EXCLUSIVE Q&A: Blank discusses front office, new coach and PSLs

PHOENIX – Falcons owner Arthur Blank, after attending commissioner Roger Goodell’s “State of the NFL’ address, granted an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday.

Blank has not commented since the team announced a restructuring of the  front office earlier this month in a press release.

In addition to a restructured front office, the Falcons are on the verge of naming new head coach Dan Quinn on Monday after the Super Bowl.

Falcons owner Arthur Blank at the Phoenix Convention Center discussing the team. (By D. Orlando Ledbetter/DLedbetter@ajc.com)

Falcons owner Arthur Blank at the Phoenix Convention Center discussing the team. (By D. Orlando Ledbetter/DLedbetter@ajc.com)

In the interview with columnist Jeff Schultz and Falcons beat writer D. Orlando Ledbetter, Blank was vague about the team’s hierarchy, but did discuss assistant general manager Scott Pioli’s expanded role, that he was not trying to emulate Dallas owner Jerry Jones, the expected impact of a new head coach and the premium seat licenses.

Here’s what Blank had to say:

Q: Could you explain the recent restructuring that was announced in a press release?

A: I felt like we had a tremendous untapped resource in the building in Scott Pioli, who has had an incredible history with some remarkable achievements prior to New England and at New England where he was the senior vice president in charge of player evaluations. He’s been executive of the year a number of times. He built a Super Bowl winning team there. He and Thomas have a relationship and Thomas brought him in in 2014. They have worked well together. It was a year of transition for them and for us understanding what Scott can do for us. Thomas obviously has been a general manager since 2008. Seven years and has been voted twice as executive of the year in the NFL so we felt that it was an opportunity to maximize the use of Scott and still have Thomas function as the general manager and work closely with Scott . . . .maintain a responsibility for the draft, free agency and obviously with contracts and the salary cap and all of the other things that a general manager does today, he’ll certainly be involved in those as well.

Q: Did you feel the change was necessary after the past two years?

A: I felt it was a way . . .every time in every organization you want to maximize the talent that you already have on board. Coaches do that by putting players in the best position to win. As an owner is this case, it’s my responsibility to make sure that we get our talent, that I have some control and say over, into the best position for them to (succeed) as well.

122914 ATLANTA: Falcons owner Arthur Blank (from left), GM Thomas Dimitroff and President Rich McKay take questions during a press conference following the firing of head coach Mike Smith at the Arthur M. Blank Foundation on Monday, Dec. 29, 2014, in Atlanta.  Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

122914 ATLANTA: Falcons owner Arthur Blank (from left), GM Thomas Dimitroff and President Rich McKay take questions during a press conference following the firing of head coach Mike Smith at the Arthur M. Blank Foundation on Monday, Dec. 29, 2014, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

Q: You all came out with this release on a Thursday or Friday or whenever it was and there was no comment from anybody and nobody has been available. Was there a reason that it was done that way?

A: I didn’t think a press release was appropriate or necessary to talk about the re-assignment responsibilities. I thought in the press release we explained it well. Obviously, when we have an opportunity when we name the new head coach (on Monday), we would hope that most of that would be focused on the new head coach, but we will entertain any questions that anybody may have about the (restructured front office).

Q: It seems like you’ve taken (Dimitroff) out of the scouting aspect . . .

A: That’s not accurate or true. The fact is that’s his roots. That’s his history and he’s had great success and a fair amount of success with us. If you go back and look at the draft of 2008 and in free agency, there was a lot of success in there. There have been some failures, too as every general manager has had in the National Football League. He will still be involved in the process working with Scott. Scott will be running the draft process, the college scouting process and free agency. Lionel Vital, who has got great insight and experience on the pro side will be working with Scott as well. He’s very heavily involved, too. We feel like we have two incredibly talented guys and we are going to get the benefit out of both of them together.

Q: Some people looked at it as a strange dynamic with Scott overseeing scouting in college and overseeing pro personnel and answering to Thomas?

A: That’s not unusual at all. There are many, many, if not most organizations in the NFL where you have a senior executive involved with personnel that runs either college scouting on pro (personnel) and reports to the general manager. In some cases they report directly to the general manager often times with a vice president of personnel or some version of that who is actually running the process and making decisions off the recommendation or in conjunction with the general manager.

Q: You mentioned your objective from Scott’s standpoint and why you wanted to bring him into . . . give him more responsibility. How about from Thomas’ standpoint was there a thought to take some things off his table? Keep him in the office more?

Arthur Blank, Atlanta Falcons

Falcons owner Arthur Blank pauses before answering a question during his end-of-the-season press conference following a 4-12 finish at the Arthur M. Blank Family Office on Monday, Jan. 6, 2014, in Atlanta.

A: Not, necessarily. It wasn’t really (anything) from a personal standpoint with me, Scott or Thomas. They are two talented individuals who have a great deal of experience and a great deal of documented success. We want to make sure that we are using two of them in the most efficient way that we can to support the franchise and support our new head coach.

Q: Has Thomas’ power or responsibility been diminished at all?

A: We don’t use the word power in any part of our organization, either the franchise or any of the other businesses that I’m involved. His responsibility is as the general manager and that hasn’t changed. The structure beneath him has changed. That happens often in every area of our business and we will continue to define roles as things change over time.

Q: Will the new structure keep him at home more? In the office more?

A: I suspect that he’ll be in the office more than he’s been in the past. The job as a general manager today continues to become more complex. The areas of responsibility have become greater over a period of time. I think it’s becoming a little less of on the road, talent-evaluation kind of job and more I think all of the other elements of being general manager. Obviously, we’ll want to go out and see players and make sure that you maintain you contacts.

Q: What other elements are there for the general manager?

A: The general manager is responsible for salary cap, which is a huge factor in contacts, contract negotiations and other different areas. Video areas. There are a variety of areas like the logistics of the team and logistics of supporting the head coach in a variety of ways, moving the team from here to there. It’s a very complex business.

Q: Was it partially your objective to have him go more in that direction and less about going out to scout a player at Colorado?

A: That wasn’t my objective at all. My objective was to maximize the talents of each of these people Scott has had a great background. We wanted to give him more of an opportunity to use that talent as he’s demonstrated in the past.

Q: I know you have no aspirations to be Jerry Jones sitting down breaking down film or be an active general manager, but has it been your objective over the past couple of years, and in particular this offseason, to take on more responsibility or become more involved in the football operations?

A: Absolutely not! That has not changed since 2001. I’ve said this publicly and by the way, I have great respect for Jerry Jones. He has a rich background in football. Jerry is the general manager of Dallas and Dallas had a very good year this year. Putting that aside, I would said that it’s rare, very, very rare for an owner to have the knowledge and the expertise to be making, in any way shape or form, any football decisions or having sway in those areas. I think as an owner you have responsibility to understand what’s going on in all aspects of the organization including the football (operations) and be able to communicate that to the fans and what have you and not have an interest. Most owners in the NFL have pretty good backgrounds in terms of business and from the business perspective. Most owners don’t have a rich background in terms of football. Their families may, but not in terms of making football decisions. My responsibility, in all of our

Falcons owner Arthur Blank was one hand for the first padded practice on Monday. (By D. Orlando Ledbetter/Dledbetter@ajc.com)

Falcons owner Arthur Blank was one hand for the first padded practice on Monday. (By D. Orlando Ledbetter/Dledbetter@ajc.com)

businesses, but certainly as it relates to the Atlanta Falcons, is to make sure that we hire the very best people. Give them the resources that they need and make sure that the culture is supportive of doing things in the right way. Basically getting out of the way and making sure they have the chance to do their job and do it well without any distractions at all.

Q: You picked the coach this time?

A: There was a group of us involved in picking the coach. I’ve done that and every owner in the NFL will do that.

Q: But did Dimitroff have a greater voice in picking the coach last time?

A: I would say not. I would say that the process that we’ve gone through in every case is a collaborative process. I respect the voices of a lot of people within our organization. Those voices I listen to, but at the end of the day the owner has to make the final decision and he’s expected to. Our fans expect that. That’s my responsibility.

Q: Is it fair to say there were a lot more voices involved in picking the coach this time that it was last time?

A: No. Not at all.

Q: How much of an impact can a new coach have on roster?

A: I think it can be significant. A new coach has to come in and evaluate the talent. The new coach has to decide what kind of schemes he wants to run offensively and defensively. Obviously, he has to communicate that to the position coaches and coordinators….in every position of leadership, in every organization including football, you want to put people in position where they can win. You want to figure out what are their strengths and put them in the best position where they can win. Hopefully, the new head coach can do that as quickly as possible. It would be unfair to whoever the new coach is to set up an expectation where next year we need to win 12 games. My aspiration is that we win 16 games next year and that we’ll be playing in the next Super Bowl. You want the effort. You want the building process. You want to make decisions . . . .the fans, the stakeholders want us to make decisions that are right for the long-term. This is a long-term decision that will give us an opportunity to get better. That was the reason for the decision. Whatever decisions the head coach makes will probably be geared to winning as soon as we can and building something long-term that’s

The Vince Lombardi Trophy. (By D. Orlando Ledbetter/DLedbetter@ajc.com)

The Vince Lombardi Trophy. (By D. Orlando Ledbetter/DLedbetter@ajc.com)

sustainable and viable.

Q: Could you say who was involved in the coaching search?

A: It was a group of us and we used the search firm.

Q: Outside of the search firm, how many people within the organization?

A: Three or four and there were some people in and out (of the process). We used the people that we thought could add value.

Q: Was Jed Hughes the representative from Korn Ferry?

A: Yes.

Q: Was Thomas involved?

A: The names are not important. It was a group that could be helpful and thoughtful. Based on our experience they could add a lot of value.

Q: What about Joe Banner? What’s his role in the organization?

A: I’ve known Joe for a number of years. He was president and general manger of the Eagles for I believe it was 14 years. He had a great track record and when we went to enter this process Joe simply said, ‘I have years of experience and I’d be happy to offer any perspective. I’ve have been through a search more recently in Cleveland and I may know some of the candidates.’ I’d been out of the head coach searching business for seven years. He was of counsel. He wasn’t involved in any of the interviews. His perspective and references that he was able to bring was helpful.

Q: Is he still a consultant to the organization?

A: No.

Q: Was he paid?

A: No.

Q: I know you can’t talk about the head coach, but could you confirm some of the assistant coaching hires?

A: We hope to announce the staff or have the head coach announce the staff at the same time or soon after.

Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn of the Seattle Seahawks, here speaking to media members Tuesday at Super Bowl Media Day, is considered the Falcons’ choice to be their next head coach. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn of the Seattle Seahawks, here speaking to media members Tuesday at Super Bowl Media Day, is considered the Falcons’ choice to be their next head coach. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Q: Why was no one made available to discuss the material changes in the operation of the franchise and why was there just this press release? Why has there been an intent that Thomas not speak and Scott not speak, the principles who were involved in this? It’s created a frustration and a lot of perceptions about what may or may not be going on in the organization and you may or may not agree, having access to people explain their roles could have lessened that.

A: I think it’s important to have access at the right time. We’ve been extraordinarily transparent since I’ve been the owner in 2001 with the media and will always continue to do that in every area. That’s not just my viewpoint. We’ve gotten great credit throughout the NFL for being available to the media to answer your questions and doing it openly. Sometimes timing is all relative. In our opinion the press release as it relates to Scott and Thomas was very clear. We knew that we were going to do a coaching announcement at some point and if anybody has questions relative to any aspect of our franchise at that point, hopefully it will be primarily focused on our new coach, but we’ll be happy to answer any questions at that time.

Q: Are you looking forward to having 92.9 The Game as your new flagship station under this three-year, $9 million deal?

A: They’ve been a good partner and we’re looking forward to the relationship with them and supporting our fans.

Q: Who will pick the players? The draft picks?

A: The draft process will be run by Scott and the free agency by Scott. He reports directly to Thomas. Thomas will make the final say. But the final say is really a misnomer because I think in the most successful franchises in the NFL, currently the process has final say. It’s not one person. If it comes down to a situation where there is a debate in the building, obviously at those senior levels…..you want to build a consensus over a long period of time of player evaluations and needs. . . .it shouldn’t come down to final say, power or those things. Those things are not indicative of a healthy organization.

Q: Ultimately, someone has to make the choice?

A: The process should make the choice. The process, the partnership, and collaboration should make the choice based on the needs of the organization. The needs of the franchise the way the coaches see it and the way the personnel department sees it. Both of the teams that are playing here Sunday are good examples of where there is extraordinarily high collaboration between the coaching staffs and the personnel departments. I think other teams that were playoffs this year. . . . the most successful franchises in the history of the NFL have that model and that will be our model.

Q: But the two teams here, it’s very clear that (Pete) Carroll and (Bill) Belichick pick the players. They make the final choice on the players.

A: I think they would both tell you that they would have final say, but the final say only in the context of the process.

Q: But again, getting back to the Falcons, who has final say?

A: We’ll be clear on that when our new coach is eventually signed. Then I will be happy to answer that question.

Q: You all can’t answer that right now?

A: No. Not until the coach is named.

Q: The draft, free agency or the 53-man roster?

A: There’s a variety of different questions in there. I’ve answered the other one a couple of times. . . . Scott is going to run the draft and free agency and he reports to Thomas.

Q: Thomas picks the players?

A: The process picks the players. No one person should pick the process. When we take a name off the draft board or decide in free agency, it’s never one person doing it. It’s the organization doing it. That’s true with Matt Ryan, the trade for Julio Jones, it’s a collective and collaborative effort, which is what you want in any successful organization.

Q: The PSL announcement has been made. How’s that going? What about some of the displaced fans who’ll have to give up their seats because of the economics?

A: We knew that PSLs and our fans knew for several years that they were going to be a part of the financing package for a new stadium. What we’ve said for several years is that our financing package would include a PSL component and it will not be as comprehensive as you see in a number of stadiums like San Francisco, the Jets, Giants, etc. So, ours will try to be as diverse as it can be. But at the end of the day, the stadium is being designed, both in terms of seating, and in terms of fan amenities and fan experience, to make sure that we have the kind of exposure and experience that invites the right diversity into that stadium and that we continue to have fans to enjoy it from every perspective.

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