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Arthur Blank and Rich McKay’s press conference makes it clear where the power lies for the Falcons

Much depends on the Falcons getting this next hire right, and Monday’s press conference did not exactly reassure in that regard.

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans Saints Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons held a Monday press conference following the Arthur Smith hiring that was intended to illuminate the reasons for the move and sound an optimistic note about the team’s immediate future.

We got some of that, but with some feisty, pointed questions from the assembled media, we also received additional clarity on the power structure in the Falcons’ organization. It’s fair to say

Why Arthur Smith was fired

We didn’t get a clear answer, per se, but we did get enough pieces about the decision to assemble the reasoning.

First, the team fell well short of expectations in 2023. The Falcons refused to say playoffs or bust over the summer, but Blank and McKay both went on record saying they expected improvement. Instead, they got another 7-10 season, and that improvement was nowhere to be found after an offseason of major investments. That had to be hard to take for Blank and McKay, who sounded hopeful all spring and summer and are acutely aware the fanbase is tired as hell of all the losing after six straight seasons without a winning record.

The losses to bad teams—I’m guessing here, but the Panthers game was probably the standout—apparently really rankled Blank.

As ESPN’s Mike Rothstein wrote, Blank talked about the gap between “underachieving and achieving” as a central piece of the puzzle. McKay said the move was designed to ensure the Falcons compete “at the highest level” this coming year. Both made a point to say that Smith, who was obviously popular with most of his players, did not lose the locker room in spite of the blowout nature of the final two games.

It adds up to this: The Falcons weren’t happy that the 2023 season wasn’t the step forward they envisioned, and they weren’t certain that Smith could provide that major step forward in 2024 if he stayed. It’s fair to say the team’s shaky performances against inferior opponents and the final stretch of the season likely combined to push Smith out, and I have to think Blank’s experience in 2019 and 2020 with Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff gave him pause this time out.

Smith was clearly well-liked at nearly every level of the organization, which is part of the reason I thought they’d bring him back despite the criticism of the coach from the outside. Instead, the grinding nature of so many lost seasons in a row and the season relative to expectations conspired to end his tenure.

The offseason plan and quarterback

The good news? The duo made it clear the Falcons will be active in free agency again, looking to spend to the hilt with a smaller but still substantial pot of cap space. They’ll need to do so in order to replace some key free agents or bring them back—think Calais Campbell, the entire group of reserve wide receivers, etc.—and to add talent where the team didn’t have enough in 2023. The pass rush and quarterback will be free agent priorities if they aren’t draft priorities.

The team also addressed quarterback, and there were many questions from media about that, including going back to the ill-fated Deshaun Watson decision and the lack of a similar vigor in pursuing Lamar Jackson. Many of us have long thought the Watson pursuit was heavily driven by Blank, but he once again downplayed both his role in that mess and the team’s ultimate level of interest, saying the team became an “observer” at some point when most reports indicated they were a finalist and simply lost out at the last moment to a mega-deal from the Browns.

Blank also said he doesn’t view the team’s decision to bow out on possible NFL MVP Lamar Jackson to be a mistake, saying the brain trust in Atlanta felt they had a solution in Ridder and that the team was never sure Baltimore would actually let him go. That’s a more thorough version of the rationale the team has given all along.

Blank also said what we all thought about Desmond Ridder and Taylor Heinicke’s work this season, calling Atlanta’s quarterback play “clearly deficient.” He made it clear there are a lot of factors that go into that play, which I would take as an allusion to the way the quarterbacks themselves functioned but also the seeming lack of developmental staff and the sometimes extremely frustrating structure of the offense itself. I think it’s safe to say one or both quarterback won’t be back in 2024, and neither will get a sniff at starting even if they do stay.

Finally, McKay told assembled reporters that the team will announce interviews with coaching candidates after they’ve concluded, rather than that they’ve been requested. That explains why we saw a flurry of reports from other teams requesting interviews and nothing from the Falcons, who almost certainly are looking to get through interviews as soon as they can.

Terry Fontenot’s absence raises questions about role

The team’s general manager was, per Blank and McKay, talking to coaches about the fallout of Smith’s firing and researching new coaching candidates in the wake of Arthur Smith’s firing. Both addressed his absence multiple times, saying it was not a reflection of his level of involvement or any loss in power and responsibilities driving it; they stressed he’ll be a major part of the hiring process.

While that may well be the case, Blank and McKay seemed a little unprepared for the optics of that decision. You have to remember that Thomas Dimitroff was out there with Blank when Mike Smith was fired, there to accept his share of responsibility for the team’s 2013 and 2014 failings and promise improvement that did come in 2016 and 2017. The fact that the general manager was not there with Arthur Smith heading out the door struck many as curious, to say the least.

The team has made clear in the past that Smith and Fontenot both report up to Rich McKay and that the team’s personnel decisions were made collaboratively between the duo, but they reiterated and clarified that further on Monday. Whatever influence Fontenot may have on the coaching hire, he is not going to make the decision, and the new coach will also not report to him.

I don’t doubt that Fontenot will have a voice in the head coaching search, but Blank came right out and said that the team’s general manager essentially just has personnel as his purview. That’s a role Fontenot and his front office staff have proven to be quite good at—this past offseason produced a quality draft and inarguably one of the great free agent hauls in team history—but even in a changing landscape, within quite a few NFL organizations coaches report in to general managers. It’s not particularly unusual for both coaches and GMs to report up to the owner, but it seems more unusual to have the CEO being the guy coach and GM are reporting up to and accountable to. We’ll touch on that below.

What does this mean for Fontenot? The fact that the team didn’t think he needed to be at this press conference and their own words about his role suggest that nothing is changing for him in the day-to-day, but that a head coach with personnel influence could potentially diminish his role from the “50/50 split” he had with Arthur Smith. Given the work he’s done to this point, my hope is that he’ll retain at least that much influence over acquiring players, but I wish the team’s GM was empowered to a greater extent than he appears to be.

Rich McKay’s influence is vast

A great many Falcons fans have been eager to point the finger at McKay for the team’s failings. In years past I think that might have been overblown, given his heavy involvement in the business side of the franchise, but in recent years McKay’s influence in football operations has only grown.

This hasn’t really been a secret. Back in 2020, the organization put McKay as a layer between Blank and the duo of Thomas Dimitroff and Dan Quinn, and his involvement in the football side of things has likely only grown since then. It has been trickier to get the team to come out and say that McKay has a real role in the day-to-day work this football team does, but they did so on Monday.

I’ve written before and write it again now: Blank’s trust in McKay seems to be unconditional, and while he was shifted out of the general manager role following the 2007 season, he’s never really left a position of great power and influence for the Atlanta Falcons and appears to have only furthered that power and influence since the tail end of the DQ/TD era. That’s evident in his role, but it’s also evident in how Blank talks about his role and his experience.

That influence will probably only be lessened by the team hiring a head coach who has enough clout to not feel totally accountable to McKay, which would probably just mean either Bill Belichick or Jim Harbaugh. We don’t know exactly what kind of advice McKay is giving Fontenot or was giving Smith and how much influence he has on the decisions general manager and head coach are making, and that uncertainty is enough to make you nervous. If the team does add a big name coach used to having their own say in personnel and reporting directly into the owner, there may be some uneasy days ahead for all involved.

As the team struggles and this power structure remains, McKay is an easy lightning rod for criticism from the fanbase as a constant presence in Atlanta, and given what we heard Monday it’s more than fair to scrutinize him in any accounting of the team’s woes. Knowing he’ll be heavily involved in this coaching search—and may well be the voice in the room that matters, with Blank of course having final signoff—means we have to hope McKay has some damn good candidates in mind.