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Friday, October 17, 2008
Blank: Falcons moving through 'the process'

By Pat Yasinskas
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Before the NFL owners meetings started Tuesday morning, commissioner Roger Goodell and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank were standing near the coffee pots making small talk.

 
 Scott Boehm/Getty Images
 Falcons owner Arthur Blank is keeping his team's 4-2 start in perspective.

They talked some about Atlanta's 4-2 start, which naturally led to rookie quarterback Matt Ryan.

"I said, 'Roger, when I was 23 years old, I can assure you I didn't carry myself the way he does and I thought I was a pretty mature young man,'" Blank said. "I'm amazed at his personal maturity. It's just shocking to me."

Largely because of Ryan, there's a lot of shock in Atlanta -- and across the league -- these days. Ryan, the third overall pick in this year's draft from Boston College, is playing with uncommon poise and the Falcons are winning.

"We're in a good place," Blank said three different times during a 25-minute interview with ESPN.com.

That's something Blank wasn't capable of saying a year ago when his team was in turmoil and he didn't expect to be saying it so quickly this season. But, after what he's been through, the owner isn't about to get carried away when the season isn't even halfway over.

"Coming into the season, a lot of people were saying we'd be lucky to win three or four games," Blank said. "We've already won four and that's great. But the general manager, the head coach and I were talking about it the other day and it is only six games. The world in the NFL can change in a week or two. We realize that we've got to keep our head down and keep paying attention to our business. We'll work as hard as we can all year and win as many games as we can."

While last week's win against Chicago has some fans in Atlanta talking about a winning season -- and maybe even the playoffs -- Blank is trying to be realistic.

Since his hiring, coach Mike Smith has preached that "it's a process." So has general manager Thomas Dimitroff, and Blank agrees fully.

"We have to build a good foundation and add pieces onto the house as it gets built," Blank said. "We're in the process of doing that. We're in a good place and we're building a solid foundation with a young team. I think we've got the nucleus of a very young and strong team that will only get better over time."

How long that process will take, Blank doesn't know. All he knows for sure is that he's committed to helping the Falcons succeed and that the events of the last year have changed him.

He's more patient now, and that's probably one reason Blank isn't going overboard about four wins. That's the same number of games the Falcons won in last year's tremendously disappointing season as quarterback Michael Vick went off to federal prison for his involvement in a dog fighting ring and coach Bobby Petrino quit and left for Arkansas before the season ended.

"I hate to say you become more cynical and jaundiced about things, but it was a very sad period of time for me personally and for Atlanta," Blank said. "Michael had become a real hero in the city and the community. He did some incredibly exciting things and I had gotten to know him over six years. Or thought I had got to know him and that [was] a big disappointment.

"I like Bobby and I like his family. But I think, more than anything else, he wasn't cut out to deal with the players, and that became pretty clear from the outset. I think he could have handled it differently at the end. When you preach to the players, 'Don't quit, keep fighting' and then you quit with four games to go, it's not good."

All that made Blank, who made his fortune as a hard-charging businessman, take a step back. He hired Dimitroff, who had never been a general manager before. He hired Smith, who had never been a head coach before. He watched as they parted ways with veterans such as Warrick Dunn and Alge Crumpler and signed free-agent running back Michael Turner and drafted Ryan and left tackle Sam Baker in the first round.

That was the start of what Blank and Smith call "the process."

"It's not my nature to be patient," Blank said. "I've often said Atlanta should be happy I'm not patient. I'm going to push for success as quickly as we can. But you also have to be realistic. This is not like five-card stud here. If I don't like my five cards, I take five more. The salary cap is a limitation and it takes time to develop players.

"You have to be patient and accept that. I'm interested in building a long-term winning organization. There are some teams that have done that in the NFL and had success over time and we've studied those organizations and they have certain characteristics.

"One is that they keep their coaching staff together over a long period of time and they keep their general manager in place. They have a sense of patience about building their team and they stay the course of their plan."

The Falcons have a plan to build steadily, and their sudden success hasn't pushed them off that path. There was some talk (mostly from fans) about how the Falcons should go out and get a veteran tight end or cornerback before Tuesday's trade deadline passed. Nothing like that happened.

"My role is to be a cheerleader for them and make sure Mike and Thomas have the resources they need," Blank said. "We're moving in the right direction. But we've got to get up early each day and keep working."