a very high level. He and coach Smith are on the same page. Sometimes you’ll have a head coach or an offensive coordinator that doesn’t see the world the same way as the quarterback does.

I think it’s a credit to Matt and coach Smith that they work very well together. I think he’s been able to put in place coach Smith’s offensive system. Matt has done very well on it. So, you know, I think we’ll continue to assess that and continue to look at it. Matt looks at it, from his standpoint from his health and family, and we look at it as well as terms of, you know, we have an obligation to the franchise into our fans to make sure we have a smooth transition from Matt Ryan to the next great quarterback.

On how tough it has been watching Calvin Ridley’s situation after he left the team Oct. 31, citing a need to work on his mental well-being: It’s very difficult because he’s a great young man. And, you know, we all go through trauma in our lives in one form or fashion. Sadly, he’s, I mean, his trauma came out, obviously this year and triggered by a variety of things, and he’s getting all the professional counseling that anybody could expect him to get. And he’s been great about it. He cares deeply about football. He wants to play, and we continue to find ways to support him.

Hopefully, he’ll elect to stay with us and play with us. But you just don’t know. I mean, he may feel like, I need a fresh start someplace else, for whatever reason, but we, you know, we love the young man. I loved his performance. He always got a smile on his face. Always got a handshake, very respectful. So, you know, we’ll see. But that during this difficult time for him we’ve been, we’ve stood by his side, which is what we should do.

On whether winning will get the fans back, and are the PSLs an issue? I haven’t heard a lot of complaints by the PSLs. I think you know, we have a competitive program. They’re all well over half the teams the NFL have, you know, have PSLs in place. It’s probably even higher than that now. The last time I looked it was about half. So, I mean, you have to look at all and ticket prices. What’s the ticket price? What’s the PSL, how much you’re paying to get into the building, etc.

I think when you look at the fan experience who have been voted No. 1 since we’ve opened up the building out of all 32 things for fan experience in the NFL and that speaks to the way our staff works. It speaks to our food and beverage. Not only our assortment of pricing, our quality, etc. And just the way fans are treated when they are in the building. So I think once they’re in the building, they have a great experience.

You know, I think we need to win more home games. We were a little better last year on the road than we were at home. And that’s not normal, and that’s not a good thing. But on the other hand, the seven games that we won, we won them on the last possession, which speaks to, you know, a cultural understanding of being able to perform at the highest possible level. When the pressure is at its highest. And I think that speaks well for the coach, coaches and the players.

On adding players through free agency and the draft: I think the first thing I’m excited for is that we’re spending time going through our roster evaluation and having the coach and Terry and their respective staffs working on our own players. I mean, the players that we know have performed at a very high level, we want to invest in. We want to make sure that they are a part of the franchise going forward. There’s a number of those players.

Then we look at free agency and we want to be as active as it makes sense for us to be. The salary cap goes up this year. We’re not in quite the pressure that we had last year, not to say that there’s not pressure. There is, but it’s not as extreme as it was last year. And then, of course, we have the draft that goes through, and we’re excited about positions we have in the draft. The draft is fairly deep in areas that I think we’ll probably need some help.

So, you know, our personnel department is going to do an outstanding job. I think Terry’s done a great job in putting them together. And, you know, we’ll make the picks and we have the opportunity to do it.

On if they can learn something from the Bengals’ rapid rise? I was just commenting because what’s really unique about the Super Bowl is you have two teams that are both here, you know, playing in the final game of the year and they’ve been built entirely differently. So, in the one case, the Bengals, they had an opportunity and they drafted a great young quarterback in Joe Burrow, and they’ve put pieces around him. They also drafted wide receiver.

Then they were very active (in free agency) this year, which is not typical for the Bengals. And they made a lot of good choices. They made a lot of good investments in recent years, and those players have played well for them. So, you know, I mean, that’s one route, and that’s the most traditional route. And I would say that’s probably the route that we would typically follow ourselves.

And then you have the Rams. I mean, you know, (LA general manager) Les Snead worked for us for a long, long time. And you know, he’s a general manager there, and I think the next first-round pick is probably in 2050. I don’t know when it is. It’s way down the road. I mean, they’ve traded away a lot of their first- and second-round picks to accumulate selections in, you know, later rounds. And so that philosophy is that you know, we’d rather have more picks and give up the first- and second-round picks and see if we can get bigger numbers. They both worked. You know, it depends on, you know, your philosophy and how you want to approach it.

On whether he’s excited for rookie tight end Kyle Pitts’ future: If you’re not excited for Kyle Pitts’ future then I mean, if you could buy stock in Kyle Pitts, I’d buy stock in Kyle Pitts. I mean, he was the (fourth pick) in last year’s draft. … He’s a special player. Everything that we had projected him to be athletically, he is all of that, plus. Our fans saw it this year (over a) 17-game schedule. He set a number of records and was close to other records.

But I think to me, you take all of that, but then you take the human being. He’s got a lot of humility. He’s a great listener. He wants to learn. He talks to everybody that he can. Not just position-wise, but the quarterback. I think he and Matt are developing a tremendous relationship and their synchronization is only going to get better as time goes on as they work together. So I think we made a very wise choice, and I think he’ll be a Falcon for a very long period of time.

On the plan to fix the offensive and defensive lines, both of them: I think that’s fair. … Yeah. Well, I think they’re both there. … When you look at our defensive line, we have an All-American, All-Pro, All-Everything person in Grady Jarrett who continues to play at a very, very high level. And I would say, you know, we have some other players that have shown well this year, but we have a ways to go. We have some young really good talent, some which we’ve drafted in the last year or two.

But I would say, you know, certainly our DL and pressure wherever it comes from these linebackers or whatever it comes from scheme-wise, and that means it can come out of the stands someplace. Knowing (defensive coordinator) Dean Pees, he could call it (with) some guy jumping out of the stands to put pressure on the quarterback. So, I think that pressure is really, really important. These great quarterbacks, if you don’t get them to move, if you give them too much time ... almost any quarterback in the league, you’re going to get hurt. So, I think we’ve got to continue to find ways to bring more pressure.

I think on the offensive line, you’ve got to be really objective about it and go through every single position. Make sure that they look at every position and every player by sacks giving up, etc., etc. In some areas we’re a little deficient and some of that is we have players that are relatively new. So, you have someone like (rookie offensive lineman) Jalen Mayfield, a young man, I think he’s going to have a good future for us. But he’s going through a first year of transition. Matt Hennessy, first full year playing center. So, I mean, there are other questions as well. I think they understand now, more clearly who they have and who they don’t have at each of those positions. I think they’ll be looking at free agency and draft with a little different filter than they have in the past.

So, it’s not a criticism of anybody. But, you know, we can’t let (Ryan) … I mean, Matt is 37.… We want to extend his career as long as we can and make sure that he doesn’t get hit and sacked 45 times a year is one of the ways to do that. It also means not just him getting sacked. It means that we’re losing production on plays. And even if he’s not getting sacked, he’s getting hit, he’s under pressure. He doesn’t have time to make all his progressions. So, there’s a variety of things that go into that that are really important. It’s not just the amount of sacks.

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