NFL Nation: 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.

Record is same, experience is not

December, 12, 2013
ASHBURN, Va. -- They have the same record, but are going through a far different experience. Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan blamed the noise surrounding his team on their record and that’s partly true. But there’s little noise out of Atlanta, which also entered the season with Super Bowl hopes and instead are seven games under .500, just like the Redskins.

Why is that? Here’s a good place to start: The Falcons were 56-24 under coach Mike Smith entering the season. (They were 11-21 the previous two seasons and coming off the Mike Vick saga, so this was not an easy turnaround.) The Redskins were 21-27 under Shanahan.

Any coach such as Smith can withstand a bad season after so many good ones. Any coach in Shanahan’s position will be scrutinized, especially when in the last year of a contract. (Smith signed a three-year extension in 2011; general manager Thomas Dimitroff said earlier this season that Smith was going nowhere.) When you're in Shanahan's situation, leaks result.

[+] EnlargeMike Smith
AP Photo/Reinhold MatayFalcons coach Mike Smith's success in the recent past affords him leeway that Mike Shanahan is not getting right now.
Smith said he’s handled their 3-10 season by staying positive.

“I’m a very positive person and I think that you have to be transparent with your team in terms of when things are going well and when things are not going well,” he said. “We have collectively contributed to the success that we’ve had and we’ve collectively contributed to the season that we’re having this year. We’re all responsible for it and we’re all accountable for it. I think when you have that type of communication between the different parts of the organization and everybody takes accountability for it, it makes it a lot easier.”

"Certainly, it’s a tough time," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. "I think Coach Smith has done a great job of handling the different situations.”

A strong locker room helps, too. The Redskins say they have it and, being in there every day, I agree. I do think the next three weeks will be a struggle with the circus atmosphere that now dominates. The outside stories about Shanahan’s future or past and examining every relationship involving Griffin have taken a toll.

Atlanta doesn’t have to endure any of that.

“You want to point fingers, that’s just the way it is, but it does you no good,” Ryan said. “I think guys have realized that -- that blaming other people and trying to throw guys under the bus, it’s not going to help us. Certainly that’s one of the things, when you look at a tough season, that’s one of the things that is a positive.”

Here, there’s talk about the nature of owner Dan Snyder’s relationship with Robert Griffin III. We don’t know how Arthur Blank gets along with Ryan. (We do know he was close to Vick.)

Smith on Blank:

“Well, Arthur is a very good leader. He’s got a lot of experience not only in football, but in business as well. He knows how to handle things when times are great and knows how to deal with things when times are bad. I think it starts at the top with him. ... Again, I think collaboration is very important, and communication, so that you have a collaborative atmosphere where you can have discussions and make decisions to try to get things first. That’s what we’re trying to do at this point in time and we will get it done.”

Meanwhile, the Redskins will enter the offseason with plenty of questions that the Falcons just don't have to answer.
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.

The feel-good story of Brian Banks apparently is coming to an end -- sort of.

Jay Glazer reports the Atlanta Falcons are releasing the linebacker, who was playing football for the first time in 10 years. You probably know the backstory on Banks. He was a highly-recruited high school linebacker, but his career got sidetracked and he spent five years in prison. Banks later was exonerated after his accuser recanted her claims.

The Falcons decided to give Banks a look during the offseason. But, ultimately, he wasn’t able to catch up fast enough to make an NFL roster.

But Banks’ time with the Falcons may not be over after all. Glazer also reports that owner Arthur Blank is contemplating a role for Banks within the organization.
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. -- 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.
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.

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.
As the full details of Joe Flacco's six-year, $120 million contract come spilling out over the next few days, a lot of people in Atlanta are going to be paying very close attention.

Start with Falcons owner Arthur Blank. Throw in general manager Thomas Dimitroff. And, oh yeah, Matt Ryan and his agents may be paying closer attention to what Flacco got than anyone else on earth.

Ryan and Flacco have been joined at the hip since they entered the league in 2008. Their careers have had many similarities and it’s a safe bet that Ryan and his representatives will be looking for something similar to what Flacco got.

Blank’s the one who ultimately will have to write the check and Dimitroff’s the one who has to structure the deal (and make sure it keeps enough room for the Falcons to sign other players in future years). The only real argument that Blank and Dimitroff can use is that, unlike Flacco, Ryan hasn’t won a Super Bowl.

But I don’t think the coach and general manager will even go there. The lack of a Super Bowl is a touchy subject for the Falcons and nobody blames Ryan for the fact Atlanta doesn’t have a championship. In fact, Blank and Dimitroff have made it abundantly clear they believe they can win a Super Bowl with Ryan.

They want to sign the quarterback to a long-term contract extension this offseason. The parameters already are in place. They’ll have to pay him like a champion.

They’ll have to pay him like Flacco.
NEW ORLEANS - There was no anger or panic in Arthur Blank’s voice as he reflected on the Atlanta Falcons’ season.

The owner watched as his team came up 10 yards short of getting to the Super Bowl for only the second time in franchise history. Blank’s not happy, but he’s not ready to start firing people.

What's important for now is we have created a sustainable winning organization. We have a team that's in the mix every year.

-- Arthur Blank
“It certainly was a very disappointing conclusion to a great season,’’ Blank said Friday while visiting the Super Bowl media center. “I love where the organization is. I love the work that (general manager) Thomas (Dimitroff) and (coach Mike Smith) have done together over the last five years. I think that’s produced a lot of wins for us. But we’re not where we need to be. Smitty would be the first to say that and Thomas would be right at his side saying that. We’re not going to be happy until we’re playing in the Super Bowl and winning the Super Bowl.’’

The Falcons went 13-3 and won in the postseason for the first time in the Smith-Dimitroff era when they defeated Seattle in the divisional round. That victory might have pacified Blank.

But what I heard from Blank made me think he’s an owner who realizes he has a good coach and general manager in place and they have the Falcons close to where they want to be. I don’t think the Falcons are going to simply stand still, but I don’t think you’re going to see the kind of panicked moves we’ve seen from other owners when their teams have been coming up short of where they want to be.

I think Blank is more patient than he was in his early days as an NFL owner. He desperately wants to win a Super Bowl. But he also is smart enough to trust that his coach and general manager might need to make only a few tweaks.

“I think what’s important for now is we have created a sustainable winning organization,’’ Blank said. “We have a team that’s in the mix every year. We have a tremendously talented team on both sides of the ball. We’ll evaluate how to get better. For us, the playoff victory was an enjoyable experience and I think it will be an important experience for us going forward. I feel like we have a lot of the pieces in place. It’s a matter of continuing to fine tune and evaluate to get to where we want to be.’’
NEW ORLEANS -- Falcons owner Arthur Blank said he firmly believes the future of the Falcons is in Atlanta and that reports that he had been contacted by Los Angeles officials were inaccurate.

“We’re committed to Atlanta, the city, the region and the state," Blank said Friday while visiting the Super Bowl media center. “We’re making progress on our deal working with the (Georgia World) Congress Center, the Mayor’s office, the Governor’s office, the community and doing all the things we need to do to get the deal done with the city of Atlanta."

The Falcons have been working for several years to get a new stadium in downtown Atlanta. As often happens when a city is having stadium issues, rumors started circulating about Los Angeles. But Blank said they were nothing more than rumors.

“I was never approached," Blank said. “My team was never approached. If someone in Atlanta, outside of the Atlanta Falcons was ever approached, I have no idea."

Although no deal is imminent, Blank said he remains very optimistic.

“I think we’re in a good place," Blank said. “Obviously, it’s a very complicated deal and a big investment. You’re talking about not only an NFL franchise, but all the legacy events -– the opportunity to produce a facility that would compete for the Super Bowl, compete for the BCS Championship, compete for the World Cup and create a change that would be very important for Atlanta. We want to create a solution that works for everybody, and I think we’re in the process of doing that. It takes patience and time to come up with a solution that works for all the parties."

Falcons are 'agitated'

February, 1, 2013
NEW ORLEANS -- Call it the winter of discontent for the Atlanta Falcons.

I spent some time with general manager Thomas Dimitroff as he made the rounds Thursday through the Super Bowl media center. As he reflected on the Falcons’ season, he used the same word several times to describe how he, owner Arthur Blank and coach Mike Smith are feeling after losing in the NFC Championship Game.

“Speaking for myself and I believe I can also speak for Mike and our owner, we’re still agitated,’’ Dimitroff said.

I’ll just let Dimitroff continue from there.

“That’s a good thing because our expectations are high and we said that from the very beginning,’’ Dimitroff said. “I thought we developed in a lot of very good ways. We’re going to have to step back right now and, potentially, make some difficult decisions like every team does. We know that we have to figure out how to become that much more fundamentally sound and that much more sound roster-wise. We feel like we have a very good football team, but we still have to make some tweaks to get over the hump.’’

Dimitroff is right that being agitated is a good thing. The Falcons should be angry that, after a 13-3 regular season, the first playoff victory under the current regime and a 17-0 lead at home early in the NFC Championship Game, they’re not in the Super Bowl.

This is a supremely talented football team and, when you get a No. 1 seed for the postseason, you need to take advantage of it. The Falcons failed in that regard -- for the second time in three seasons.

I don’t think it’s time to panic. This team came within 10 yards of being in the Super Bowl, so it’s not time to gut the roster or make mass changes to the coaching staff.

But it is time to be agitated for a bit. The Falcons made some progress this past season. The playoff victory against Seattle showed this team can win in the postseason.

“It was very, very important to win a playoff game,’’ Dimitroff said. “It was very important for our team. It was very important for our fan base, for our owner and myself and Mike as well. And, yet, it wasn’t where we wanted to stop. We were 10 yards short of being here in this game. We’re proud of what we are as a football team and we believe that we belong in the final four and then some.’’

Stay agitated -- for now. But, as winter turns to spring, Dimitroff and Smith need to cool a bit. They need to reflect on what happened in the NFC Championship Game with some distance.

This is a team that could be on the cusp of something special. Sometime between now and free agency and the NFL draft, Dimitroff and Smith have to figure out the couple of things that will allow the Falcons just to take one more step forward.

In the end, the same old Falcons

January, 20, 2013
Matt RyanAP Photo/David GoldmanMatt Ryan and the Falcons squandered an early lead and were held scoreless in the second half.
ATLANTA – There was Arthur Blank hugging Mike Smith and offering condolences. There was Smith hugging Thomas Dimitroff and not saying much of anything. There were grown men, namely Tony Gonzalez and Todd McClure, breaking into tears.

Even Roddy White, usually the most vocal member of the Atlanta Falcons, was on the verge of being speechless.

This is what happens when a team known for its inability to win the big games loses its biggest one yet.

This was the scene after the Falcons lost the NFC Championship Game to the San Francisco 49ers, 28-24, at the Georgia Dome on Sunday.

"We played well," Blank, the owner of the Falcons, said to a group of family members and friends as he waited to hear Smith, the coach, address the media. "Almost …"

Blank’s voice trailed off to silence, and the normally eloquent man became enveloped by a forlorn expression. After Smith talked to the media, he and Blank exchanged a hug, and then Smith did the same with Dimitroff, the general manager.

But the real tears came in the locker room. That’s where Gonzalez and McClure, the two elder statesmen of the team, lost it.

"You play your whole career …" said McClure, the center, who then broke into tears and went silent for about 20 seconds.

"You play your whole career," McClure eventually continued. "To get in this situation, and to come up short is tough."

On the other side of the locker room, Gonzalez, the veteran tight end, was saying basically the same thing and also shedding tears. Some of Gonzalez’s tears might have been because he said he is pretty sure he’s going to retire after a 16-year career. But there also is little doubt he was crying due to the way the Falcons lost the game.

As Gonzalez said he would probably retire, McClure said he wants to play another season. But, after what happened Sunday, I’m getting the feeling Gonzalez and McClure could play another 10 or 20 years and the Falcons still wouldn’t be capable of getting to the Super Bowl -- unless there are some dramatic changes.

The three previous playoff losses during the era of Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan were bad, but this one was horrible.

This one showed, just when it looked like the Falcons were going to turn the corner and show the world they really aren’t postseason chokers, that's precisely who they are.

I didn’t hear a single coach or player try to sugarcoat this one, and that’s fitting because there truly was no excuse for this.

The Falcons jumped out to a 17-0 lead, and employees at New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong International Airport were probably already stocking up on eggs to greet the team upon its arrival for Super Bowl XLVII.

Instead, the Falcons promptly laid a huge egg. They let the 49ers creep back into the game before halftime. Then, they completely folded in the second half. There were two turnovers, two costly personal fouls and even Ryan, the supposed master of the comeback, couldn’t pull off a late miracle and put the Falcons in the end zone, even though they were just 10 yards away with a little more than a minute left.

"It’s tough when you are [10] yards away from the Super Bowl," White said in perhaps his only useable quote of the day.

There were plenty of unusable quotes in a locker room in which profanities, spawned by frustration, were abundant.

The Falcons should be furious about this one. It was their best chance yet to get to the franchise's first Super Bowl since the 1998 season.

Instead, they squandered a 13-3 season and the benefit of a No. 1 seed for the second time in three seasons.

For all the good the Falcons did this season (and they did at least get a playoff win against Seattle last week), they’re right back where they were at the start of the season. And the start of the season before that.

Go ahead and fire away with the same old questions and criticisms.

Smith is too nice to win the big ones. Ryan can win in the regular season, but not when it matters most.

It’s all valid. In fact, now the Falcons have firmly earned the right to be questioned and criticized from now until the day they win a Super Bowl -- if they ever do.

Put the blame on the coaches, and put the blame on Ryan. The Falcons scored 24 points in the first half and precisely zero in the second half. Ryan fumbled away a snap out of the shotgun formation and threw an interception. A team that prides itself on not making mistakes made plenty of them. There were the two personal fouls and repeated breakdowns on defense.

Let’s not forget what might have been the biggest issue of all.

"Covering the tight end," Smith said. "The tight end was an issue."

The tight end (Vernon Davis, who finished with five catches for 106 yards) was a huge issue, mainly because the Falcons inexplicably didn’t bother to cover him.

But let's forget the individual breakdowns for now. It’s time to start wondering if there’s a more systemic issue with the Falcons. Is there some inherent flaw with this personnel, with this coaching staff and with the way the Falcons do things?

They had everything: a ton of talent, an incredibly loud home crowd and a big early lead.

Yet the Falcons have squandered yet another postseason opportunity. After all the talk about how -- this time -- this team was really, truly different, it turns out the Falcons are nothing but the same old Falcons.