Arthur Blank’s coaching hires - not great, but not always awful

Arthur Black (right), when hiring head coach Mike Smith. File photo
Arthur Black (right), when hiring head coach Mike Smith. File photo

Credit: BRANT SANDERLIN / AJC

Credit: BRANT SANDERLIN / AJC

Since buying the Falcons in 2002, Arthur Blank has hired four head coaches. The good news: All save one finished his tenure with a winning record. The exception is Bobby Petrino, whose wayfaring career includes many, ahem, exceptional moments.

Jim Mora was hired Jan. 9, 2004, to replace Dan Reeves, whose final year in Flowery Branch was doomed by Michael Vick’s broken ankle. To say that Blank and Reeves didn’t get along is a slight overstatement; to say that Blank wanted a coach of his choosing – the Smiths hired Reeves – is a fact. Over seven Falcons seasons, Reeves had a losing record in five. (Granted, there was a Super Bowl interspersed.)

A year and two weeks after the Falcons hired Mora, they faced Philadelphia for the NFC championship. Reeves’ final season here ended 5-11. (He chose not to coach the final three games.) Mora’s first produced an 11-5 record and a playoff victory over the Rams. If immediate impact is the criterion, Blank won that hire.

Alas, Mora – who swayed Blank and Rich McKay with notebooks full of his grand design – proved a one-trick pony. He went 8-8 and 7-9 over the next two seasons and did enough strange things to warrant being fired not quite two years after that run to the NFL’s final four. In December 2006, he told a Washington radio station that his “dream job” was to coach the Washington Huskies, this as his Falcons were due to play Dallas in a key game the next night. Mora was summoned to Blank’s Buckhead office to offer a public apology. He was fired 15 days later.

So: after further review, not such a great hire. The next one was doomed by circumstances. Acting on the advice of McKay, Blank hired Petrino away from Louisville for the express purpose of maximizing Vick. When he was Jacksonville’s offensive coordinator, Petrino would sit next to defensive coordinator Dom Capers on team flights and draw the plays he’d use were he coaching Vick; Capers would sketch the defenses he’d employ to counter. After the Falcons held an off-the-books practice in their indoor facility, Petrino was so moved by Vick that he told a staffer, “We’re going to average 30 points a game.”

Petrino never coached Vick in a game. Summer camp commenced with a plane trailing a banner over the practice field: “New Team Nickname – Dog Killers.” Vick would be sentenced to 23 months in prison on the day Petrino last coached the Falcons. Rumors swirled that he was about to bolt to Arkansas. Blank asked him if that was true. Petrino said it wasn’t. Blank summoned the local media before a Monday night game with New Orleans to report that his coach had pledged his loyalty. Twenty-five hours later, Petrino was in Fayetteville, Ark.

So: really bad hire. But, in the defense of Blank/McKay, they hired Petrino for Vick. Once Vick was indisposed, Petrino had no interest in the remaining Falcons. His primary interest, then as always, was Bobby Petrino.

Having hired two coaches of iffy temperament, Blank – with the help of newly hired general manager Thomas Dimitroff, McKay having been kicked upstairs for the sin of championing the flighty Petrino – sought stability. He found it. Mike Smith was introduced as coach looking as if he’d wandered into the wrong news conference. He could have happily worked as a defensive coordinator until he reached retirement age. He became the best head coach in Falcons annals.

Over Blank’s 19 seasons of ownership, his Falcons have managed nine winning seasons. Five were Smith’s. They made the playoffs four times in five years. They led the NFC title game of January 2013 by 17 points. They lost. That proved the high-water mark. They were 10-22 thereafter. Smith was fired in December 2014.

So: Even with the slide at the end, Smith was Blank’s best hire. Once a coach stops winning, though, there’s no guarantee he’ll get it going again. Smith’s replacement was Dan Quinn, who as Seattle’s DC had come very close to winning consecutive Super Bowls. DQ was the hottest guy on the board in January 2015. His first season began even hotter. The Falcons started 5-0.

That team finished 8-8, the first of many cosmic flops under Quinn. But – let’s be honest – for a good while Quinn seemed the NFL’s next great coach. His second team went 11-5, beat Seattle and Green Bay in the playoffs and never trailed in the Super Bowl until James White scored on the first series of overtime. The next season produced a 10-6 season and a playoff victory against the Rams. An egregious loss in Philadelphia was next. From there, the Falcons of Quinn would go 14-23.

So: Not a terrible hire – terrible hires don’t reach the Super Bowl – but the short shelf life of Quinn and his slogans prevent it from being classified as great. If we’re grading Blank-as-hirer on immediate impact, he gets at least a B-plus. The Falcons improved from 5-11 to 11-5 in Year 1 under Mora, from 7-9 to 11-5 in Year 1 under Smith, from 6-10 to 8-8 in Year 1 under Quinn.

Trouble is, Blank failed to see the failings that would ultimately undo each: Mora arrived with Plan A but nothing beyond it; once Smith’s inherited roster began to age, he and Dimitroff couldn’t restock fast enough; Quinn was a better talker than tactician. Full disclosure: I’m not sure any of us can look at any coach and say with any degree of certainty: He’ll never have a losing season, not in the any-given-Sunday NFL. (Check Nick Saban’s stint as Dolphins coach. Check Bill Belichick’s record with the Browns.)

As mentioned recently, the Falcons’ biggest problem has been in seeing themselves as they are. They’ve overrated their roster. They’ve overpaid their roster. They’ve spent too much time juggling coordinators and too little time selling off veterans who’ve peaked. They’ve planned for the moment, not the long haul. They’ve been swayed by the personality of their coaches, as opposed to their professionalism. (One reason Smith was so good for five years was because he cared nothing for self-promotion.)

Know how teams self-scout their tendencies to keep from getting predictable? The hope is that Blank has scouted himself. He’s smart enough to know where he has gone wrong – and also right.

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