BY JEFF ZELL / AJT //
As a native Atlantan who has followed the Atlanta Falcons since 1971, not once in all my years have I had the feeling the team was going to win the Super Bowl before the season even started. Sometimes I got my hopes up during the regular season, like in 1980 when SPORT magazine labeled the Falcons a “dynasty in the making.”
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I could practically taste the Super Bowl when the Falcons went 14-2 and upset Minnesota in the NFC Championship Game to advance to the big game in 1998. In 2010, I was cautiously optimistic when the team was the top seed in the NFC before losing to Green Bay. But this is the first year I have looked at the team going into the season and thought, “I really think they are going to win the Super Bowl.”
I think the offense will be even more amazing in 2013 with the addition of running back Steve Jackson. His ability to catch the ball out of the backfield will be the ingredient we need to open up the offense the way we all imagined it would a few years ago when the Falcons made the astute move to trade up and draft Julio Jones.
The defense is good enough, especially in the red zone, to keep opponents out of the end zone a sufficient number of times to win games in this high scoring era. In the last few years, the points the Falcons defense has given up have been significantly lower than the yardage allowed might lead you to believe.
But the biggest reason that this is the Falcons’ year is because I have faith in the team’s hierarchy. As I said, I am a native of Atlanta, and I truly believe that Arthur Blank is the best owner a sports franchise in this city has ever had. Yes, that includes Ted Turner, for whom I, like many who care about Atlanta sports, have great fondness. The reality is that Turner owned the struggling Atlanta Braves in the mid-1970s and didn’t really have a model franchise until the team hired John Schuerholz in 1991.
Yes, 1982-1984 were solid years, but this team didn’t win 90 games until Schuerholz came to town and then did so almost every year during the 14 consecutive first place finishes. The point is Turner really wasn’t the driving force that made the Braves into a model franchise. When you take into account his ownership of the Hawks and add the Thrashers to the mix, no one can honestly say Turner is a great sports owner. Given a top general manager in baseball, he was a great owner. Given any other setup in baseball, his basketball team and certainly the moribund Thrashers, he was not. However, there is little doubt that Blank is the driving force behind turning the Falcons into a special franchise. The only team on his ownership resume has been turned completely around.
When the Mike Vick scandal hit, many felt the Falcons would once again be losers for years. When the man who makes Benedict Arnold look like a loyal friend – Bobby Petrino – quit as head coach in the middle of the night midway through a season, it really looked as though the Falcons were in for several years of futility. But Blank didn’t flinch. He hired Thomas Dimitroff from the Patriots to run the day-to-day operations of the team. Dimitoff then hired the then-unknown Mike Smith, who has turned out to be the best coach in Atlanta Falcons history. Dimitroff drafted Matt Ryan and signed Michael Turner and the rest, as they say, is history.
Since the season Petrino and Vick left, not only are the Falcons no longer a mess of a team, but they haven’t had a losing season in five years. Amazing that a franchise which never had two winning seasons in a row – at one point without a head coach or franchise quarterback, could start a streak of five consecutive winning seasons. The former failures are now a model organization with a new stadium on the way and a great chance of winning a Super Bowl. It has not only been Blank’s decision to hire and allow Dimitroff and Smith to run the team, but his resolve to back them up with his wallet as well, that makes him a great sport franchise owner.
The willingness to sign off on Dimitroff’s bold move to trade up and draft Jones is the perfect example of how an owner not only allows his people to make their own decisions, but is willing to spend big bucks to back them up. With Roddy White already on the team, Blank was willing to spend huge money to pay another receiver who would require a big payday because of his selection as the fifth player taken in the first round. Not every owner would be willing to do that, especially with a number one receiver like White already on the team making millions.
In addition, the team announced last week that quarterback Ryan has signed a franchise record, five year-$103.75 million dollar contract guaranteeing that he will be wearing a Falcons uniform during the prime of his career. Atlantans responded by buying all the remaining single game tickets in one day, meaning that all home games are now sold out and will be on local television.
Give a weak person one hurdle and he is often likely to fail. Give a smart and inventive person many hurdles, and he will almost always fight until he triumphs. The bottom line is that Blank had the will to do what it takes to turn the franchise around almost immediately from its lowest point. The lone person of significance who was with the Atlanta Falcons during the Petrino/Vick era and is still here to see this franchise flourish is Arthur Blank. Yes, Rich McKay, a very good man with solid football sense, is also still with the team but with a significantly different role.
In my 42 years of being as hardcore of an Atlanta professional sports fan as I think is out there, Blank buying the team from the Smiths ranks is one of the most important and positive days in the city’s sports history. Barely a decade into his ownership, Arthur Blank has turned the Falcons around in the same vein as John Schuerholz did with the Braves. And for that reason, I think he is the greatest professional sports owner this city has ever had.