Misgivings about Arthur Blank and Rich McKay leading Falcons coach search

Falcons owner Arthur M. Blank will deal directly with new coach Raheem Morris and GM Terry Fontenot. CEO Rich McKay will still handle matters involving the franchise and the NFL as a whole, but won't be involved in team football matters. (Miguel Martinez/miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Falcons owner Arthur M. Blank will deal directly with new coach Raheem Morris and GM Terry Fontenot. CEO Rich McKay will still handle matters involving the franchise and the NFL as a whole, but won't be involved in team football matters. (Miguel Martinez/miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

Arthur Blank takes great pride in owning the Falcons, as he ought to. He has assembled bright people and takes care of them. There’s a reason there are people who have been employees of the franchise for decades.

At his Monday news conference with team CEO Rich McKay, where the two answered questions about the firing of coach Arthur Smith and the impending search for his replacement, Blank described the organization as “world-class, first-class.” He said members of that organization will bring “the very best thinking and the most objective thinking” to hiring Blank’s seventh head coach.

With the process largely the same — the two bosses running the show and Blank making the call — Blank and McKay did not make a convincing case that this hire will go any better than any of the previous ones.

Blank and McKay can go only by their record thus far, and while it’s not terrible, it doesn’t scream world-class, either. Blank trumpeted the hires of Mike Smith and Dan Quinn, calling their tenures “very successful runs over a very long period of time.”

Both Smith and Quinn had a lot of high moments, certainly. Smith was 66-46 in seven seasons, led the team to the playoffs in four of his first five seasons and won two NFC South titles. He became the first Falcons coach to record back-to-back winning seasons. Quinn very nearly won the franchise’s first Super Bowl and finished with a 43-42 record.

However, their time in office deserves a little bit of context. Both benefited from the best years of quarterback Matt Ryan’s career. With possibly the best player in franchise history and a possible Hall of Famer at quarterback, Smith and Quinn took the Falcons to the playoffs a combined six times in 13 seasons. They made two NFC conference title games, winning one.

Consider that in those same 13 seasons, the Vikings also made it six times with six different quarterbacks. That puts a bit of a damper on the accomplishment of six postseasons in 13 years.

Further, in the same 2008-20 window, the Saints with the quarterback/coach team of Drew Brees and Sean Payton made it eight times and, most notably, won a Super Bowl.

If Smith and Quinn are standard setters for Blank — proof that he and McKay can be trusted to hit a home run with the selection of the next head coach — Falcons fans can be excused for not getting their hopes up. That is especially so when another of Blank’s five hires (Bobby Petrino) was a huge embarrassment and the most recent (Arthur Smith) was a gem of a human being, but also not the right guy, either.

It’s worth acknowledging that there is a degree of chance involved in hiring a head coach, much the same as drafting a quarterback. Further, Blank and McKay can hire the second coming of Bill Belichick — or perhaps Belichick himself — and it won’t amount to much without the right quarterback in place, too.

And that is why this hire is so critical, and not only because the Falcons haven’t had a winning record or postseason berth since 2017. The Falcons go into this offseason with the chance to find a franchise quarterback, either through the draft (where they pick eighth overall), a trade or free agency.

You need more than a franchise quarterback and the right head coach to have long-term success, but you definitely have to have those two to start with.

Blank has the opportunity to position his franchise for an unprecedented run of success if both decisions are nailed. The dream scenario — elite quarterback and elite coach, tied at the hip — is out there.

But if in five tries the best that Blank has to show is a coach who, even with as effective a quarterback as the team can ever hope to have, led the club to the NFC title game once in seven years (Mike Smith), that’s not a lot to trust in.

There’s no doubting that Blank and McKay are intelligent, connected, know the NFL and are accustomed to making big decisions. It’s a credit to the Falcons that they hired honorable men to fill the head-coaching job (since Petrino, at any rate). And it is akin to finding the right needle in a stack of needles. But that doesn’t necessarily make them the right people for this particular task.

Desmond Ridder is diligent, earnest and talented. That earned him a shot at quarterbacking the Falcons. That doesn’t mean he should get a second chance at it, though.

McKay said something Monday — or didn’t say it — that perhaps was revealing. He was asked how much weight he will put on past head-coaching experience, given the Blank-McKay team has not hired a coach who previously had been an NFL head coach.

McKay spoke about how there is something of value to it, but that it has to be the right experience. And then, if the candidate is a coordinator, that experience also has to be calculated appropriately. (The guess here is that, if they can make it happen, Blank and McKay will hire someone who has been an NFL head coach.)

What McKay didn’t mention is the possibility of hiring a position coach. In fact, he noted the value of bringing “all of the candidates in — former head coaches and current coordinators” for interviews.

It’s not conventional, but Chiefs coach Andy Reid, who might merely be the best in the business, and Lions coach Dan Campbell, who has led Detroit to its first division title since 1993, never were coordinators before becoming head coaches. Campbell, in fact, was hired in the same cycle as Arthur Smith. If he’s really eliminating position coaches from the search on the basis that they’re not a former head coach or coordinator, that’s not terribly settling.

It made the absence of general manager Terry Fontenot from Monday’s proceedings all the more troubling to some. Blank and McKay made clear that Fontenot — who they said was at the team’s Flowery Branch headquarters tending to matters related to Smith’s coaching staff — will be “incredibly involved” (Blank’s words) in the hiring. But it won’t be his call.

In the end, it’s Blank’s team, and he has earned the right to make the key decisions. And it is a really difficult undertaking and important, and it’s understandable why he’d want to make it with someone he trusts. And perhaps he and McKay will get it absolutely right this time and have the last laugh as they hoist the Lombardi Trophy amid a shower of red and black confetti.

Or maybe they’ll hire another very successful coach who is fired with a winning record.