The first five games don’t qualify as a defining stretch of an NFL season. But five games can trigger sirens and social media meltdowns, particularly when the team is the Falcons and a familiar string of injuries and shortcomings provoke scorched-earth memories of going 4-12 in 2013.
Arthur Blank is exposed to all of it — the emotions that follow every loss inside the Falcons’ building, the outrage that swirls outside of it. The Falcons’ owner can be emotional himself, although he says he has gotten better about processing things from week to week. “Do I want to scream? Yes,” he said. “But not on the outside. I scream on the inside.”
Self-made billionaires tend to be driven. It’s how they get to be self-made billionaires. They set high expectations for themselves and everyone around them. When there’s failure, people lose jobs. It follows that with the Falcons being 2-3 and potentially being on the way to another losing season after five straight winning ones, there has been speculation about the future of coach Mike Smith and/or general manager Thomas Dimitroff.
Blank responded as expected. He expressed confidence in his heads of football operations. He pledged support. He pointed out at seemingly every turn that the Falcons are 2-0 against NFC South teams and still have 11 games left, which are the only two positives about being 2-3.
But it was noteworthy in a 20-minute interview that the Falcons’ owner also left things open-ended and offered no promises on key questions.
Question: Would there be ramifications, specifically firings, if this devolved into another failed season?
Answer: “I understand the question and my job during the season is not to speculate. My job to be a support person, be as positive as I can be. We lost a game Sunday in New York and we have to move past that and move on to Chicago. If we use all of our energy hand-wringing, we’ll have less energy to approach this in a positive way.”
Question: Is it fair to say that jobs are on the line?
Answer: “I would say to you, and I mean it sincerely: I have confidence in the coaching staff and the GM and the players. I’m not speculating during the season about what might happen after the season. That’s not compatible with doing what I should be expected to do.”
Question: Is there a playoff mandate?
Answer: “I’ve never gone into the year with that kind of mentality. Our goal is to win as many games as we can and see where that takes us. I’ve never said, ‘We need to win 11 games this year,’ or 10, or 9, or 14. It doesn’t mean I don’t have aspirations.”
Question: Do you believe this is a playoff team?
Answer: “There’s no reason to believe this cannot be a playoff team.”
Blank is in his 13th season of ownership. He hasn’t balked at making changes in the past. He fired coach Dan Reeves late in 2003, one year after the Falcons upset Green Bay in the playoffs on the road. Reeves was fired despite the fact the team’s spiral the following year was a direct result of Michael Vick missing the year with a broken leg.
Blank hired Rich McKay as general manager in late 2003. But he effectively removed McKay from football operations five years later and put him in charge of the stadium project. He hired and fired coach Jim Mora after three seasons. Bobby Petrino resigned late in his lone disastrous season, but it’s fair to speculate Blank probably wouldn’t have put up with the coach for more than another season if results were similar.
Owners are about the big picture, image, direction. Also profit. The Falcons move into a new stadium in 2017. They need momentum to sell tickets, personal seat licenses and signage. Blank needs the public to be excited, not screaming about a product that’s trending downward.
That’s why I believe if the Falcons finish the season with a sense of failure, he will make a change. There obviously are variables in that equation (injuries, effort and focus down the stretch). But it’s difficult to imagine the Falcons finishing with a losing record and Blank not firing Smith, Dimitroff or both.
Asked specifically if he was left wondering about Smith as his head coach after last season, Blank said, “I didn’t have any wonder before the season and I still don’t have any wonder. Smitty and the team delivered over a long period of time.”
The Falcons have obvious personnel deficiencies in the front seven, and the offseason torn Achilles by linebacker Sean Weatherspoon robbed the defense of a key player. But one debate is whether existing players are under performing because of leadership.
Coaches don’t get dumb overnight. But there are situations when players begin to tune out a head coach. That certainly seemed to be the case at times in 2013 and, even with personnel problems, the one-sided losses at Cincinnati and Minnesota were alarming. The Falcons played a strong first half in New York but fizzled in the second half.
When athletes aren’t focused, it’s fair to ask if they’re following their coach.
“I asked that question as a leader in business,” Blank said. “You’re right — at times you’ll have a business leader delivering a good message, but they’re just not being listened to by the associates. But I believe in this case Smitty has the attention of the players.”
The next 11 games will tell the story, and the owner will take it from there.