Arthur Blank responsible for sorry state of Falcons

Arthur Blank is responsible for the sorry state of the Falcons. He owns the team, after all, columnist Michael Cunningham writes. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton

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Arthur Blank is responsible for the sorry state of the Falcons. He owns the team, after all, columnist Michael Cunningham writes. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Arthur M. Blank is responsible for the sorry state of the Falcons. He owns the team, after all.

Blank allowed the previous front office to make shortsighted moves that still are costing the Falcons. Blank authorized the team’s recent pursuit of quarterback Deshaun Watson even though he’s facing 22 civil lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct. Blank’s decisions set in motion the public humiliation of the best player in franchise history, Matt Ryan, and his eventual (lopsided) trade to the Colts.

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When that debacle went down last week, Blank released a statement in which he noted that Ryan was the team’s quarterback for “the most successful era in Falcons history.” That’s true, even if the bar was low. Credit Blank for his part in making the Falcons a respectable franchise. Fault Blank for chasing the 2017 Super Bowl glory long after it was clear those days were over and making it much harder for them to be good anytime soon.

Blank allowed Thomas Dimitroff and Dan Quinn to make desperate moves even as their job security got shaky. The pair still produced bad teams and damaged the salary cap so badly it won’t be repaired until 2023, three years after they were fired. The Falcons should have begun a methodical rebuild no later than the 2019 offseason. It’s happening haphazardly now because Blank fumbled.

I asked Blank on Tuesday if he has any regrets about allowing Quinn and Dimitroff to keep renegotiating Ryan’s deals now that the team has an NFL-record $40.5 million in “dead money” left on their cap from his contract.

“All of the extensions that we did and renegotiations we did with Matt, that was a team decision that was really driven by the coach and the general manager,” Blank said from the NFL owners meeting in Palm Beach, Fla. “I obviously was aware of it, but I don’t get involved in those level of details.”

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The buck stops elsewhere, I guess.

The problem with those deals wasn’t the details. It was Blank giving his blessing to Quinn and Dimitroff to execute a strategy in which they kept adding to future cap bills. As Blank put it: “You can restructure your debt ... as much as you want but, at some point, there is a day of reckoning.” That time is now for the Falcons, who don’t have much to show for running up all that cap debt.

The Falcons have posted four consecutive losing seasons. They’ll make it five consecutive in 2022. Ryan was the best player for a 7-10 team that was outscored by 146 points. Blank can’t sell his customers on the Falcons being any good in 2022. He’s not really trying.

“This coming year (2023) we will be in the top two or three teams in the league in terms of being in an under-the-cap position,” Blank said.

In other words, wait until next year. How’s that for a marketing slogan? It’s not a good look in the NFL, where fans expect quick turnarounds. The Falcons are going on Year 5 of trying to do it. Good luck to Blank on selling hope.

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It would be easier to make that case if the Falcons had a young QB ready to take over. Not long ago, Blank said the Falcons had a succession plan for Ryan. A month later, the Falcons traded Ryan with no successor in place. The Falcons didn’t take one of the two top quarterback prospects who were still available when they used their first pick in 2021. This year’s draft may not have any QBs with as much potential.

So, what is the QB succession plan?

Said Blank: “We already signed a very good quarterback, Marcus Mariota.”

Mariota hasn’t started a game since the 2019 season. He’s been injured often. All due respect to Mariota, who had some good years in Tennessee, but he’s not a successor to Ryan. He’s a stopgap until the Falcons figure out a long-term plan at QB. That’s after Blank announced that they already had one before they suddenly traded Ryan with no replacement at the ready.

This is the state of the Falcons. They are a bad team with no hope of getting better anytime soon. The Watson saga made them look like a bumbling operation. The Falcons took the heat for pursuing Watson, got no payoff when he chose Cleveland and then traded Ryan to the Colts for a third-round pick.

General manager Terry Fontenot said the Falcons did Ryan a favor by not holding out for more in trade. The fuller explanation is worse: Fontenot’s hand was forced once it got out that he was trying to trade for Watson. That had to sting Ryan, who was telling friends he was optimistic about the Falcons for 2022. At least he escaped a sinking franchise.

Watson would have been an upgrade at QB for the Falcons. He’s denied the allegations of sexual misconduct made against him by the women. A Texas grand jury declined to file charges against him before the Browns acquired him in a trade. A second grand jury reached the same conclusion after the trade. The lawsuits still are pending.

Blank characterized the Falcons’ interest in Watson as amounting to nothing more than a 75-minute phone call.

“We investigated enough, which was on a very preliminary basis, to feel comfortable that we could at least talk to Deshaun,” Blank said. “That was a requirement. If it did go further than that, from our perspective, we would have done a lot more work.”

The Falcons are moving on with Mariota. He’ll face the same challenges as Ryan did in 2021. The Falcons have a line that can’t block. They have no playmakers outside of second-year tight end Kyle Pitts and Cordarrelle Patterson. The defense hasn’t been good since Mike Smith was coach.

Blank should have cut his losses well before now. I first had doubts in December 2018 that Quinn and Co. could recapture the spirt of the Super Bowl season. Quinn was a poor game manager. He was getting diminished returns from the “Brotherhood” culture he built. Dimitroff’s roster fixes weren’t working.

The Falcons finished 7-9 in 2018. Blank retained Quinn, who fired his coordinators. The Falcons went 7-9 again in 2019. They were 0-5 in 2020 when Blank finally pulled the plug on the Quinn/Dimitroff partnership. The Falcons still are suffering from Blank’s decision to wait so long to do it.

As the Falcons were losing, they were restructuring Ryan’s contract. They did it three times in a little more than a year. Converting salary into signing bonus creates cap space, but increases the penalties if the player is traded or released before the contract expires. Dimitroff missed on the major free agents signed within that space and didn’t do much better picking players in the draft.

Blank oversaw the whole mess. For years, the Falcons had on-field results under his ownership. The ledger doesn’t look so good after four consecutive losing seasons.

Blank has owned the Falcons for 20 seasons. They’ve posted nine winning seasons, nine losing seasons and two break-even years. The Falcons are 164-156-1 with Blank as team owner. What should have been the ultimate achievement ended in a historic collapse in the Super Bowl. The Falcons have done a lot of losing since then.

Ultimately, the buck doesn’t stop with Quinn or Dimitroff or Fontenot or Arthur Smith or Julio Jones or Calvin Ridley or anyone other than the team owner. Arthur M. Blank is responsible for the sorry state of the Falcons.