The last year or so has been unlike anything most of us have witnessed in a long, long time. This was true of the larger world and the Atlanta Falcons. In 2020, the team stumbled out of the gate, losing their first five games and eventually parted ways with head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff. It has been a small eternity since we’ve seen such sweeping change in Atlanta.
Enter 2021, and the Falcons find themselves with a bright, young offensive-minded head coach in Arthur Smith as well as a well respected first-time general manager in Terry Fontenot. I was fortunate to speak with Falcons team owner Arthur Blank to get his thoughts on the team’s new regime and offseason moves up to this point.
“We are pretty far along in the offseason, in terms of roster evaluation,” Arthur Blank told The Falcoholic. “I sat through their evaluations, along with the coordinators, and I was very impressed with both Arthur [Smith] and Terry [Fontenot] for not only their insights, but the way they handle themselves, because I think they let the coordinators all speak about each individual player, how they evaluate them, how they saw them fitting into the schemes, offensively, defensively and special teams alike. I think they both have strong opinions about things, they certainly know that. But it’s great to see that they’re great listeners and they’re very thoughtful. I think that everything that we counted on with the two of them, we’re getting. I love the coordinator staff, the other coaches. Terry’s made some good moves with personnel, he’s brought in a couple folks who I think will be helpful to us.”
As Blank mentioned, we are well into the offseason. The Falcons’ brass has made several signings, including running back Mike Davis and offensive and kick return specialist Cordarrelle Patterson, who were both signed to team-friendly deals. With extremely limited cap space this offseason, the team’s focus has been on making impactful signings while not jeopardizing their cap space over the long haul.
“I kinda like where we are, they’re working really hard on — obviously — free agency,” Blank said. “It was interesting, Terry in his 18 years with the New Orleans Saints...they had great success in free agency, bringing in players who were not necessarily the very top players that disappeared on day one and day two, but players who fit a role, fit a niche. His ability to evaluate talent in terms of the schemes Arthur is going to run, offensively and defensively, is very good and very high. I was very impressed with the way he was able to match up the free agency selections that we made with the needs of the team. Very specific, knew exactly what they wanted, didn’t get carried away with the first day hooplah. But he’s continued to add some really quality players to our roster. So I feel good about that, and that’s critical. If you go into the draft, you want to have a good amount of free agency behind you. You’re still going to have some good players later that will be cut by other teams, in camp or before. But I think they did really good work and I think they’re very poised now to have an excellent draft.”
As everyone’s aware, the 2021 NFL Draft is only eight days away. There has been plenty of smoke being blown this offseason; so much that you could probably see it from the moon. Will we stay at No. 4? Move up? Trade down? I can honestly be talked into all options, because all options make sense. It’s a good spot to be in.
“We have nine picks, obviously we have No. 4, and what we do with that pick remains to be seen,” Blank said. “They’re giving all options a fair hearing, which is really important. They haven’t made up their minds — I don’t believe, from my conversations with them. I have a couple formal meetings with them this week, along with Rich McKay. We’ll sit down and go over their thinking on options like staying where we are, trading down — probably not trading up. But I would certainly consider all of the options that they’re looking at.”
Who knows what the team will ultimately do, but Blank believes in allowing Smith and Fontenot the room to shape the future of the team. He does, however, believe in being present, saying he views himself as a representation of the fans. Regardless of what some fans may think, he says his top priority is to create a winning culture for the fans.
“I think it’s very important, I’ve said this going on 21 years now, that what I know about football, they’ve long forgotten,” Blank said. “I have tremendous respect for our coaches, tremendous respect for our personnel folks. I have a lot of respect for Rich McKay, his background, in coordinating both Terry and Arthur and working with them both. So I’m an observer, but I only get involved in the sense that I’m representing the fans. I want to make sure that there’s good strategy behind — forget about the names that they’re picking, but there’s good strategy behind the process they’re going through, their thoughts through all of the options. Making sure they’re not only thinking about how to win in the next year or two, but how to win beyond that.”
Creating a winning culture for the fans to enjoy is one thing, but to maintain a winning culture is something entirely more challenging. Matt Ryan is not getting any younger, which has caused a popular debate within the Falcons community about potentially drafting his successor in the upcoming draft. Ultimately, Blank wants to make sure there is a long-term plan in place for the position and the larger roster, whether it’s this year or down the road.
“One of our responsibilities in my background of business, whether it be at The Home Depot — or any of our existing business today, whether it be Falcons, Atlanta United or our PGA business, guest ranches, whatever — is how do you make sure you have succession planning in place,” Blank said. “We have to think about all of that; where are our players age-wise, contract wise, who’s going to be here in the next 2-3 years and who’s not going to be here, potentially. So there’s a lot of strategy that goes on behind the scenes that sometimes fans don’t fully appreciate. It’s not complicated; it just means you look beyond just winning the next game. You have to think not only about how to win next year, but how to win two, three years down the road. I think the great organizations in the NFL have a history of being able to make transitions from one regime to the next regime, and they do it very successfully, that’s why they’re always competitive. I’ve said this since I purchased the team in 2001 — I want to make sure that we have a sustainable winning culture here, that we not just win for one year, but we’re one of the teams that people like Evan talk about this time of the year and say, “Come next fall, they’ll be playing important games in December and January.” You know, it’s single elimination when you make it to the playoffs, so you don’t know what’s going to happen, but you want to have a competitive team and that’s really our goal.”
All offseason, from those that cover the team to the fan, we’ve all tried to decipher what the Falcons plans are in the upcoming 2021 NFL Draft. With only a little over a week left of suspense, we still don’t really have a clear picture on what the team’s plans are. There was a recent report that Blank is very interested in the quarterbacks in this year’s draft class. From what he told me above, I believe that he just may. Looking 2-3 years down the road is always something you want to do, regardless if it’s on a football field or just in life in general.
Although he didn’t specify what position he favors, or what he thinks the team should do with the No. 4 overall pick, Blank wants a plan in place. He wants to make sure that there is a long-term strategy behind whatever the Falcons ultimately do in the 2021 NFL Draft. To me, that means getting a quarterback who can take over for Matt Ryan in the next 2-3 years, although the thought of Kyle Pitts being in this offense is fascinating to say the least. We’ll see how happy Blank and fans are in a little over a week.
Look for the second part of my conversation with Arthur Blank on Friday.