Falcons owner Arthur Blank addressed the media on Monday morning, expressing his confidence in head coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff to make necessary changes to get the Falcons back on track following a gravely disappointing 2013 season.
Blank began by sharing his perspectives on everything from the failures of 2013, to his confidence in Atlanta's leadership. In terms of the season, Blank said that it's important to take the disappointment of a four win season in the context of the expectations for the franchise in 2013. The gap between the expectations of the team, media and fans and the reality of the season was vast, making it that much more disappointing.
There were a number of factors in the team's steep decline in 2013. Injuries obviously were a factor, though Blank pointed out that every team in the NFL deals in injuries, and many teams find ways to coach through them. Blank commended Smith's perspective that injuries weren't an excuse for the performance this season, but confirmed that they were a factor.
Blank also pointed to the depth of the roster as a factor, particularly in the context of injuries. Blank said that the team made some miscalculations over a period of time in terms of roster depth that caught up with them this season, and that there were some coaching issues that exacerbated these issues as well, and those coaching issues have been addressed. Blank said that the talent along both lines was definitely not assessed well or correctly. That's not a knock on individual players or their talent or ability, according to Blank, but rather a commentary on how they were able to function as a cohesive unit.
Blank did not shirk responsibility for the roster depth issues, explaining that those decisions are made collaboratively and involve Blank, Smith and Dimitroff, as well as other members of the coaching staff. They have already made three coaching changes (offensive line coaches Paul Dunn and Pat Hill, and defensive line coach Ray Hamilton) and Dimitroff is assessing the talent evaluators as well.
Blank says the team will continue to spend to the salary cap in 2014 and beyond to field the most competitive team possible.
Blank explained that early in his ownership, he had staff track some key criteria from the most consistently successful teams around the NFL. The Falcons are currently tied for sixth in winning percentage over the past six seasons. The teams ahead of them on that list are some of the teams that were considered in Blank's study. Those teams who have been consistently successful, he learned, had four things in common. The first is consistency of ownership. Of the five teams with the same or better winning percentages over the last six years, all of them have had the same ownership for at least ten years.
The second is consistency of coaching staff and front office personnel, which explains why Blank was averse to the idea of firing Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff after one poor season. Of the other five teams with the best winning percentages over the last six seasons, the shortest-tenured coach is Mike Smith, with six seasons.
The third is salary cap management, with a focus on building through the draft and supplementing the roster with free agents. Four of the teams with the best winning percentage over the past six years are in the fourth quartile for free agent spending. Blank acknowledged that they've had some misses in free agency and stressed the importance of balanced free agency spending.
The fourth thing Blank's team discovered about teams with consistent success is that everyone in the building is on board with the vision and mission of the team. Blank said they have that in Atlanta.
Blank pointed out repeatedly that he believes Smith and Dimitroff have a sharpened focus and a commitment to right the ship in 2014, and that he has complete confidence in their ability to do so.
When asked about the factors that could help turn the team around in 2014, Blank again emphasized his confidence in Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff as leaders, as well as their commitment to getting the team back on track. He also emphasized their successes from 2008-2012.
Blank was asked, considering his financial and personal investment in Matt Ryan, what it was like to see him take a beating this season. Blank said that it was difficult, but that it was also difficult to see Ryan's teammates feeling responsible for it, and seemingly unable to correct it. Blank praised Ryan's physical and mental toughness, calling him a "tough kid from Philadelphia," but also emphasized that it was also difficult for Ryan to know that he also let his team down with mistakes. Blank said it was a difficult year for everyone, including Matt, and the people charged with protecting him.
When asked what he would consider to be adequate progress for next season, Blank said that it would be a winning season and a playoff bid. Blank emphasized that his goal is to put rings on the fingers of these players, not just for himself personally, but for the city of Atlanta and the fans. If Blank felt they did not have the leadership in place to be in contention for a Super Bowl next season, he would not hesitate to make additional changes.
On the team's toughness, Blank said the team was not tough enough. Blank said the measure of toughness lies in how a team controls the line of scrimmage, running the ball and stopping the run, and that the Falcons did not control the line of scrimmage well in 2013. Blank said it has nothing to do with character, but rather a roster full of guys who are able to control the line of scrimmage, as well as a coaching staff that is able to coach them that way.
Blank said that the new stadium design conversations were a nice distraction from this season. In response to a question about fans' irritation about a new stadium in light of a losing season, and Blank said they are two separate issues. He said that the stadium is a long-term investment and solution for the franchise as well as the city. Blank mentioned Major League Soccer, stating the stadium is being built to their specifications, and mentioned FIFA and a hope for an Atlanta World Cup as well. Blank summarized it by saying that the stadium will be a factor for the next 40 years, and it won't take 40 years to fix the Falcons.
When asked if Rich McKay is still the Falcons CEO, Blank said that he was the last time he checked, as of a few minutes ago.
Blank was asked if the team felt a need to make a splash in free agency or in the draft, and Blank emphasized that they don't care about the big name players, they care about addressing needs on their roster. He said that the Falcons will not be taking a skill player with their sixth-overall pick, and that they aren't worried about bringing in a big name free agent this season, either, unless it's someone who addresses a roster need. If the team is winning, Blank insisted they don't need a celebrity free agent or big name draft pick to sell tickets.
On the decision to fire the offensive line and defensive line coaches, Blank said that sometimes the message gets stale, and sometimes there's a need for a new message, or even the old message to be delivered in a new way. He said that great coaches put their players in a position to succeed, and find ways to disguise or bracket their weaknesses, as opposed to letting those flaws be exposed.
Blank was also asked about the fact that the Falcons will be on their third offensive line coach in six seasons, and he said it's not something they're proud of, and that it's never easy to fire someone. The good news is that a lot of quality coaches are eager to be a part of this Falcons franchise. It's the same thing with free agents, said Blank. There was a time when players' agents would cross Atlanta off the list of potential destinations in free agency, and now they get calls from agents whose clients want to be Falcons.
Blank also said that when Smitty came to Atlanta in 2008, his coaching philosophy centered around controlling the line of scrimmage, and that the Falcons have drifted away from that. There's a renewed commitment to that in 2014.
There was a question about parking logistics for the new stadium. The new stadium will feature approximately double the parking available at the Georgia Dome.
Blank said there wasn't a specific low point for him in the season, but that there was a point where he realized the season would not pan out the way the team had hoped, and that meant it was time to start thinking about 2014. He said that point came much earlier in the season than he would have liked or expected. Blank referenced Gil Brandt's piece for NFL.com on teams he thinks can go from worst to first, and Brandt named the Falcons the most likely candidate. Blank emphasized that, considering the team's success from 2008-2012, as well as the internal commitment to turning things around, that fans have every reason to believe the 2014 Falcons will be back to form.
Blank said that getting some young players on the field to see what they could do was a bright spot in 2013. The team led the league in terms of rookie playing time this season. He was particularly impressed with some young players, and said the team learned that other young players couldn't get it done.
When asked if there was an upside to a down season, Blank said it sharpens the Falcons' edge. He said he doesn't want to go through this every six years to make sure the edge is there, but one of the questions he has to ask himself about the Falcons' leadership is whether or not they're able to maintain this edge.
Blank referenced the playoff game between the Chiefs and the Colts on Saturday, and how the Chiefs blew a 28-point lead. Blowing sizable leads has been an issue for the Falcons, too. Blank said that the Falcons need to maintain that edge, that competitive spirit, that motivation, and that it translates to building a roster that way, and playing that way for 60 minutes of every game.
What do you think about Blank's perspective on the 2013 Falcons and the team going forward?