Falcons owner Arthur Blank spent time this week with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to discuss his health and new perspective following recent surgery for prostate cancer, the state of his team’s roster and playoff chances for 2016 against the backdrop of criticism from fans and media.
Q: How’s your health?
A: I’m doing OK. I’m fortunate to get rid of the cancer as a result of the surgery, so I didn’t have any external or internal radiation. The surgery itself was successful. I’m cancer free. The pathology reports show that, all the tests show that. But when you go through that surgery, certain byproducts take time to work through. I’m a very patient person by nature, as you know. … I’m laughing now. So I’m getting through that process, but things are getting better. I’m certainly on the road to complete recovery.
Q: You’ve always been active and healthy. Have you had to curtail anything?
A: Not really. I lost 10 pounds, which is normal when you go through that surgery, and I probably needed to lose a few pounds so I’m happy about that. This particular surgeon is a strong believer in getting up and moving almost since the day of surgery. The day after surgery, he wanted me up and walking three miles. The first time he said that, I was shocked. I’m doing fine. I have a little cough now. I’m learning to play golf all over again, which is another source of frustration.
Q: You’ve been driven your whole life when it comes to your businesses and teams. How, if at all, has this changed you?
A: You went through your own family crisis. You understand, whether it’s you or a family member, you get to look at things from a different perspective. I’m 73 years old now, I’m getting married in June (to Angie Macuga). I have five children, six grandchildren, my fiance has three children. So I’ve got a lot of family to spend time with, to take care of, love, support, etc. And we have great folks running all of our businesses.
Q: You’ve said before you were going to step back and many of us have a hard time believing that. Are you serious now?
A: Absolutely. If you look at my calendar, I’ve absolutely stepped back. I’m very selective about how and where I spend my time. Even the time I spend at work, it’s in different roles. It’s less time in a lot of meetings for me and more time doing things that are important to me, making sure I spend time with associates.
Q: Given that, how closely have you been involved in this Falcons’ offseason?
A: I would say that probably hasn’t changed because both Dan (Quinn) and Thomas (Dimitroff) still report directly to me. Dan is in his second year and he has more clarity about what takes place during an offseason and his role and responsibility. I was in meetings initially when they went through player evaluations to understand the context of our existing roster. I was in meetings listening to their evaluations of draft picks, going through free agency, our options and who our targets would be. So I’m aware of the process and understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.
Q: How do you feel about post-draft angst, whether from fans or media outlets giving out draft grades?
A: NFL.com grades our draft an A. (Pro Football Focus) grades our draft a D. You really have to wait two or three years to look back on a draft class to see if it was successful or not. The one thing I would say that’s different for me this year: Dan, of all the coaches I’ve worked with, which is more than I would like, is the most specific in terms of exactly the prototype of player he wants for a certain position. To me, he makes Thomas’s job and Scott’s (Pioli) job and everybody’s job in personnel easier because he was real specific about what he wanted. We had some opportunities to go for some more name players, guys who fans were more familiar with. But Dan would say, “Great player. But he’s not going to be the best fit for this system.”
Q: Overall, how comfortable have you been with this offseason?
A: I’m very comfortable. The addition of Alex Mack is big. Football is not unlike baseball; you have to be strong up the middle. You have to be able to run and pass and Alex will help give Matt (Ryan) those assurances. He’ll help the people around him. I like the re-signing of (Adrian) Clayborn, the signing of (Derrick) Shelby, the signing of (Mohamed) Sanu, who I think will take some pressure off of Julio (Jones). I like the signing of (Courtney) Upshaw, who’s a proven tough guy who can play the run well. And I like some of the subsequent draft picks, the tight end (Austin Hooper) from Stanford. We really haven’t had that target at tight end since Tony Gonzalez left, although I thought Jacob Tamme played very well.
Q: Last year was sort of a tale of two seasons. Was it frustrating?
A: If I was being very optimistic, with a roster that turned over a lot and with totally new schemes on offense and defense, I would say, “Gosh, I’ll take 10-6.” We ended up 8-8. The way we went through the season was stressful. Starting 5-0 and 6-1, you have every reason to be optimistic that you’ll end up with a better record than 8-8 and in the playoffs. That was disappointing. It would’ve been easier emotionally if we had won one, lost one, and gone through that kind of cycle. I think our coach learned a lot and he understands more about our existing players now and what they can and can’t do. We had to go through transition with guys like William Moore and Roddy White, who had been a big part of the past. So I think we’ve had a very effective offseason.
Q: Do you believe the current roster, assuming no significant injuries, is a playoff team in 2016?
A: Yes, I do, because of the added talent and knowing the existing roster’s players and them knowing the schemes better. I think that will be evidenced on both sides of the ball. So my view is, yes, we will have a better team next year and we definitely should have a competitive team in the playoffs. I think Dan would say that too.
Q: There’s no hesitation on your part, even with a difficult schedule?
A: No. And you know the NFL: Sometimes the schedule looks like “X” and then when you play it, it looks like “Y.” Some teams are dealing with injuries, some teams are playing well or not playing well.
Q: Would I be overstating it to say there’s a playoff mandate?
A: I wouldn’t use that word. I’m optimistic and hopeful that would be the case, but I wouldn’t say there’s a mandate. The flip side of that answer has connotations to it that I’m not comfortable with.
Q: But is there any way you can quantify the importance of next season for the franchise and the people in football operations?
A: We expect to see progression in every way. We expect progression from our coaches and our players and, as a result of progression, we expect to see a better result. I feel like the roster is better. I feel like the players on both sides of the ball understand more specifically what coach Quinn wants and they’ll have a better understanding of the concepts and the execution.
Q: The fact you’re moving into a new building next year, which factors in fan support and economics, doesn’t that increase the importance of success in 2016?
A: Not at all. We’ll do what we have to do to win, whether the building is 100 years old or is brand new. We’re always going to do exactly the same things to try to be successful.
Q: Do you define success differently now than you used to?
A: My attitude has always been that we want to be a sustainable, important team in the NFL, and I mean sustainable on the field. For five years we did that, with coach (Mike) Smith and Thomas. We were in the mix. We had five consecutive winning seasons. After a couple of tough years, we all felt it was the right thing to make a change. I want to see us get back to that point where we’re in the conversation as a significantly competitive team every year in the NFL. I think we have the ability to do that.