NFC South: Arthur Blank

It was rather obvious how much Matt Ryan was banged around during the 2013 season.

The physical beating the $100 million Atlanta Falcons quarterback absorbed didn't go unnoticed by Arthur Blank. The team owner explained the situation from his perspective.

"It wasn’t easy," Blank said of watching Ryan get pummeled. "I think it wasn't easy for his teammates, I know that. I saw the stress that it put on them. They were trying to protect him. They weren't always able to do it consistently. That's not to say they didn’t do it at all. They just weren’t able to do it at the level that they would like to do it."

[+] EnlargeGreg Hardy
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesFinding players to help keep QB Matt Ryan out of harm's way is an offseason priority for Atlanta.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ryan led the league with 204 dropbacks while pressured -- sacked, forced to scramble, hit while throwing, or put under duress -- with the next closest quarterback being Seattle's Russell Wilson with 184. The league average was 122.

Ryan also led the league with 702 dropbacks, so he obviously had more opportunities to get hit. Blank talked Monday about the team's goal to return to a more physical, power style of football featuring the running game, and that is no doubt a product of wanting to establish more offensive balance so Ryan doesn't get abused.

Ryan was sacked a career-high 44 times, and tied Wilson as the third-most sacked quarterback in the league behind Miami's Ryan Tannehill (58) and Baltimore's Joe Flacco (48).

"I think Matt is a tough kid from Philadelphia," Blank said. "He's a great face of our franchise. He's a great franchise quarterback; a tremendous talent. But he's mentally tough and physically tough. So, I was impressed with how he used those two attributes really throughout the year to get himself up, emotionally and physically, to continue to play at the levels that he did play at this year."

Sure, Ryan might have avoided a major injury, but that didn't make it any easier for the team to watch.

"It was hard for me," Blank said. "It certainly was hard, I'm sure, for his wife and family as well. Very hard for his teammates, I'm sure. … When players see other players get hurt or stressed or put under extreme punishment, if you will, then they feel some responsibility. They feel badly about it. I can tell by body language and words, comments after the game, where his teammates felt they let him down; or, for that matter, when he let them down.

"It's not just one way. Matt had a fair number of turnovers this year. He would be the first to say in some games, he probably pressed more than he probably would have liked feeling the weight of this team on his own back which, in a sense, is to his credit. But in a sense, it's not a good thing, because you end up making some decisions that are not always the best decisions. So it was a difficult year, I think, for all of us, including Matt, and certainly the folks that tried to protect him."

It will be interesting to see how the Falcons address those protection issues. Left guard Justin Blalock was the only consistent performer on the offensive line, and even he had noticeable troubles, at times. Blank said the Falcons are likely to address offensive or defensive line issues with their first-round pick --- currently No. 6 overall -- and getting a tough offensive tackle to protect Ryan’s blind side would appear to be the priority.

Although Blank said the team will spend to upgrade the roster, he also balked at the idea of making a splash by adding a high-priced free agent. However, the Falcons might have to spend if they want to keep Ryan healthy. Relying on a rookie offensive lineman just might not cut it.
Tony Gonzalez and Darrelle RevisAP PhotoIt has been a disappointing season for Tony Gonzalez's Falcons and Darrelle Revis' Bucs.
When the season started, the Atlanta Falcons were a trendy Super Bowl pick and a lot of people thought the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could make the playoffs. As it turns out, both NFC South squads are floundering. They've combined for only three wins.

But these two teams are rivals and that means Sunday's meeting will be about pride.

Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas examine the matchup.

Yasinskas: Vaughn, I was one of those people who picked the Falcons to win the Super Bowl. Obviously, I was way off base. I know injuries have played a big role, but what else has gone wrong for this team?

McClure: Pat, I talked to Tony Gonzalez extensively after the last game and he was adamant about this all being about the injuries. I agree with him to a certain extent because you just can't lose a receiver as dynamic as Julio Jones and expect the offense to click in the same manner. It drastically changes the way defensive coordinators attack and allows them to focus more on shutting down guys such as Gonzalez.

The other injury I thought was significant was linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who is expected back this weekend after being sidelined since Week 2 because of a Lisfranc sprain. The defensive intensity hasn't been there throughout the season, and Weatherspoon would have provided a spark just from his fiery speeches alone. Not saying that he would have totally helped the Falcons avoid giving up 14 plays of 40-plus yards, but they would have been better with a healthy Weatherspoon.

Speaking of injuries, it looks as if both top running backs are out for Tampa Bay. Can Brian Leonard step in and run the ball effectively?

Yasinskas: I agree that getting Weatherspoon back should be a big boost for the Atlanta defense and the first priority whenever you play Tampa Bay is stopping the running game. Even with Doug Martin and Mike James lost to season-ending injuries, the Bucs still will be a run-first team. Leonard is going to be a big part of the offense now. He's a dependable veteran, who can do a little bit of everything. But I think the Bucs will try to use a combination of Leonard and second-year pro Bobby Rainey. The Bucs want to get Rainey a fair amount of touches because he's more of a home-run threat than Leonard.

Speaking of home-run threats, even without Jones, the Falcons still have some playmakers. Are Roddy White and Steven Jackson now healthy enough to make a significant impact?

McClure: Jackson said he was 100 percent now coming off a hamstring injury, and White continues to have his snaps monitored coming off a hamstring pull and high-ankle sprain. I thought Jackson showed signs of his old self with some tough runs against the Carolina Panthers. He then regressed against the Seattle Seahawks, but head coach Mike Smith blamed that on poor blocking. Jackson has a lot of pride and wants to show Falcons fans he was no fluke. But he can only do so much if the holes aren't there for him. He's averaging a mere 3.2 yards per carry.

As for White, he had one catch for 20 yards in his return against the Seahawks. More than anything, he wants to establish a rhythm so he can be back to his old self. The Falcons just need him to be the same type of playmaker when Jones returns next year. Shouldn't the Buccaneers have a new head coach by then?

Yasinskas: It's pretty obvious that Greg Schiano is on the hot seat. He has won only one game this season and two of his past 15 dating to last year. Ownership does like the way Schiano cleaned up the culture of the locker room that was established under predecessor, Raheem Morris. Schiano, who has three more seasons remaining on his contract, might have bought himself a bit more time by benching Josh Freeman and going with rookie quarterback Mike Glennon. But ownership also wants to see some wins. I don't know that there's a magic number, but my guess is Schiano needs to win more than half of his remaining games if he's going to stick around for next season.

I know Smith has had five straight winning seasons since taking over as head coach in Atlanta, but this year hasn't gone as planned. Since expectations were so high, is owner Arthur Blank's patience wearing thin?

McClure: I've watched Blank's reaction after the past two losses and he has been very supportive of Smith. He even embraced Smith like a long-lost son after a road loss to the Carolina Panthers.

Smith has been a winner since taking over in 2008 (58-31 record) and guided his team to the NFC Championship Game last season, although he's 1-4 in postseason games. I talked to general manager Thomas Dimitroff after last Sunday's game and he said Smith's going "nowhere" in reaction to speculation about maybe Jon Gruden being the team's next head coach.

Smith should get a pass on this season because of the injuries alone. But there are bound to be some staff changes in the offseason to correct some of the on-field problems plaguing the team.

 

Around the NFC South

August, 2, 2013
8/02/13
7:36
AM ET
Let's take a look at the Friday morning headlines from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

General manager Thomas Dimitroff was singing the praises of owner Arthur Blank for traditionally spending close to the salary cap. After Matt Ryan’s contract extension, the Falcons are $7.8 million under the cap. They could use that to sign a veteran or two later in the preseason. They also could carry the remaining space over to next year when Ryan’s cap figure escalates.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Scott Fowler writes that the release of veteran offensive lineman Geoff Hangartner is a sign the Panthers aren’t going with the status quo. Hangartner was aging and didn’t have a great season last year. The Panthers gave him a week in camp and obviously didn’t like what they saw and decided it was time to shake things up.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Larry Holder writes that the Saints have been using safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Kenny Vaccaro at nickel cornerback. I think this is more than an experiment. I think one of those two guys will end up being the nickel cornerback. It doesn't matter that Jenkins and Vaccaro aren't true cornerbacks. They're athletic enough to play the nickel position.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Roy Cummings writes that wide receiver Chris Owusu is off to a good start in camp. Owusu made a couple of nice plays when I was out at camp on Thursday. I don’t know if Owusu is in the mix with Kevin Ogletree and Tiquan Underwood for the third receiver spot. But Owusu seems to have a good chance to make the roster as a fourth or fifth receiver.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- When he purchased the Atlanta Falcons in 2002, Arthur Blank wasn’t looking primarily to make money.

“It’s a solid business, and the NFL is king of the sports world and all that," said Blank, who made his fortune as co-founder of Home Depot. “But I got in this business to win. You want to win for your franchise, you want to win for the fans, and you want to win for the city and the state and you want to win for your players and the people in this building. All of that is what’s important to me. I’m a super competitive guy, and I want to win."

After some up-and-down early years in Blank's tenure, the Falcons finally have become consistent winners. The team has had five consecutive winning seasons since the arrival of coach Mike Smith, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and quarterback Matt Ryan. That’s remarkable progress for a franchise that had never had back-to-back winning seasons before the trio came along. And last year’s trip to the NFC Championship Game certainly was another step -- the Falcons came up 10 yards short of the Super Bowl.

But Blank’s not the type of guy to dance around. He wants more. He wants a Super Bowl championship. Wait, make that championships, plural.

At the news conference to announce Ryan’s contract extension Thursday evening, Blank strongly said he and the Falcons can’t really relax until they have Super Bowl rings.

“I think when you have five consecutive winning seasons and go to the playoffs four out of five years, you’re very much in the game," Blank said. “I feel good about what we’ve built, but I also feel like it’s time to take the next step."

He’s not alone. Smith had a strong message for his team on the first day of camp.

“I wanted everybody to understand we’re not 10 yards from the Super Bowl," Smith said. “We’re 193 days from the Super Bowl, which is where we want to be at the end of the season."

The Falcons didn’t go into panic mode and make desperate moves in the offseason. But it’s easy to detect the sense of urgency around Atlanta’s camp. The Falcons won’t quite say it’s Super Bowl or bust, but they believe it’s their time to continue moving in that direction.

[+] EnlargeSteven Jackson
AP Photo/John BazemoreAtlanta's pass-oriented offense should have better balance in 2013 with RB Steven Jackson in the mix.
“When an organization comes close to a goal you want to attain and you don’t get there, I think the first thing that you’ve got to do is make sure everybody doesn’t live in the past," Smith said. “I tell my guys there are three time frames you can live in. You can live in the past. You can live in the future. You can live in the now. As human beings and athletes, we live in all three at different times, but the majority of the time has got to be spent in the now and we have some goals that we want to attain now."

Three hot issues

1. The running game has to work. The Falcons clearly have made the transition to a pass-first team, and that’s not going to change. But they need some semblance of a running game. That’s something they lacked last year as Michael Turner aged and fizzled out.

The Falcons have added Steven Jackson, and that should provide a significant upgrade. Jackson doesn’t need to be the workhorse runner he was earlier in his career, and the Falcons still want to get Jacquizz Rodgers some playing time.

A combination of Jackson and Rodgers should be more than enough to give the Falcons a running game. That should complement the passing game by clearing the way for play-action passes. It also should come in handy when the Falcons are in control of games and trying to eat up some clock.

2. The defense needs a star and an identity. Although Smith comes from a defensive background, the Falcons never have had a really strong defense during his tenure. That needs to change if this team really is going to challenge for a Super Bowl.

It should help that defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is entering his second season and most of the players know his defense. But it’s time for this defense to build a real identity, and I look for Nolan to try to put a more aggressive product on the field.

It also would help Nolan if he can find a true star on his side of the ball. Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon could be that guy. Weatherspoon has been very good so far, but he needs to take the next step and become a prolific playmaker.

3. The pass rush has to produce. For virtually all of Smith’s tenure, the pass rush has consisted of John Abraham and not much else. But Abraham, 35, was released in the offseason because of his age. The Falcons replaced him by bringing in Osi Umenyiora.

On the surface, it appears as if Umenyiora should be able to give the Falcons what Abraham used to. But this defense needs more than Umenyiora to get after opposing quarterbacks. The team is hoping one of its young defensive ends, particularly Jonathan Massaquoi, can step up and complement Umenyiora.

But I’m expecting Nolan to get more creative in his second season and get his linebackers and defensive backs more involved as blitzers.

Reason for optimism

Despite the loss to San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game, the Falcons took a big stride last year by winning a playoff game against Seattle. It was the first playoff victory of Smith’s tenure, and it was significant because it showed the Falcons they can win in January.

This now is a veteran team without many holes. On paper, it’s as good as any team in the NFC. This team knows its window for winning a Super Bowl is wide open at the moment but isn’t going to stay that way forever.

[+] Enlargeatt Ryan
AP Photo/David GoldmanWith a hefty new contract and premium weapons around him, Atlanta QB Matt Ryan will be playing under heavy scrutiny all season.
Reason for pessimism

There always are going to be doubts about the Falcons until they win a Super Bowl. Is Smith too nice of a guy? Does Ryan have what it takes to win the big one?

Those questions still linger. And, with those questions, there is a lot of pressure. It remains to be seen whether this team can handle that kind of pressure.

Observation deck

One of the first things that struck me on the practice field was the size of rookie tight end Levine Toilolo. He’s 6-foot-8, which makes him the tallest tight end in the NFL and a potential matchup problem for linebackers and defensive backs. The best thing about veteran Tony Gonzalez's taking part only on a limited basis is that Toilolo will get plenty of reps and a chance to develop quickly. But I’m not sure Toilolo will immediately beat out Chase Coffman, who had a very strong offseason, for the No. 2 tight end spot.

If you’re looking for an unsung player who is going to make an impact this season, start with Bradie Ewing. The Falcons drafted him last year and planned to use him as the lead blocker for Turner. But Ewing got hurt in the preseason and missed his entire rookie year. Turner had his problems last year, but I think the lack of good blocking from the fullbacks was a factor. Ewing has nice size and should be able to open holes for Jackson.

Don’t read too much into the fact that Mike Johnson has received all the first-team reps at right tackle so far in camp. Johnson might have a slight edge thanks to experience, but the team still has high hopes for second-year pro Lamar Holmes, and he’s likely to be given some reps with the first team.

The speculation that defensive end Kroy Biermann could be used more as a linebacker is more than speculation. Biermann was spending a lot of time at linebacker in the first two days of camp. He’s athletic enough to play in pass coverage and should be able to generate a pass rush from a linebacker position.

The Falcons seem a little thin at defensive tackle, but they might have some quiet plans to get second-year pro Travian Robertson more involved in the rotation. He played a little as a rookie, and I expect his playing time to increase. Also, defensive end Cliff Matthews appears to have bulked up and could slide inside at times.

Second-round pick Robert Alford is going to have a shot at playing time at cornerback. But I think there’s another reason the Falcons drafted Alford. He has return ability, and the Falcons need to improve their return game. Third receiver Harry Douglas also could be an option in the return game. The Falcons would like to get Douglas more touches because they believe he’s an explosive player. But it’s tough to get Douglas touches in the passing game with Roddy White, Julio Jones and Gonzalez around. Letting Douglas handle punt returns could give him four or five more touches a game.

I had been thinking the Falcons would bring in a veteran backup for Ryan at some point. But, after watching second-year pro Dominique Davis the past few days, I’m not so sure the Falcons are still looking. Davis looked sharp and decisive. He’ll get a lot of playing time in the preseason games. If he performs well, the Falcons will stick with him as their backup.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- One of the last hurdles for the Atlanta Falcons' proposed new stadium is deciding on an exact site.

It’s down to two locations, both near the Georgia Dome. The Falcons have said all along that the South site is the one they prefer. But team owner Arthur Blank said Thursday night that the Falcons also would be fine if the stadium is built on the North side.

“It’s a bit of a jigsaw puzzle because there are a lot of moving parts,’’ Blank said. “It’s a large project and it’s very complex. The Georgia Congress Center has been a great partner for us and they have two sites on their campus and they both work for us. We’re just as happy with South versus North or the North versus the South.’’

There are two churches currently in existence on the South site and their futures haven’t been determined.

“The issue with the South is these two churches,’’ Blank said. “It’s their decision. If the churches decide that it’s in their best interest to sell their churches and move elsewhere or consolidate with other churches, great. If not in their best interest, they shouldn’t do it and I would encourage them to not do it. It’s really their call. I’d be just as happy on either site.’’

Blank said the Falcons haven’t done as much homework on the North site, but are in the process of catching up. Blank said both sites are well positioned in regards to the city’s mass transit system.

“The South site was the preferred site, primarily because of the two MARTA sites being right there,’’ Blank said. “But the North site has three MARTA stops within .7 miles and it’s very accessible. From a stadium positioning stand point, it’s more optimal. We’ll continue to work hard on both.’’
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- After making Matt Ryan one of the NFL’s best-paid players, Arthur Blank got a little nostalgic.

[+] EnlargeArthur Blank
Josh D. Weiss/US PresswireMatt Ryan helped lift Arthur Blank's team out of the mess left by Bobby Petrino and Michael Vick.
I had a chance to sit down with Blank for a one-on-one chat Thursday evening and the owner of the Atlanta Falcons reflected on just how far his quarterback has helped his franchise come after it hit rock bottom in 2007, following the Bobby Petrino and Michael Vick fiascos.

“Matt was a great choice for us in 2008,’’ Blank said. “People forget that there was a lot of pressure on the organization from a lot of different directions. I really give general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith a tremendous amount of credit for seeing Matt for what he was and what he is. And seeing his maturity on and off the field for the last five years and seeing him get the franchise to where he is today, along with a lot of players and coaches, is very rewarding to me.’’

Petrino abruptly quit during the 2007 season, his first coaching the club. At the same time, Vick, the former franchise quarterback, was facing charges for running a dog-fighting ring and eventually went to prison.

“It was a very difficult time for the franchise,’’ Blank said. “A very difficult time for the fans. It’s not about me. It’s really about our fans. When I bought the team in 2001, I had aspirations and we went through some trials and tribulations. The focus on hiring Thomas and Smitty was really on values and building the organization around people with values, not for the quick fix but for a long, sustainable run. Obviously, we needed a franchise quarterback and I think we were able to make a great choice. He’s a fine young man, who really has played beautifully for the last five years.’’
julio JonesAP Photo/Dave MartinStar WR Julio Jones helps make Atlanta's roster one of the NFL's most talented from top to bottom.
From the outside, the Atlanta Falcons might appear to be sitting on a splendid perch.

They’re coming off a 13-3 season and they have a roster stocked with extraordinary talent from veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez right down to rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant. When the preseason predictions start coming out in another month or so, the Falcons are going to be a trendy Super Bowl pick, and that’s totally logical.

From the inside, I get the sense the Falcons are confident, but not totally comfortable with where they’re sitting. That’s probably because they’ve been here before.

It’s fresh in the minds of general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith because it wasn’t that long ago. In 2010, the Falcons went 13-3 and seemed to be just a player or two away from the Super Bowl.

The Falcons certainly thought so. They went out and signed free-agent defensive end Ray Edwards and made a huge trade on draft day to get receiver Julio Jones. But the Falcons quickly learned that if you spend too much time and resources on fixing what was broken in the past, you can take your eye off the present and the future.

That’s what happened in the 2011 season. The Falcons stumbled to a 2-3 start. They finished 10-6, but the New Orleans Saints ran away with the NFC South title. Atlanta got a wild-card berth in the playoffs and got thumped 24-2 by the New York Giants.

Before the dust from that loss settled, coordinators Mike Mularkey and Brian VanGorder were gone. Their replacements, Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan, came in and helped set the stage for a bounce right back to 13-3.

But now comes the next step, and that’s why the Falcons shouldn’t be feeling too comfortable.

[+] EnlargeThomas Dimitroff
AP Photo/Greg TrottCoach Mike Smith, center, and GM Thomas Dimitroff focused on making the Falcons younger in key areas this offseason.
Will history repeat itself? Will the Falcons take another step back at a time when they appear poised to take a giant leap forward?

I don’t think history will repeat itself, mainly because the Falcons learned from their mistakes of 2011 and they’re taking a different approach this time around.

The most significant quote I heard this offseason was when Smith said the Falcons were 10 yards away from the Super Bowl last year, but they’re starting at 0-0 in 2013. Smith drilled that message into his team during the offseason program.

That type of self-awareness is nothing but a good thing. It’s hard just to win a game in the NFL. The Falcons have to go out and work as hard, or harder, than last year if they expect a similar season. Actually, they need to expect more. They need to expect a Super Bowl championship.

Blowing a 17-point lead to San Francisco at home in the NFC Championship Game wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t good enough for Smith and Dimitroff and it certainly wasn’t good enough for owner Arthur Blank.

I’m not subscribing to the theory of some who believe Smith needs to win a Super Bowl or Blank will clean house. Blank’s too smart for that. He realizes he has an excellent combination in Smith and Dimitroff. But expectations are justifiably high, and it wouldn’t reflect well on Smith or Dimitroff if the Falcons end up taking a step back.

There’s a reason why I don’t think the Falcons will take a step back. It’s because Smith and Dimitroff didn’t resort to the same gold-rush attitude that they did after the 2010 season. Blame a big part of that on Edwards, who ended up being perhaps the biggest free-agent bust in NFC South history. I think Smith and Dimitroff would make the Jones trade all over again, but that’s a once-in-a-career type of deal.

Dimitroff and Smith did go out and fix one major problem area from last year. They let aging running back Michael Turner go and replaced him with a slightly younger Steven Jackson. That alone should give a huge boost to an Atlanta offense that didn’t have even the threat of a running game last year.

But, more than that, I like the fact that Smith and Dimitroff were proactive. They let a still-productive John Abraham go and replaced him with a slightly younger Osi Umenyiora. They let veteran cornerback Dunta Robinson go and went out and drafted Trufant (yes, they traded up for him, but it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as the Jones trade) and Robert Alford.

Although adding veteran defensive tackle Richard Seymour still might be a possibility (at the right price), Smith and Dimitroff avoided going for quick fixes and big names this time around. They let veteran right tackle Tyson Clabo go, and center Todd McClure retired.

Sure, it’s a little scary having two new starters on an offensive line. But the Falcons have invested draft picks in the likes of Peter Konz, Mike Johnson and Lamar Holmes in recent years. It’s time to get them on the field.

That’s the way you fix things for the long term -- by making deliberate and calculated moves instead of moves that smack of desperation.

That’s how you take a step forward and not a step back.
Personal Seat Licenses (PSLs) will be a part of the cost of the Atlanta Falcons’ proposed stadium, but the cost to fans won’t be as high as it was at some other recently opened stadiums.

That was the message from team president Rich McKay on Thursday night as he addressed fans during the team’s State of the Franchise event.

“We’ve said from the very beginning that we do believe PSLs will be part of this program,’’ McKay said. “You all know (team owner) Arthur (Blank) and what he stands for, his values and how he wants to deliver this stadium. We will not be at the levels that were done in Dallas, done in New York and done in other places. Ours will be a much more modest program.’’

McKay had a lot more to say about stadium matters, and you can check it all out in this video.
I’ve been a regular visitor to the Georgia Dome since I started covering the NFL in the mid-1990s. I’ve always thought it was a good stadium.

But when you see and hear the plans the Falcons have for their proposed retractable-roof stadium, it makes you realize that the Georgia Dome might be antiquated by NFL standards. According to the information that’s coming out about what the Falcons have planned for their new stadium, it could be on a par with, or better than, Cowboys Stadium, which is the most spectacular NFL stadium I’ve been in.

I’d expect nothing less from owner Arthur Blank and team president Rich McKay. They think big, and they’ve been thinking about this project for several years.

Part of the plans include seats that vibrate when there’s a big play, and a 100-yard bar. The Falcons are hoping to have the stadium built and ready to open in time for the 2017 season.

Although he spent much of the 2012 season saying he was 95 percent sure it would be his last, Tony Gonzalez decided to play another season. A lot of people, including fans, played a big role in influencing Gonzalez to spend another season with the Atlanta Falcons.

In this radio interview with "Mike & Mike in the Morning," Gonzalez said owner Arthur Blank, coach Mike Smith, Thomas Dimitroff and receiver Roddy White were among those that lobbied hard for him to play another season.

“It was a combination of my teammates, the front office, the coaches, the ownership and also the fans as well, seeing the stuff they did for me on Facebook and then my family," Gonzalez said. “I would have felt like the biggest jerk if I did say after all that, “Hey, I want to retire."

Gonzalez, 37, got the first playoff win of his career when the Falcons defeated Seattle. Atlanta then lost to San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game. The fact the Falcons came within 10 yards of getting to the Super Bowl also played a big role in the decision by Gonzalez.

“I feel good,’’ Gonzalez said. “My body feels good. It was kind of a no-brainer after all was said and done, just because of how close we got in that last game.’’

But Gonzalez already is putting a firm percentage on the chance that he will retire after the 2013 season.

“I am 100 percent sure,’’ Gonzalez said.
McClure
The Atlanta Falcons are giving center Todd McClure the proper sendoff, one that he deserves.

During McClure’s retirement news conference, owner Arthur Blank announced the center will get the highest honor the team can give.

“You deserve to be in that Ring of Honor, and we will get you there as soon as we can," Blank said.

McClure absolutely deserves to be in the Falcons’ Ring of Honor. He wasn’t the flashiest player and he’s not headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But, since joining the Falcons in 1999, McClure has been an institution.

He’s been a solid, dependable player and a class act.

That’s why he belongs in the Ring of Honor.
It has to be a bittersweet time for the Atlanta Falcons with center Todd McClure saying he’s going to retire.

McClure
A formal announcement is expected after owner Arthur Blank returns from next week's NFL meetings. Let’s start this off by sending some kudos McClure’s way. Drafted by Atlanta in 1999, McClure has been a fixture on the offensive line through some very good times and some bad times. He’s been a class act all the way and still was playing at a high level last season.

But McClure said it’s time to move on.

That means it also is time for the Falcons to move on. Replacing McClure’s leadership and experience won’t be easy. But the Falcons do have some other options at center and they’ve prepared for this moment by drafting Peter Konz and Joe Hawley in recent years.

The most likely scenario is Konz, who started at guard the second half of last season, shifting to center. That’s the position Konz played in college. If Konz makes the move, it could clear the way for Garrett Reynolds to move back in as a starting guard.

Reynolds began last season as a starter. But he suffered an injury and was replaced by Konz.
It’s not a done deal yet, but it looks like the Falcons have taken a pretty big step toward getting a new stadium in downtown Atlanta.

Mayor Kasim Reed and Falcons owner Arthur Blank announced Thursday afternoon that they have agreed on some major components, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Mainly, the Falcons will invest $50 million in infrastructure costs for the stadium. The Arthur Blank Family Foundation will also spend $15 million in improvements for neighborhoods close to the proposed stadium. The city’s economic development agency, Invest Atlanta, also would commit $15 million for projects in the area.

The Falcons and the Georgia World Congress Center Authority are still negotiating terms of a memorandum of understanding, and parts of the deal still would need final approval from Atlanta City Council, the GWCAA board, Invest Atlanta and the Fulton County Commission.

There still might be some potential for bumps in the road. But the latest development is yet another sign that the Falcons and the city are doing their part to make sure the team stays in Atlanta.

Around the NFC South

March, 6, 2013
3/06/13
9:40
AM ET
Time for a look at some odds, ends and headlines from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Recently released defensive end John Abraham issued a statement thanking the organization and fans. Abraham also said he wants to play several more years in the NFL. I know there are some fans out there that believe Abraham might come back to the Falcons at a lower price. I think that’s a real long shot. If this had been purely about money, the Falcons would have restructured Abraham’s contract instead of releasing him.

Falcons owner Arthur Blank and former linebacker Coy Wire will be among the guest speakers at a career and franchise event in Atlanta on Wednesday.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl said he’s looking forward to taking a more hands-on approach after spending last season as the assistant receivers coach.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Coach Sean Payton said he envisions veterans Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith and Roman Harper remaining with the team. But Payton added that there are salary-cap concerns. I still think it’s possible the Saints will have to release at least one member of the trio.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Mark Cook runs through some potential defensive end targets in free agency. Most of these guys are older or are expected to cost a lot of money. The Bucs might be better off re-signing Michael Bennett.

NFC South afternoon update

March, 5, 2013
3/05/13
4:24
PM ET
Time for a run through some odds and ends from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

D. Orlando Ledbetter writes that a contract extension for quarterback Matt Ryan could end up costing the Falcons nearly $140 million. That’s a huge sum, but I have no doubt the Falcons will make this deal happen. Owner Arthur Blank once gave Michael Vick a 10-year contract worth $130 million. Ryan’s value is even higher, due to inflation and the fact the Falcons have more confidence in him than they ever did in Vick.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

An Elon University poll found that 88 percent of those sampled are opposed to North Carolina using state money to help fund renovations at Bank of America Stadium. This comes after Gov. Pat McCrory said state money wouldn’t be available for the Panthers. Get ready for another round of Los Angeles rumors.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Mike Triplett lays out what may be a dream draft scenario for the Saints. He writes about how the stock of Georgia’s Jarvis Jones seems to be all over the board. There are some medical questions about Jones and he didn’t work out at the scouting combine. But, if medical questions are answered in a positive way, Jones could be exactly the kind of edge rusher the Saints need.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Roy Cummings reports the Bucs met with the agent for quarterback Josh Freeman during the scouting combine. I wouldn’t read too much into this. The Bucs already have given indications they’ll let Freeman head into the final year of his contract without an extension. The meeting likely was more of a get-acquainted session because Freeman’s former agent has retired.

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