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Reports: Falcons coaching search may come down to Bill Belichick versus Rich McKay

It’s a battle for the heart of Arthur Blank, perhaps.

Atlanta Falcons v Houston Texans Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Sometimes in life you are given a choice between a pair of situations you find unpalatable, and there is no third choice. For many Falcons fans, that kind of choice may be fast approaching, but to add to the misery it’s also a choice that’s entirely out of our hands.

What do I mean by that? Reporting has long indicated that Rich McKay, who wields considerable influence and power in the Falcons organization as the President/CEO/right hand man for owner Arthur Blank, is someone who might be an impediment for certain coaches and executives who would have to report in to him if they were hired. McKay is positioned as an adviser to general manager Terry Fontenot and any head coach the team would hire, but his level of say-so with decisions is hotly debated outside of the organization. In any event, a powerful coach used to wielding considerable influence and reporting directly to a GM or owner instead of an executive like McKay might balk at entering such a setup.

Enter Bill Belichick. The consistent drumbeat of reporting from around the league and in Atlanta indicates that Blank badly wants the legendary head coach to helm the Falcons, but that seems unlikely to happen in the current power structure. If you were just getting Belichick the coach reporting in to McKay, that hire might be made in the next few days. Because Belichick may well shove out Fontenot and McKay and report up to Blank directly—he’ll want that kind of power to remake the organization in his image and preference—McKay is in danger of losing his role for the first time since he was moved sideways in the organization back when Thomas Dimitroff was hired.

Zach Klein at WSB-TV indicates his reporting is suggesting that the decision is a binary one: Push out McKay and hire Belichick or keep McKay and hire someone else, though obviously we don’t know who that candidate would be just yet. If true, it sets up a huge inflection point for this organization, which will be choosing between Blank’s confidant and go-between and one of the most influential coaches in NFL history.

As you’d expect given what I’ve written about Belichick in the past, I’m nervous that Blank still is by all accounts available wholly fixated on him as the head coach. I don’t actually believe that Belichick necessarily gives you the best chance to win right at this moment, because his level of organizational say-so and the sea change in the way the Falcons are run, staffed, and the roster stocked could take time and come with real growing pains. With such a far-ranging search and Blank reportedly being all-in on Belichick for a long time now, it’s not hard to see an owner obsessed with winning right now and incapable of being moved by the raft of other candidates Atlanta has assembled. That kind of single-minded focus rarely works out well.

On the other hand, if Belichick truly is the best candidate for the organization and Blank and other executives agree on that, it would be absurd to pass him by because of McKay’s role. Whatever value McKay brings to Blank personally and with the quote-unquote wisdom that he brings to bear for executives and coaches reporting in to him, he is supposedly not making decisions himself and is not the caliber of football mind that Belichick is in any event. Whether it’s Belichick or say Jim Harbaugh, another candidate who will likely want significant organizational say-so, a coach who is amenable to working with Terry Fontenot in acquiring personnel but not amenable to reporting in to McKay should...simply not have to report into McKay. Blank’s trust in McKay is so absolute that I can easily see him choosing McKay over a coach, and assuming a generic candidate or even a specific one like Harbaugh, I’d say that’s the wrong decision.

The problem for the Falcons is that if this reporting is true—and again, the ideas that McKay’s power is an impediment for hires and that Blank is enamored with Belichick have been widely and consistently out there—this is entirely down to Blank’s judgement. That’s not judgement I am particularly inclined to trust at this point, both given the (in my opinion, to be clear) unreasonable fascination with Belichick, the ill-fated pursuit of Deshaun Watson that seemingly heavily involved Blank, and the fact that regardless of how you feel about McKay in the abstract, Blank’s investment in him as a friend and executive is something he’s likely to have difficulty letting go of. All of that and Blank’s desire to win now risks making this an emotional decision, and given that it’s going to have serious ramifications for and reverberations through the Falcons franchise regardless of which way he goes, that’s an anxiety-inducing thought.

The Falcons are still in no evident rush to finish their coaching search, which gives Blank time to ponder this if it is the choice we’re fated to see, as well as time to fall in love with another candidate. If we arrive at the end of this particular road with a decision between McKay and Belichick representing Blank’s final choice, my expectation is that he’ll choose McKay, but all we can hope for is that the outcome is a thoughtful and smart one for a franchise that needs good choices.