ATLANTA — In the room leading to his office, Arthur Blank has proudly displayed a football commemorating the first back-to-back winning seasons in the history of the Atlanta Falcons.
Looks like he’ll need a new ball.
The Falcons (11-2) have already gotten a third straight winning mark out of the way, setting their sights on much loftier goals. With three weeks left in the regular season, they’re tied with New England for the best record in the NFL and talking openly about something this franchise has never done: Winning a Super Bowl championship.
“There are different stresses that come with winning,” the team’s charismatic owner told The Associated Press, breaking into a smile. “But I like those a lot better, and so does everybody else around here.”
Blank has certainly seen things from the other side. Just three years ago, the franchise was in shambles. Star quarterback Michael Vick headed off to prison for running a dogfighting ring. Coach Bobby Petrino abandoned the team after just 13 games.
The Falcons started over — new quarterback, new coach, new general manager — but those who thought it would take years to bounce back were way off the mark.
Atlanta reached the playoffs the very next season, then removed the stigma of never having put one winning record after the other since joining the NFL in 1966. Now, with his team heading into the homestretch of one of its best seasons ever, Blank can take a bow for seemingly making all the right moves.
Hiring spikey-haired Thomas Dimitroff as general manager looks like pure genius. Pairing him with little-known coach Mike Smith was the equivalent of hitting the daily double. And drafting quarterback Matt Ryan to replace Vick completed the triple crown.
The 68-year-old Blank is justifiably proud of his decisions, but he isn’t ready to celebrate just yet.
“It’s important to just stay focused and maintain a sense of humility about ourselves,” Blank said during a recent AP interview at his palatial office just north of downtown Atlanta. “It’s interesting,” he added, pausing to take a sip of Coke while flames crackled in the fireplace. “It’s one of the things that comes with a little maturity as an owner.
“You don’t let the highs get too high, and you don’t let the lows get too low.”
The Falcons were about as low as they could go in 2007, a year that began with the ballyhooed hiring of Petrino, one of the top coaches in the college game. Known as an offensive mastermind, he was supposed to turn Vick into a complete quarterback and not just a running marvel.
The two never got a chance to work together.
When Vick’s sordid dogfighting pursuits in his home state of Virginia came to light, his meteoric career with the Falcons was over. Petrino didn’t even bother hanging around until the end of a dismal 4-12 season, returning to the college ranks at Arkansas.
“That was very difficult,” Blank said, “because of the relationship this city, the fans, had with Michael, and the fact that a number of us had a trust relationship with him.”
Even before Vick traded his Falcons uniform for prison stripes, Blank had been criticized for getting too cozy with the franchise quarterback — going all the way back to 2003, when the owner pushed his star on the field in a wheelchair after he went down with a broken leg.
In hindsight, Blank believes he didn’t get close enough.
“Not only do you need to understand what your players are doing when they’re in your city, but when they go back home,” he said. “You need to know enough about the player, their family, their culture and their environment, to get a real sense about them. It’s not a matter of putting tails on everybody but really understanding more about them — not less about them.”
Through all the hard times, Blank never lost hope, according to his wife, Stephanie. He felt the lessons learned as the co-founder of Home Depot would surely translate to the NFL franchise he bought in 2002.
“He was always optimistic about this team,” she said. “Now with this amazing season, he feels better about where this team is going. There was a lot of hard work put into this great season. He expects more to come.”
Blank puffs out his chest just a bit when the subject turns to Dimitroff and Smith, who are fast becoming one of the league’s premier GM-coach duos.
Dimitroff was hired on the recommendation of former NFL executive Ernie Accorsi, who was enamored with his knack for evaluating talent even though he didn’t exactly fit the mold of the typical general manager.
“Ernie said to me, ‘There’s this guy with New England. He actually lives in Boulder, Colorado and he’s the typical Boulder guy. He’s got long hair and he rides a bike and he eats a lot of weird food,’” Blank recalled, chuckling.
As for Smith, Blank wasn’t all that interested until he got a call from former Falcons assistant Joe DeCamillas, who was then working alongside the Jaguars defensive coordinator and gave him rave reviews.
“In both of those cases, I give myself some credit,” Blank said. “One of the attributes that I think is very important in running a business is that you listen.”
While Blank largely stays out of the football side of things, he’s hardly a casual observer. He gets a preview of the game plan each week and always makes a point to come down from his luxury box in the fourth quarter, joining his players and coaches on the sideline. At one recent home game, he whipped up the fans to make more noise in the closing minutes of a tight contest.
“Arthur wants to be down there with us at the end of a ballgame,” Smith said. “The thing I like about it is, regardless of the outcome, he’s down there to give us support.”
The players are quick to dole out praise to their owner, as well, and it comes across as more than just mandatory loyalty to the rich guy signing their paychecks.
“Not only does he know the city, but what the team means to the city,” said receiver Brian Finneran, one of the Falcons’ senior members. “He put more of a face on the franchise than we had in the past.”
As for Vick, he’s made a remarkable comeback of his own with the Philadelphia Eagles, possibly putting him on a collision course with his former team in the playoffs. Blank kept in contact with No. 7 while he was in prison, and called to congratulate him after he took over as the starter for the Eagles.
As uncomfortable as it may seem, Blank said he wouldn’t mind facing Vick in, say, the NFC championship game.
“I’m happy for him, I’m happy for the NFL, I’m happy for the Eagles,” the owner said. “The only time I won’t be happy is when we’re playing each other. But we’ll go out there and compete and treat him like any other quarterback we play.”
Blank has moved on, and he believes the Falcons are moving up to become one of the NFL’s elite franchises — a far cry from a team that had reason to celebrate consecutive winning seasons.
“In these last three years, I’ve finally gotten the pieces together,” Blank said. “How far we’ll go this year remains to be seen, but I think we have the pieces and parts together so that looking forward for the next three, four, five, six years, this team will become what I call an important team in the National Football League.”