Who’s a candidate to coach Falcons? Who isn’t?

Atlanta Falcons Owner and Chairman Arthur M. Blank and CEO Rich McKay address the media during a press conference a day after the announcement of the firing of Arthur Smith hours after the Falcons lost their last game of the season 48-17 against the New Orleans Saints. (Miguel Martinez/miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Atlanta Falcons Owner and Chairman Arthur M. Blank and CEO Rich McKay address the media during a press conference a day after the announcement of the firing of Arthur Smith hours after the Falcons lost their last game of the season 48-17 against the New Orleans Saints. (Miguel Martinez/miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

Multiple second interviews. A planned trip to Detroit to meet with two coordinators. After meeting with the two marquee candidates, efforts made to sit down with a third.

It looks like one of the following is going on: 1) The Falcons are running the mother of all smokescreens before Bill Belichick’s eventual hire; 2) Belichick isn’t the lockdown candidate he was thought to be; 3) Arthur Blank has a little too much time on his hands.

Once considered a search with one primary candidate, the Falcons’ coaching search seemingly has morphed into a cattle call, with candidates packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the waiting room outside Blank’s office. Maybe someone should get him one of those numbered-ticket dispensers that they have at deli counters.

The Falcons sought to speak with no less than 15 candidates, led by the great Belichick, and have met (in person or virtually) with 14.

The club sat down with Rams defensive coordinator (and former Falcons interim coach) Raheem Morris on Tuesday for a second time, this time in person. Panthers defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero had his second interview Wednesday. There are plans for second interviews with Lions coordinators Ben Johnson (offense) and Aaron Glenn (defense) in Detroit after the NFC Championship game and also with Texans offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik later this week. The team met with former Titans coach Mike Vrabel for a first interview Wednesday, a person familiar with the search confirmed. The club also had sought to schedule Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh for a second interview before the Chargers took him off the market Wednesday night, according to multiple reports. More second interviews could be coming. There is no endpoint in sight.

It’s almost reached a point where, if you’re an NFL coordinator who hasn’t met with the Falcons, maybe you need a new agent.

It paints the picture that Blank isn’t as set on Belichick as once believed. If it were the case that the two had come to an agreement, the search could be over. The Falcons could have satisfied the Rooney Rule, which requires that teams hiring for a head coach must interview at least two minority (or female) candidates in person, on Monday (the first day that NFL coaches under contract could interview in person), and made the Belichick hire official Tuesday.

Especially given that Blank serves on the league’s diversity, equity and inclusion committee, one could contend that Belichick remains his choice but that he is extending the process solely to make it appear that minority candidates genuinely were considered before going ahead and hiring Belichick.

But if this were indeed a charade, the Falcons are going to considerable lengths to stage it, conducting or seeking second interviews not only with Black coaches but white ones, as well.

But if not that, then what has compelled Blank to start flipping through candidates like he’s scrolling Netflix?

Could it be a power struggle?

Citing unnamed NFL sources, Channel 2 Action News sports director Zach Klein reported in a tweet Tuesday that Blank is facing a choice between hiring Belichick or retaining team CEO and longtime confidant Rich McKay. Wanting all control, the six-time Super Bowl winner is seen as unwilling to have McKay preside over him in the organizational chart.

We thought we were getting a coaching search. What we’re getting (reportedly) is a reboot of “Mean Girls,” this time with power-wielding senior citizens.

On the other hand, former Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff, who has worked with Belichick, Blank and McKay, suggested on an appearance on the streaming FanDuel show “Up & Adams” that the three men (and general manager Terry Fontenot) all could work together.

If only HBO had had its cameras ready for “Hard Knocks: Coaching Search.”

Or maybe it’s just that Blank and company don’t know yet. A person familiar with the search told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the search is open and that Belichick is not entrenched as the top candidate, as believed.

The inclusion of younger coaches in the search does suggest Blank’s willingness to consider a strategy with more of a runway than hiring Belichick, signing Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins in free agency and going after the Super Bowl in 2024.

Playing for the long haul – hiring a young coach and drafting a quarterback in the first round – would all but eliminate the Falcons from the Super Bowl hunt in 2024. Only five first-year head coaches have reached the Super Bowl and no rookie quarterback has done so as a starter.

But still it might be the wiser course, and here’s one reason. While Cousins probably will be the top quarterback available (assuming he doesn’t re-sign with Minnesota before free agency starts), the Belichick-Cousins plan seems to minimize the reality that Cousins will turn 36 in August and will be returning from a torn Achilles tendon.

That typically is not an age for quarterbacking greatness. Blank himself saw Matt Ryan statistically fall off in his age-36 season, his last with the Falcons, and then slip further the following season with the Colts. Eli Manning’s numbers dropped off starting with his age-35 season. For Philip Rivers, it was the age-38 season.

Going back 20 seasons, there’ve been three quarterbacks who led teams to the Super Bowl past their age-33 season – Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Kurt Warner. That is arguably the two greatest quarterbacks ever and a third Hall of Famer who had considerably less mileage on him at that point than Cousins does now.

Cousins was playing at a high level before his injury and has renown training habits, but it’s not like you can put full trust in that. Before his decline, Ryan also was training hard to extend his career and not, say, spending his offseasons watching TV and eating chili dogs. (At least as far as we know.)

Yes, at the same time, banking the future on a first-time head coach and hitting on a rookie quarterback also is a risk. But that approach, at least, if successful, ensures repeated chances at the elusive Super Bowl prize.

Answers will come in due time. The search almost certainly will last until next week and possibly even longer.

Comprehensive? Yes.

Disjointed? Possibly.

Perplexing? For better or worse, most certainly.

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