ATLANTA — With training camps set to open around the NFL, owner Arthur Blank wants the world to know that the Falcons plan to remain Super Bowl contenders for the foreseeable future.
“I think we are in a great position,” Blank said before receiving a Lifetime Achievement award from the Atlanta Sports Council last week. “I look forward to this year and many years to come. It’s not about the one-trick pony or the one-year wonder. It’s about creating a sustainable organization, and we’ve done that.”
Baltimore, Jacksonville, Chicago, Dallas and New Orleans open training camp Wednesday. The Falcons, the defending NFC champions, are set to report the following Wednesday, July 26.
When Blank purchased the Falcons in February 2002, he vowed to turn around the moribund franchise.
He studied several of the top franchises in the league who have sustained their success over decades. The Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots are the teams he has mentioned most.
During his first ownership meeting, then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue introduced him to Patriots owner Bob Kraft, who instructed him to run the team like he did Home Depot, as its co-founder.
Kraft advised Blank to take those same business standards, values and accountability measures and apply them to the football operation.
Heading into his 15th season of ownership, Blank finally believes the Falcons, after some travails and triumphs, are in that conversation of teams who are set to contend annually for the Vince Lombardi trophy.
“This most important thing about last year is that it was a great honor to play in the Super Bowl,” Blank said. “It was a great honor having the wonderful season for our franchise, but, for me, what I take away, the greatest honor from last year, I feel that we have what we’ve envisioned for many years, which is a sustainable winning organization.”
Blank purchased the franchise for $545 million. Forbes released its ranking of the top 50 most valuable sports teams in 2017, and the Falcons were the 33rd most valuable team. Based on the top 50 list, the Falcons are worth $2.13 billion.
The Falcons were founded in 1966 and went to the playoffs in only six seasons before 2002. The team never had back-to-back winning seasons until the 2008 and 2009 seasons under Blank’s fourth head coach, Mike Smith.
Before Blank purchased the Falcons, they won just two division titles, one conference championship and played in one Super Bowl, in the 1998 season.
The team that consistently struggled to sell out the Georgia Dome before the Blank era is set to move into the spectacular Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Aug. 26.
Blank’s tenure got off to a bumpy start and he fired Dan Reeves. Before last season, Reeves was the only coach to guide the franchise to the Super Bowl.
After having some success after drafting Michael Vick, the franchise went into another tailspin when the quarterback went to jail on federal dogfighting charges, and coach Bobby Petrino left late in the 2007 season.
Blank hired Thomas Dimitroff as general manager and Smith. They struck NFL gold by drafting quarterback Matt Ryan with the third overall pick.
The Smith-Dimitroff regime ripped off five consecutive winning seasons, but poor drafting along the offensive and defensive lines led to a 10-22 mark over the 2013 and 2014 seasons. The Falcons were within 10 yards of reaching the Super Bowl after the 2012 season.
Blank elected to retain Dimitroff, who agreed to a power-sharing arrangement with the new coach, Dan Quinn. Blank has described the relationship in medical terms. Quinn is the doctor, and he tells the personnel department exactly what he needs, and their job is to fill that prescription.
So far, Dimitroff and assistant general manager Scott Pioli have been knocking it out of the park with some dazzling drafts and shrewd free-agency moves.
“I love our head coach,” Blank said. “I love our general manager. I love our coaches and coordinators and the whole personnel department. I love a lot of the talent that we have. All of the talent that we have, a lot of the talent that we have on both sides of the ball is young.”
Falcons CEO and president Rich McKay confirmed at SEC media days last week that the new stadium will be ready for the Falcons’ exhibition season opener Aug. 26.
“We are thrilled with it,” Blank said. “I’ve found a lot of new definitions of the word ‘iconic’ in terms of times, schedule, costs, schedule and structure. But it’s going to be a spectacular stadium. A spectacular center really for Atlanta, both for the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United, our soccer team, for many years to come.”
While not mentioning the Braves, who left the city to play in Cobb County, Blank touted the location of the new stadium, which is adjacent to the Georgia Dome.
“I’m happy that it’s in the heart of downtown,” Blank said. “I’m happy it’s close to so many other great venues in the city. So, I’m thrilled with all of the activity that’s taken place on the west side, as well.”
There were some costs overruns. The final cost of the stadium will be well over $1 billion and likely close to $1.5 billion.
“Our goal is to build the finest sports entertainment complex in the United States,” Blank said. “I think you’ll see that in September when we open up officially. Some fans, we see it before that in August.”
Blank is pleased with the first season of Atlanta United, which is setting MLS attendance records while playing at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium.
“I had great confidence in Atlanta,” Blank said. “I had an advantage, having moved here in 1978. I co-founded Home Depot in 1979 and have seen a lot.
“I remember the second year of Home Depot we were projecting that after starting out with four stores, we might get to six or seven in Atlanta. I think there are close to 100 stores in Atlanta today. … I’ve always had great confidence in Atlanta.”
Blank reflected on his adopted city as a sports fan and owner since moving to Atlanta.
“Back in ’96 we hosted the Olympics, (in 1995) when the Braves won the World Series, last year when we were making a run for the Super Bowl, there was incredible energy there,” Blank said. “What’s happened in Atlanta, starting this season with our soccer franchise, has been unbelievable. Those are three or four of the things that all have kind of come together.
“Atlanta has seen a lot of wonderful things on the sports scene since I’ve been here since 1978. We are looking forward to things going forward.”
D. Orlando Ledbetter writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: dledbetter(at)ajc.com.