Falcons’ Rich McKay speaks on the great coach/GM hunt

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank confers with President and CEO Rich McKay on the sidelines Sunday prior to losing to the Tampa Bay Bucs. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank confers with President and CEO Rich McKay on the sidelines Sunday prior to losing to the Tampa Bay Bucs. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

The Rich McKay coach-search record – to be tested soon again by the Falcons – is a mixed-nut assortment that on balance contains at least as many cashews as goobers.

There was one so distasteful that the Falcons President and CEO can scarcely say the man’s name – by the way, it’s Bobby Petrino, who lasted all of 13 games before skipping town for Arkansas. “I don’t get to let go of that one,” McKay said during a conversation with the AJC on Tuesday, his first since the Falcons fired coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff in October.

There was one, at his previous stop at Tampa Bay, of which he is particularly proud. He’ll talk about Tony Dungy all day. “The fact that it took us to hire Tony, that shouldn’t have happened. He’s the example of a guy who was getting knocked for the fact that’s he’s not self-promoting. Yet his resume was just ridiculous,” McKay said.

In between, the Falcons GM from 2004-08, their point man in building Mercedes-Benz Stadium and their president and CEO since 2011, has had his say in the hiring of Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay. And three of the four Falcons coaches with winning records here – Jim Mora (26-22), Mike Smith (51-21) and the recently canned Quinn (42-37).

And he’s been involved in hiring one GM, Dimitroff, who had a 12-year run before his firing during this scorched earth of a season. That’s a relative eternity in the transient NFL.

There, you have a brief scouting report on McKay, interpret it as you will. No, he’s not just throwing darts to make these decisions.

This is the same guy now charged with reshaping the Falcons from the top down. This team needs all new leadership. It can’t afford a Petrino at either coach or GM. This looms as a critical juncture in the evolution of a franchise. McKay, the man vetting and winnowing the candidates, and team owner Arthur Blank, who will make the ultimate hiring decisions, can’t whiff on this.

To repeat, no mistaking who’s pulling the trigger on these vital hires. “We’re not going to make the decision. Arthur’s pretty good at that,” McKay said.

The Falcons are hard against the salary cap. The incoming coach and GM will have to work within the limitations of past-their-peak, big-money headliners Matt Ryan and Julio Jones for at least the short-term. They find themselves in a particularly competitive environment now, with four other teams currently in the market for a GM, and likely as many if not more seeking a coach once the season is done.

“It will be competitive, but it can’t drive your timeline,” McKay said. “You have to let the interviews happen; you have to take your time to get it right. You can’t get caught up in the moment.” If you do, he warned, you end up with a Petrino.

McKay, who didn’t get where he is by poking the boss with a sharp stick, said the Falcons have a clear selling point in Blank.

Riffing off a familiar realty saying, McKay said the one thing a prospective coach or GM looks for first is, “Ownership, ownership, ownership.”

“It starts with people who are willing to give you all the support you need to win and who are not going to live their life second-guessing everything you do. I think Arthur does that extremely well,” McKay said. That will be the refrain he hums in every candidate’s ear.

“We’ve had one GM over the last 12-plus years. There are teams in our league that have had seven GMs in that time. Many had four, a lot had three,” McKay said. Although, in fairness, it needs to be said that Dimitroff’s power waxed and waned while here.

A couple of other fine points touched upon by McKay on Tuesday:

On the chicken-or-egg dilemma of who to hire first, the general manager or the coach: “It would be nice if the GM was hired before the coach, but it could very well be the coach is hired before the GM. Either way, the mix of the two does matter. You want to make sure you have a commonality of plan and they understand and there’s communication. I don’t think you can dictate the timing.”

On the concern that his presence might make some GM candidates nervous about joining the Falcons, worried about interference from a former GM above them: “If you look back in ’07 we had the same kind of discussion then. I was coming out of being the GM and all of a sudden, I’m going to spend time as the president. Everyone was like, oh, aren’t you going to sit (over the GM)?

“I haven’t sat in a draft meeting since ’07. I haven’t sat in a free-agency meeting since ’07. I go to the same meetings that Arthur goes to. We’ll go to the summary meetings and say, ‘Hey, what are we doing this week, and why?’

“Shame on me if I were to try to make a (personnel) decision that way because I haven’t watched the tape, I haven’t seen the players. I’m running the business side of the business, and on the football side I’m trying to give them enough support so that when they need something, we give it to them.”

On whether it’s more challenging to oversee the building of a $1.6 billion stadium with the world’s most complicated roof or to build a team with some staying power: “Team building has more variables that you don’t get to control. It’s definitely frustrating and challenging, whether that’s injuries or teams in your division all of a sudden getting great.

“I really felt in ’04 with that team (the 11-5, Michael Vick-led team that lost in the NFC Championship game) – and I inherited a lot of that team – I thought we were going to win the Super Bowl.

“I would have told you three years ago we were going to win the Super Bowl and we didn’t (we all know what happened against New England in that one, so let’s move on). It can be frustrating, the challenges of team-building.”

Once more into the breach for McKay, who needs to make the top of the Falcons’ org chart mesh even better than that pretty Mercedes-Benz Stadium roof.