Arthur Blank has lost his touch with Falcons

Once consistent winners, they are now persistent losers
Falcons owner Arthur Blank watches as his team prepares to play the Buccaneers in a NFL football game.   Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Falcons owner Arthur Blank watches as his team prepares to play the Buccaneers in a NFL football game. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

The Falcons became consistent winners under Arthur Blank’s ownership. Now they are persistent losers. The team’s record is 78-101 over the past 11 years. The Falcons were 78-101 in the 11 years before Blank bought the franchise from the Smith family. No one remembers that era fondly for the football.

Blank said Monday that he fired coach Arthur Smith because the results haven’t been competitive and championship level for the past three years. He was off by at least three. The Falcons just completed their sixth straight losing season. Only the Jets (11) and Broncos (eight) have a longer playoff drought than Atlanta.

It’s been a long time since Blank provided evidence that he knows how to build a winning football operation. He sounded like an old timer reminiscing about the glory days of Mike Smith (last playoff victory in 2012) and Dan Quinn (2017). Blank went on and on about the Falcons finishing No. 1 in an NFL fan survey about the game-day experience at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Great, but ask them about the product on the field and see what they say.

Now here was Blank and Falcons CEO Rich McKay once again announcing the firing of the last coach and insisting they have a good plan to hire the next one. The Falcons have posted two winning seasons in the past 11. What has Blank learned about what he can do to make the results better?

“You think about what as an owner you can do,” Blank said. “But my job is to surround myself with the very best people. People like Rich McKay, (general manager) Terry Fontenot, great coaches, the whole organization. It’s the whole organization that supports the Atlanta Falcons ... and we’ve got a world class, first-class organization. And I think they will bring the very best thinking and objective thinking.”

Ultimately, Blank will make the final decision on the next coach. He hasn’t provided much reason to believe he’ll get it right. Every big call that Blank has made over the past five years has been the wrong one.

I understood why Blank kept Quinn around after the 7-9 season in 2018. A year after the Falcons collapsed in the Super Bowl, Quinn had them a first-and-goal away from returning to the NFC title game. But then Blank kept Quinn around after another 7-9 season in 2019 while he and then-general manager Thomas Dimitroff piled up salary-cap debt that would decimate the roster once due.

Blank’s fingerprints also are all over the lack of a good starting quarterback on the roster.

After the 2021 season, he said the Falcons had a plan in place for when Matt Ryan was gone. A month later, the Falcons traded Ryan for peanuts with no plan in place. That was after Blank made Ryan’s quick exit necessary by trying to trade for Deshaun Watson, whom the NFL had determined was a sex pest.

Last year, Blank passed on the unprecedented opportunity to sign a young, MVP-caliber quarterback. Blank said Monday that the Falcons didn’t have the cap space to sign free agent Lamar Jackson. The truth is they could have done so with no sweat. Jackson’s contract takes up 9.91% of Baltimore’s 2023 cap space; Jake Matthews’ contract takes up 9.22% of Atlanta’s space.

McKay and Blank said Arthur Smith and Fontenot never asked them for permission to upgrade with Jackson or any other quarterback. They said the coach and GM were convinced that Desmond Ridder was the answer. Smith might still have his job if Ridder’s performance was just average.

Blank got it right when he hired Mike Smith and Quinn, but those coaches had Ryan. The lack of a proven starting quarterback or a top prospect will be a disadvantage for Falcons as they look for their next coach.

“On the other hand, I could easily make the argument that you’ve got a potentially rich quarterback draft this year,” Blank said. “There will probably be some quarterbacks available in free agency or by trade as well. So, I think for a new head coach, that’s an opportunity.”

We’ll see if the top candidates agree with Blank’s point of view. Blank will hire someone with strong credentials because there are only 32 NFL head-coaching jobs and just five of them are open now. The Panthers, Raiders, Chargers and Commanders are also looking for coaches. There are pros and cons for all of those jobs.

Blank said hiring a coach “isn’t a crap shoot” and that the tenures of Mike Smith (seven seasons) and Quinn (five-plus) showed that it’s possible to find the right person for the long term.

“There were very successful runs over a very long period of time, winning games at great rates that we’ve never had in the history of the franchise,” Blank said.

That was then. Now, the Falcons lose games at rates that they saw during the bleak history before Blank purchased the franchise. He’s lost his touch with assembling a winning organization.

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