FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank kept his word. Now it’s up to his team to deliver a championship.
Blank promised to reward top players Julio Jones, Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones with contract extensions this offseason. Despite some angst among the fan base, the deals eventually materialized. First was Jarrett, who signed a four-year, $68 million extension that included $42.5 million guaranteed. Then came Deion Jones with a four-year, $57 million extension with $34 million guaranteed.
It concluded with Julio Jones’ lucrative three-year deal worth $66 million. The entire contract is guaranteed and makes Jones the highest-paid wide receiver in the NFL in terms of guaranteed money. Throughout the entire process, Jones insisted he trusted Blank’s word that a deal would get done. And it did.
The Falcons have a large chunk of their core in place for the next few years and beyond: Quarterback Matt Ryan signed a five-year, $150 million deal ($100 million guaranteed) last year; star running back Devonta Freeman is signed to a five-year, $41.25 million contract ($22 million guaranteed) through 2022; and left tackle Jake Matthews is signed through 2023, thanks to a five-year, $70 million extension ($32.4 million guaranteed).
Blank never wavered on his words, saying numerous times how he expected players such as Ryan, Julio Jones, Deion Jones and Jarrett to be “Falcons for life.”
Coach Dan Quinn appreciates having a supportive owner willing to invest in the roster.
“No. 1, he is a man who walks his talk,” Quinn said of Blank. “If you followed him through his time with the franchise, I’ve admired that from afar. And now getting to be a part of it going on for five years, I wish other people could see him lead behind the scenes. It’s pretty remarkable when you see him in his element.”
Blank, however, isn’t going to award lucrative deals for mediocrity. He expects championships, and his appetite was whetted when his MLS soccer team, Atlanta United, brought home a title. The Falcons franchise, which Blank purchased in 2002, has never won a Super Bowl.
Blank, who turns 77 on Sept. 27, was asked how important it is to him to win a Super Bowl.
“I think it’s important, first of all, to live a long time, so I hope to win multiple Super Bowls,” Blank said. “Beyond that, I think the most important thing is that we do everything we can to build a competitive roster, year after year after year. Have the best facilities in the NFL — best stadium, best training grounds — to support the team. And we do everything we can — from a salary-cap management standpoint, player selection, evaluations, drafts, free agency — to have a competitive team on the field.
“If we do all those things and we do them well, we’ll win our [conference] championships and, hopefully, win Super Bowls.”
He might not admit it publicly, but Blank probably still has nightmares about the Falcons’ blown 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl LI loss to the New England Patriots. Those memories might creep back into his head during a Week 5 trip to Houston, when the Falcons take on the Texans in the same NRG Stadium where the Super Bowl implosion occurred.
The onus falls back on Quinn to maintain a championship-level roster and compete for a Super Bowl, now. Anything short of the playoffs this season will be considered a failure and probably lead to some significant changes, whether it be with the front office or the coaching staff.
Quinn was asked whether it put more pressure on him to succeed based on the financial commitments made by Blank.
“No, it doesn’t,” Quinn said. “You want to dominate for the guy. You don’t want to feel more pressure. It’s the exact opposite. You want to go 1,000 miles for this guy, like, ‘I would do anything for this person.’ I want success for [Blank] more than anyone else.”
Quinn obviously feels having Blank’s backing is more a relief than a burden, allowing him to proceed and build a team he believes has championship qualities. Although last year’s 7-9 implosion had plenty to do with a rash of injuries, personnel changes were made with hopes of getting back on track.
Quinn parted ways in the offseason with offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong and defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel and replaced them with Dirk Koetter, Ben Kotwica and himself, respectively. Quinn seems to have energized the defense through training camp, although the true test will come on Sundays in the regular season. Plus, Quinn has tinkered with new defensive wrinkles with 4-3 and 3-4 fronts, some shades of the 46 defense, and even a three-safety look. It helps to have versatile defensive linemen, speed at linebacker and wise defensive backs such as safety Ricardo Allen who can help get everyone lined up correctly.
The offense might have looked a little off through the first couple weeks of training camp, but it’s hard to look your best with top receivers Julio Jones (toe) and Calvin Ridley (hamstring) rehabbing on the side. Koetter, back for a second stint as offensive coordinator, is known for a more pass-oriented attack, and he has a plethora of pass-catching threats to work with, including Freeman out of the backfield.
The Falcons prioritized rebuilding the offensive line in the offseason by not only adding veteran guards James Carpenter and Jamon Brown in free agency, but by selecting guard Chris Lindstrom and tackle Kaleb McGary in the first round of April’s draft.
Injuries are a part of the game and could affect the roster again this season, but it doesn’t mean they should be used as an excuse. That’s why developing quality depth behind the starters is so critical.
Ryan previously said this is a Falcons team capable of not just getting back to the Super Bowl, but winning it. Quinn’s job is to instill that type of confidence in the group for the entire season, regardless of what adversity might arise along the journey.
“That’s always where we want to get to, but we’ve got a lot of stuff to do,” Quinn said of the Super Bowl. “I wouldn’t do what I’m doing and feel like I feel and say, ‘In my whole career, this is the most excited I’ve been to go to a training camp.’ It’s not just because I love football. Yeah, that’s been my whole life.
“So what makes this year different? It’s the players: their connection, their belief in one another. That’s why I feel this way.”