Arthur Blank means business.
While this move may be painted to look like two buddies reuniting, as Pioli and general manager Thomas Dimitroff worked together with both the Cleveland Browns and New England Patriots, Pioli's presence suggests that Blank is not comfortable in the direction of the current product as presently constructed.
Nor should he be.
After all, the current regime only has one playoff win to its credit and is coming off a 4-12 season that was preceded with the mantra, "10 yards away..." That mantra is a reference to the Falcons' defeat at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.
While that type of thought process is great to generate fan fervor, it's not one that should be circulated among the front office. But the Falcons treatment of the offseason suggests they too bought into that mantra.
The Tony Gonzalez Debacle
A lot of people are afraid to say it: The Tony Gonzalez "retirement" situation was handled poorly by the Falcons' brass. As great as the future Hall of Fame tight end was, propping up one player above the rest of the team is absurd.
Now don't get me wrong, if there's any player in the NFL that deserved the "Brett Favre treatment," it's Gonzalez. His productivity and talent may only be superseded by his character. You couldn't ask for a better combination of football player and role model.
I get all that.
But for the sake of preaching that goals are achieved through team unity, having Gonzalez skip the majority of the offseason preparation is a flat-out football sin. Furthermore, who's to say that another player won't attempt to take these liberties?
While we think that other players understand the situation, it's only human to want to be extended the same privileges as someone who you know is only working as hard as you are. And it wasn't as though Gonzalez was performing charity work. He had 7 million reasons to conduct his final season (the second one) with a business-as-usual approach.
For someone like Dimitroff, who operated under the motto "the Patriot way" (which is the ultimate team-oriented motto) for the formative years of his career, overseeing a situation that could be potentially divisive seems out of the ordinary.
While in New England, Pioli—along with head coach Bill Belichick—was notorious about doing right by the team as a whole. Notable players like Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel, Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law, Asante Samuel and Deion Branch were all jettisoned (or were left to walk away) under less-than-ideal circumstances.
In the case of Branch, he was traded (after stalled contract negotiations) one year after being named the most valuable player of the Super Bowl.
The Super Bowl! But instead of being held hostage by a player who was a key cog in procuring the Lombardi Trophy, New England decided to stick to its motto and put the team above all else.
And for its effort it was rewarded with another trip to the conference title game (against the Indianapolis Colts in 2006)...where they seemed to be only "10 yards away."
When Dimitroff first took over Atlanta it seemed as if it were exactly modeled after New England. Led by an ultra-accurate quarterback in Matt Ryan (similar to New England's signal-caller Tom Brady in his early years), but anchored by a defense that forced turnovers at an inordinate clip, the Falcons played some of roughest, toughest smashmouth football in the NFL.
The offensive line was full of Neanderthal-looking, and acting, players like Harvey Dahl, Tyson Clabo and Todd McClure. Teams would often complain that the unit bordered on dirty play—due to its propensity for playing hard to the whistle (and sometimes through it).
Opponents knew that when they walked into the Georgia Dome two things were expected: They were either going to leave with a loss, or in pain, but most of the time both. It can be argued that if Atlanta stuck with its initial philosophy it might be a franchise akin to the Seattle Seahawks or San Francisco 49ers—ascending teams that will maul and brawl you to victory.
But in un-Patriot-like fashion, Dimitroff—along with head coach Mike Smith—sought out to be like the explosive teams that continually stood in their way. The New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers and Arizona Cardinals all had success with a skill player-led approach.
And all three teams beat the brakes off Atlanta at one point in time. So in an effort to follow the perceived trend, Atlanta switched its entire approach and became "explosive," which is a foreign word for soft.
Being soft might work for a year or two in the NFL, if you're fortunate enough to get most of your tough games at home, or receive the benefit of a soft schedule. But the minute you have to go on the road, or face a team that can dominate both lines of scrimmage, you're in trouble.
And that's exactly what happened to the Falcons this past season.
Instead of looking to bolster its offensive and defensive lines, the Falcons thought that bringing in a productive running back would be the final piece to the puzzle (as they did with Steven Jackson). But as they found out, it becomes hard to execute a high-performance act when you can't run or stop the run.
And it becomes even more difficult when you have to dig your QB out of the dirt multiple times a game. Now, Blank has brought in a man that is known for building teams from the inside out.
As the general manger of the Kansas City Chiefs, Pioli never lost the integrity of the line of scrimmage. Their problems were centered on the QB. The one season they received competent play at the position they went 10-6 and he was named executive of the year.
His teams were always competitive even though they lacked talent at the skill positions. This was due, in part, to their ability to control the trenches.
With Blanks comments on being "tougher," as told to Vaughn McClure of ESPN, and the subsequent hiring of Mike Tice (offensive line), Bryan Cox (defensive line) and Pioli—you can plainly see how this has become a make-or-break season for the Red and Black.
Blank has hired three prominent NFL personalities to come in and undo what has been done under the current regime. If this were to happen at our respective jobs, we'd all be filling out resumes right now.
And if the Falcons fail to post a winning record or make the playoffs next season, the current staff will be on Monster.com blowing the dust off its collective resumes.
This shows that Blank will do whatever it takes to put a winning product on the field for Falcons fans. And it also puts every employee on notice that heads are going to roll if they are unable to right the ship.
Which would be a lot better than all the eye-rolling we did watching that product last season.
Rise up, Atlanta.
After covering the rival New Orleans Saints for the 2013-14 season, Atlanta native Murf Baldwin returns home to cover his hometown team in 2014. Follow Murf on Twitter and welcome him home.
Follow @ MurfBaldwin
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