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Our Views: Blanks turn to hand off
Falcons need a leader, not a cheerleader
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Atlanta Falcons Owner Arthur Blank answers questions at the team's Flowery Branch facility during Wednesday's news conference. - photo by SCOTT ROGERS The Times

One wonders if Arthur Blank, as he contemplated his NFL team's gauntlet of ill fortune in the last week, considered asking the league for a refund.

In a short period of time, his Atlanta Falcons have gone from promising to pathetic, both on the field and off it. And Blank, despite his sincere efforts, has to wonder whom he can still trust.

It all began with optimism when Blank bought the team six years ago. A franchise known for its losing and tepid fan interest suddenly became a hot item. Blank lowered ticket prices and juice up the game-day atmosphere in the Georgia Dome. Buoyed by rising star quarterback Michael Vick and a roster full of potential, Flowery Branch's home team made the playoffs in two of Blank's first three seasons as owner.

But since playing in the NFC Championship Game in January 2005, the Falcons fell from 8-8 to 7-9 to this year's 3-10 mark. Worse, fan interest in a team with just 10 winning seasons in 42 years is again on the wane.

Monday was perhaps the franchise's worst day ever. It began with Vick headed for a 23-month federal prison term for financing a dogfighting ring at his Virginia home. Later, the Falcons were pounded by their longtime rivals, the New Orleans Saints, 34-14, in a Georgia Dome partially filled with bag-wearing fans.

Then Tuesday, it was learned that first-year coach Bobby Petrino had jumped ship in a hog-shaped lifeboat, headed back to the college game at Arkansas with three games to play. Suddenly, the team with no hope also had no leader.

Blank was left reeling and angry. The co-founder of Home Depot has put his heart and soul into the Falcons and gotten them stomped on. That pain was evident, first as he talked of Vick's fall from grace, then again Wednesday when he spoke of Petrino's defection. The usually calm Blank repeatedly pounded the podium as he spoke of Petrino's "betrayal" and pointed out that the coach failed to live up to his own words when telling his team to "play all four quarters."

And that was mild compared to what the players had to say. After months of fighting Petrino's poor communication skills and dictatorial style, they spared little animosity in describing their former leader. When you raise the ire of Warrick Dunn, arguably one of the nicest guys to ever tote a ball in these parts, you've crossed way over the line.

And who can blame them? This is the guy who quit his job by phone, and didn't even speak to his players; he left a printed form letter in each of their lockers. Safety Lawyer Milloy had his tacked up by his locker with a big X on it and the word "coward" written in for Petrino's name. Ouch.

Longtime assistant coach Emmitt Thomas will coach the team today in Tampa Bay and for the rest of the year, and may have little trouble inspiring them after Petrino's disappearing act. If ever this team was unified, it is now, if only in total contempt for the guy who just a few days ago was their boss.

As for Blank, he must wonder what kind of cutthroat business he has wandered into. Sure, the do-it-yourself home hardware industry is tough, but the NFL makes it look like patty-cake.

He has been lied to and betrayed by two of the people he trusted most. First Vick, whom he treated like an adopted son, even pushing him around the sidelines in a wheelchair after his 2003 ankle injury. Then Petrino, who earlier Monday told Blank he was staying put, even while the jet to Fayetteville was warming up.

In short, the Falcons are in a hole because neither Vick nor Petrino had a heart, and Blank has too much of one.

Blank has worn his emotions on his sleeve and embraced his players and coaches, perhaps too tightly. In the dog-eat-dog world of pro sports, team owners must often remind players and fans that it's a business. Now he needs to heed that same advice.

It starts with the choice of a new coach. The Falcons must pick wisely and be sure to hold the new coach to the kind of standard on and off the field that Petrino failed to meet. He must win, but he also must communicate with players, fans and the media effectively in order to restore the franchise's good name after this year's humiliating debacle.

And while Blank will no doubt stay involved, he needs to turn over the key decision-making to General Manager Rich McKay and his front-office staff. Blank trusted his gut with his other two coaching hires, Jim Mora and Petrino, and both let him down. It's time for him to back off and let the football side of the operation be less guided by his hands-on approach.

Blank then needs to follow the lead of most of his fellow owners and get off the sideline. Quit slapping players' behinds and looking over the coaches' shoulders during the game. Stay up in the booth, sign the checks and focus on the big picture. The team needs a boss, not another cheerleader.

Football is an emotional game at the field level, among fans, players and coaches. But the guys in charge need to be clear-headed bottom-liners who run the team like a business. That's how teams that succeed consistently conduct themselves.

Blank has allowed his love and devotion for his team get in the way of making it better. His well-intended but naive faith in people who didn't justify it have driven the Falcons into an abyss few pro sports teams have reached. To find their way out will take brains, patience and determination from all involved, starting with the man at the top.

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