Falcons owner Blank outspoken about team's shortcomings

Falcons owner Blank outspoken about team's shortcomings

Published Jan. 11, 2012 4:33 p.m. ET

ATLANTA – Just three days after the end of the season, an outspoken Falcons owner Arthur Blank took let the media know that the team did not meet his expectations in a 10-6 season in which Atlanta lost its first playoff game for the third time in four seasons under the regime of general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith.

During a wide-ranging interview session at his family offices in Buckhead with Smith seated to his left and Dimitroff to his right, Blank did not equivocate.

"To say we were disappointed, I would say is an understatement," Blank said of the team, which some experts predicted to win the Super Bowl.

And: "Obviously we're not where we want to be . . . Our goal is to win rings, get to championships and eventually win a Super Bowl for this community."

Nonetheless, he proclaimed "complete faith and confidence" in the men leading the organization — he included team president Rick McKay in that group — and added that the organization does not want to "throw the baby out with the bathwater."

Blank was asked if he were angry.

"I'm angry," he said. "Controlled anger is important. Anger for the sake of anger that has no direction or funnel to it is not productive. . . . Is there anger? Yes, there's anger, but it's got to be controlled anger and anger with a purpose."

At times, he disagreed with Smith or Dimitroff and called out players. At one point, he went into a detailed critique of the team's offensive line play and summed up by asking rhetorically if the unit were as good as it were in its 13-3 2010 regular season by saying, "The answer is no."

At one point, all three men — Blank, Dimitroff and Smith  — were asked what separated them from the NFL's elite. After Smith observed that not much separated the top team from the 32nd team, Blank begged to differ, saying his explanation was "probably not quite as gracious as Mike's."

"I think there is a difference," he said. "I think we've done the first job, which is to get us to where we are a competitive team. I think we are a competitive team. I agree with Smitty that often the teams that get to the Super Bowl are the ones that do play their very best football in December and January. . .  But I think there are clearly teams — traditionally whether the Packers or the Saints or the Giants this year or the Steelers in years gone by or the Colts in years gone by — that have consistently been in the top group and I think we're not there yet.

"And I think that's the step that we have to make."

Blank used the expression, "Good is the enemy of great."

"And we have to become great and I think that's often a very difficult step to make in a league that's designed to promote parity. . . We're on the door, we're knocking, but we're not on the other side yet."

As for sayings, Blank offered another that could serve as a word of caution should Smith or Dimitroff falter in their duties over the near term, despite his pledge of faith in them.

"I have an expression sometimes," he said. "I'm a strong believer in consistency and stability, but when you cross the lines between performance and loyalty, you get a thing called stupidity. . . That goes for everybody involved in this organization."

Blank also had strong opinions on the team's outgoing offensive and defensive coordinators. Both Mike Mularkey and Brian VanGorder had been with the organization since Smith took over as head coach in 2008. Recently, their work had come under some public criticism. Mularkey left on Tuesday to become Jacksonville's new coach while VanGorder left for the lateral position on Monday — if the NCAA can be considered that in comparison to the NFL — of defensive coordinator at Auburn University.

Blank's statements might have fueled conspiracy theorists who believe that the coordinators would not have returned if they had not found employment elsewhere. Asked that question directly, Smith said it was "absolutely not" the case. (Later on a radio interview on 680 The Fan Blank said the organization planned to have Mularkey and VanGorder back, pending its annual evaluation.)

"I think we have a distinct advantage," Blank said. "When you bring in two new coordinators, which obviously we have to do, you're bringing two coaches in at a very high level. These are not just position coaches, these are coordinator coaches, so their ability, at a minimum in the first year but hopefully for a long time, to be totally objective, cold-hearted and unemotional about the young men we have on the roster will be at the highest level they'll ever be at.

"If I were Smitty or Thomas, I'd be excited about bringing in — not happy about these gentlemen leaving — but be excited about bringing in some folks that are going to be able to bring us some new perspective, some different perspectives not only on scheme questions but on player issues, as well. Sometimes after a long period of time with a player or a position or a scheme, you tend to fall in love with it and sometimes it's healthy to have someone on the outside confirm your thinking or maybe ask questions you were not asking, so I think that will be healthy for us this year."

While Smith met with the media on Monday to give a season-ending press conference and expressed his views on how the team came up short, Dimitroff had his first opportunity to do so.

"We know we need to get better in many, many areas," he said.

In terms of the team's inconsistency this year, Dimitroff said, "unfortunately for us this year, our chemistry wasn't in sync."

The team has 17 free agents with numerous of them being difficult decisions or negotiations, including defensive end John Abraham, who will be 34, aging center Todd McClure, starting middle linebacker Curtis Lofton and '10 Pro-Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes. Making a rough estimate, Dimitroff said he thought the team would be able to retain about eight of them.

The Falcons were among the NFL's most capped-out teams by the end of the 2011 season.

"Again, we have a lot of interesting moves to make, from a financial perspective, given the free agents that are available," Dimitroff said of '11 cap space. "We could have some significant room and that's what we're working off of right now, trying to analyze where our moves are going to come and where we're going to free up space."

Smith resisted the idea that he will be on the proverbial "hot seat" but he did say, "We have our markers as a football team and as an organization that we need to hit, and we have not hit or met those in the four years we've been here."

As for his coordinators search, he said it will be done privately and without a timetable.

Despite ranking seventh in scoring during the regular season as a team, the Falcons offense failed to get on the board in the 24-2 playoff loss to the Giants. The offense has come under heavy scrutiny.

Smith noted that among quarterback Matt Ryan's best qualities is that he is cerebral. The Falcons were often at their best in Mularkey's no-huddle attack, when Ryan called the plays at the line of scrimmage. Smith was asked if the new coordinator would be asked to preserve that portion of the offense.

"Yes, there's a skill set and there's certain criteria that we have in place that we're going to look at with the candidates," he said. "Not only the offensive coordinator but the defensive coordinator, as well. We know what our quarterback is capable of doing and what he has done successfully so, obviously, we want to make sure the candidate is in line with the thinking of what we want to do as an offense.

"I know I'm being vague here, but I don't want to talk too much about scheme here today and what we're going to be doing next year."

No matter what they're doing next year, the owner will be watching. Closely.