After 21 years of ownership, Arthur Blank has witnessed his fair share of firsts. Very few things in those two decades quite touch the firsts he experienced with the Falcons salary cap figures of the last three years.
Last year, the Falcons took over $86 million in dead money on the chin (yes, those are general manager Terry Fontenot's words). It was the largest dead money hit in league history.
This year, the Falcons are currently looking at having the second-most cap space in the NFL, close to $60 million, maybe more the closer the organization gets to the start of the league year in March. After taking that dead money on the chin in 2022, it allows the organization to be at a much healthier financial level in 2023.
Oh, and that near $60 million in cap space? That's a first for Blank.
"In my 21 years of ownership," Blank said, "that's 50 percent more than we've ever had before."
Catching up with AtlantaFalcons.com on Wednesday afternoon, the Falcons owner thought back to the early days of Fontenot and Arthur Smith's hiring process. At the time, Fontenot and Smith brought forth a plan to Blank, a way to get the organization out of salary cap purgatory. Two years later, they've done it.
- Ryan Nielsen explains his coaching philosophy, and why Falcons were a perfect fit
- Charles London joins Titans as passing game coordinator
- Rookie Review: Desmond Ridder; Tyler Allgeier; Drake London; DeAngelo Malone, Troy Andersen
- Falcons positional breakdown: Quarterbacks; Running backs; Receivers; Tight ends; Offensive line, Defensive line; Edge rushers, Inside linebackers, Secondary
- Question of the Week: Who do you re-up in 2023?; Analyzing Nielsen, Gray hires
What Blank remembers most from those early conversations was the conviction Fontenot and Smith had in basing this plan in reality.
"I think one of the things that I was impressed with was that they saw the facts for what they were," Blank said, "and they wanted to make sure - from their standpoint - that they had an owner who understood that this wasn't going to be a one-year wonder, that they weren't going to flip this thing in one year."
Blank understood this from the outset of turning the page to the organization's next chapter. He doesn't point fingers or place blame on the previous regime's contract decisions, saying the organization was in a different place with a different set of circumstances when those deals were struck. Just because the plan didn't work out, Blank said, doesn't mean the decision at the time were not well thought out.
Still, it was Fontenot and Smith who were left in the wake of those decisions, but they had a plan, one that has taken time to execute, but one that was executed nonetheless.
"I feel they understood the reality of where the roster was, what they had to do to get it where we need it to be and that it was going to take a year or two to do it and I think that's exactly what it has taken them," Blank said. "I think they're on schedule. If anything, I'd say they are ahead of schedule."
Blank feels this way because of what he's seen on the field the last two years. No, the Falcons haven't broken over .500 yet. And no, they haven't won a divisional title. But for what this roster was for the last two years, being in games can be enough to show progress is being made.
For Fontenot, Smith and their staffs to "cobbled together" the rosters they did with the limited funds they had, Blank called that feat in and of itself remarkable.
Things are changing in Atlanta, though. There's a freedom in place that wasn't there before. Freedom from old, costly contracts. Freedom from salary cap constraints. Freedom from the binds of not being able to run the ball as an offense. Freedom from - let's be honest - age, too, as the Falcons have one of the youngest rosters in the league.
This freedom may not be all its cracked up to be, but for right now? It's a freedom that Blank is excited to live in for a little while.
"I'm more optimistic than I've been in many, many years," Blank said. "I don't think it's, 'Oh, you're just optimistic because you own the team.' Really, it doesn't have anything to do with that. It has to do with looking at the facts as they are and sizing up the roster the way it is and having the freedom that we've finally found ourselves in going into 2023 this year. I think it bodes well for us."
The fact of the matter is that the top performing players on this Falcons team in 2022 were players still on their rookie deals. The fact of the matter is that the Falcons have found value in free agency as well as the last two draft cycles even without the money to make a big splash. (Blank added that seeing the work of players like Tyler Allgeier, Drake London, Kyle Pitts - when healthy - and others has given him "great confidence" in Fontenot and Smith's abilities to make their selections on draft night as well as when free agency arrives).
More so, the fact of the matter is that the Falcons are beyond the dead money hit they took in 2022. They're in the position to bring in some top-level free agents if they so choose (and yes, Blank said, that includes signing their own guys). They have (at the moment) nine draft picks in 2023, including the No. 8 overall pick. They've establish a culture, an identity based in physicality if the hire of Ryan Nielsen as the Falcons next defensive coordinator didn't make that obvious.
"There's absolutely no confusion about the way Arthur Smith wants to play football," Blank added.
It's all of this combined that amounts to the owner feeling as optimistic as he does about where things are trending in Atlanta. It doesn't mean things are perfect. Far from it. It doesn't mean the work stops. On the contrary, it's just getting started.
What it means is that, finally, there's room to breathe. What the Falcons do with this space, this freedom, is still to be seen.
Blank said most people who are students of the game would say the Falcons organization is on the rise. There can be debates regarding what that means and what a successfully risen team accomplishes to back that up, and that will all come in time. Those debates will happen, and they should happen.
In the meantime, though, Blank remains consistent in feeling encouraged by where the Falcons organization finds itself in 2023.
"I have every reason to be more optimistic this year," Blank said. "I think our fans feel that way, too."
Join us as we take a look back at our favorite photos of our rookies from the 2022 Atlanta Falcons season.