A few nights after the Falcons were drop-kicked out of the playoffs, Arthur Blank and his two football lieutenants went out to dinner. There in a Midtown restaurant sat the team’s owner, the general manager (Thomas Dimitroff) and the coach (Mike Smith), emotionally facedown in their soup.
“It was just the three of us together, reflecting back,” Blank said. “It’s sort of like going to see a therapist. You go there to work through any issues you have and then you try to get ready for the future. You’re just trying to get some of the hurting out of the way so you can move on.”
For the record, that hasn’t happened yet with Blank.
He is as emotionally invested as any owner in professional sports. He admits he’s still psychologically hung over from the Falcons’ 48-21 loss in the Georgia Dome two weeks ago. He is going to Dallas for Super Bowl week – only he’s not really going to the Super Bowl.
“I leave Thursday, we have meetings and then the hosting owner [Jerry Jones] always has a party Thursday night,” Blank said. “Then Friday morning the commissioner has a press conference, and I’ll go to that. Friday afternoon I’ll go to radio row for interviews. Friday night is the commissioner’s party. Saturday we were going to have a league meeting but that’s been canceled, so I guess I’ve got some free time.”
“I’m coming home Sunday morning — mostly because I’m still pissed about our game,” he said.
He allowed himself to think the Falcons could get to Dallas. He knew the 13-3 record, the bye week and two potential home playoff games didn’t come with guarantees. But what happened in the Georgia Dome blindsided him, as it did most.
“You don’t look ahead,” Blank said, “but we certainly believed we would get deeper than we did.”
He said no major reassessment of the franchise is needed. He still believes the Falcons are trending upward and have become one of the “national” and “relevant” franchises in the NFL, based on three consecutive winning seasons and two playoff berths in the Dimitroff-Smith-Matt Ryan era. He said he doesn’t think the loss will hurt the team’s marketing efforts in the offseason, although that’s probably more the salesman in him talking than the realist.
Finally, there’s this: Blank says he has changed from the newbie sports owner who bought the franchise from the Smith family in 2002. He says he’s more “controlled.”
Comment: “My emotional thermometer is different than when I first became an owner.”
Maybe so. But not by much. The man still wears his emotions on his sleeve.
Late in the third quarter against Green Bay, he watched from his private box as the Packers scored their scored fifth consecutive touchdown to take a 42-14 lead. Fans began to stream out of the Georgia Dome.
“People said to me, ‘You must be upset about that,’” Blank said. “I said no. I wasn’t upset that they were leaving, I was upset about the way we were playing. The fans were incredibly supportive all year. After that third quarter, it would’ve taken a miracle just to come back and make the game competitive. It was like the fans were getting hit on the head with a hammer, and it wouldn’t stop. The only way they could make it stop was by leaving. So they left.”
Blank’s head was still throbbing the following week when NFL meetings were held in Atlanta. During a lunch break, he sat with New England owner Robert Kraft, whose team was stunned in its first playoff game by the New York Jets (the day after the Falcons’ loss).
“There we were, the owners of the two No. 1 seeds, having lunch,” Blank said, managing a chuckle. “Nobody else sat at our table. We were two sorry sacks. You never get used to it.”
Final story: Blank was inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame on Friday. It was there he came in contact with Kathleen Bertrand, a gospel singer who sang the national anthem at the event. Bertrand told Blank that she performed the anthem at the Falcons’ last playoff win in 2004. She had hoped to sing it at another game during the season but had trouble getting in contact with the right person.
“I said if I knew that, I would’ve made sure she sang it again [at the playoff game],” Blank said. “But it probably wouldn’t have made a difference.”
Not unless she could play cornerback.
By Jeff Schultz