This time last year the Atlanta Falcons organization was embroiled in what seemed to be never ending turmoil. The face of the franchise, Michael Vick, ultimately pleaded guilty to charges related to dog fighting (he is currently serving a 23-month sentence in federal prison). Then, with three games left to play, first-year head coach Bobby Petrino abruptly quit to take over at the University of Arkansas.
All the hard work of billionaire owner Arthur Blank had resulted in this. Upon purchasing the Falcons in 2002, Blank took an organization from consistently having one of the NFL's lowest attendance records to garnering a season ticket waiting list of over 90,000 requests. In what must have seemingly felt like a final knockout blow, stadium seats were empty and the waiting list virtually gone. A harsh reality for a gentleman who co-founded one of the nation's most successful companies, Home Depot, and who attributes much of his success to an inherent belief in customer satisfaction. No one could have prevented it.
After an offseason that brought in a first-time head coach and general manager, in addition to a rookie quarterback, improving on last season's 4-12 record seemed like an optimistic goal. Nine wins later and having clinched a playoff appearance, a recent headline in the Atlanta Journal Constitution read, "Falcons in Super Bowl Not So Far Fetched."
As the proud owner of the comeback team of the year, Mr. Arthur Blank spoke via phone to go "In Depth" ... Below is a brief excerpt from our NBCSports.com Q&A interview.
Bensinger: Coming into this season, your expectations were what?
Blank: That we'd have a team that would be competitive. That was my hope and aspiration. I loved the work that Thomas Dimitroff and Coach Smith had done in the offseason with free agency and the draft. I liked the work our players had done during spring practices and then through training camp. I was probably more optimistic than most, but I obviously didn't think we'd end up in the playoffs this year. I'm thrilled for Atlanta and our organization.
Bensinger: Your reaction when you first heard the rumors about Michael Vick being linked to dog fighting.
Blank: I didn't believe it. I had no reason to believe it. Before I even spoke to Michael, people who I spoke to initially who had already spoken to Michael said he denied it. He told me and our coaching staff and a number of other people in our organization that he wasn't personally involved. Clearly, it didn't turn out that way. Then, it became shock, disappointment, and obviously a certain degree of anger as well.
Bensinger: How much communication have you had with him while he's been in jail?
Blank: He and I have written probably three or four times back and forth. I haven't seen him, but we've stayed in touch in that way. I've been supportive of the process he's going through. Hopefully, after spending a couple years in jail, he'll come out a different person. I'm hopeful that will be the case and certainly wish that for him, his family, and the National Football League.