Few documentary series in sports can rival HBO's groundbreaking "Hard Knocks." The near-annual miniseries gives viewers the best inside look at the nation's most popular sport, providing a preseason glimpse into the NFL to which few ever had previously enjoyed access. And yet for four years, from 2003 to 2006, the show remained dormant for a simple reason:
None of the teams wanted to do it.
And then before last season, when five teams declined to be featured, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had seen enough, declaring that subjects for the show would be picked by the league. There were rules, as there always are with Tsar Roger I, and they were almost simple.
If your team didn't want to do the show, they wouldn't have to do it, provided that they had one of the following: A first year head coach, a playoff appearance in one of the last two seasons, or if they had done the show within the last 10 years.
One could almost imagine the scene at the NFL owners meeting in Orlando: The league's 32 franchise owners, seated in a circle, with Goodell on his knees in the center of the room, begging for a suitable team to just do the damn show.
And up from one side of the room comes the hand of Arthur Blank, owner of the Atlanta Falcons.
We'll do it.
That's not how it worked out, exactly. The Falcons hadn't formally committed to doing the show until earlier this month. And Blank's team was one of the five asked to do "Hard Knocks" 2013, declining at the insistence of their head coach, Mike Smith. But now, after Smith turned in the team's worst season since 2007, the head coach was overruled.
Part of that must have to do with Blank himself, who has stood in the shadows of the Georgia Dome since buying the team with his Home Depot money in 2002. He is unquestionably the architect for the team's improvement, although he hasn't followed the Jerry Jones blueprint (not coincidentally). And though the 71-year-old hasn't actively sought out credit for the improvement of the franchise, he may be making more of a push to do so now. We could be seeing the evolution of an owner that has become more comfortable in front of the cameras, and 2014 might be the year that we see him stepping closer to the center of the frame.
Super Bowls are where the fans board the bandwagons.
His relationship with his estranged wife saw some resolution last February, when Stephanie finally served her husband with divorce paperwork. [Getting a bad romance off the books can only be a positive.] But Blank has been unusually out in front after brokering a new stadium deal, an expansion MLS franchise, and sending his NFL team to London for an International Series game this season.
Of those, the stadium deal is easily Blank's biggest win, and not only because the team's new digs will effectively guarantee that Atlanta will be hosting at least one more Super Bowl in the near future. The retractable-roof venue, scheduled to open in 2017, was not only a win against the growing contempt for publicly-financed stadium deals. It was also a win against another in-town rival. After Blank and the city of Atlanta shook hands, baseball's Atlanta Braves were left to work a deal with neighboring Cobb County for a new home of their own. When considering the vast regional reach of the Braves compared to that of the Falcons, it would be fair to call this an upset.
And while the Falcons are continually working to, ahem, rise up in the city of Atlanta, they'll also make a pitch to win over the rest of the world. They'll face Detroit in Week 8 this season in London's Wembley Stadium (kickoff at 9:30 am Eastern time). So while the Dallas Cowboys might be known as "America's Team," it's not too silly to suggest that Blank is setting up the Falcons to be "the world's team."
But that's not to suggest that the Falcons franchise presents the same level of prestige as the Cowboys. No, even though we love to pretend that the league's 32 teams are all equal (What's up, Cincinnati? Hi, Cleveland), they are not.
The Cowboys' ridiculous moniker of "America's Team" has stuck with them for a reason, and if you've ever seen a Cowboys parka in Des Moines or a baseball cap emblazoned with a blue star in Kentucky, you'll know why. [And as I just typed that last sentence, sitting here in a Myrtle Beach McDonald's, I spotted a guy walking out of the men's room wearing a DALLAS KNOWS Cowboys T-shirt. The Jones Boys have serious reach.] People, it would seem, just decide to be Cowboys fans and never evolve. They're the still-having-an-AOL-email-address of football fandom.
That's not to say that there is a Gmail equivalent to this analogy. Surely the Green Bay Packers have generated a lot of consumer surplus for their fanbase of late. The Pittsburgh Steelers have long been contributing to sellout games not just in their own stadiums, but those of their opponents. And one would be hard-pressed to name a fanbase more, if we can use this word, deserving of a Super Bowl victory than the Seattle Seahawks.
The Atlanta Falcons are not in that stratosphere yet, though now they appear to be making a push to reach that level. As it stands now for the on-field product, this is a very good team with a very good quarterback, a very good wide receiver and little else. They got their asses whipped on both sides of the line last season, and in previous seasons seemed more than content to show up for their home playoff games with their golf clubs in the trunks of their cars. (Hey, it's Atlanta. You can golf in December down there.)
If the Falcons want to catapult themselves into the NFL's elite, they need one thing: Hardware. Vince Lombardi Trophies (yep … plural) are what separate the great teams from even the very good teams. Those are the clubs with the magnetism for bandwagon fans.
But that's what the Falcons are up against: Looking for first-rate glory with a second-rate roster.
Super Bowls are where the fans board the bandwagons.
It's fair to wonder whether such a rise could happen with a Mike Smith-coached team. A popular maxim in football is that teams take on the personality of their coaches. But what if your head coach has no personality?
Were it not for his snow-white hair, Mike Smith would be a completely generic, store-brand NFL leader. He had been the defensive coordinator in Jacksonville for four years before being tapped to lead the Falcons in the wake of Bobby Petrino's bizarre departure from the team. After Petrino abruptly resigned with three games left in his first season, Blank could be forgiven for taking substance over splash with his subsequent hire.
Enter Smith, who before last season had done nothing but finish among the top two teams in the NFC South every year he was in charge, winning at least nine games in every campaign. Smith has demonstrated faith in his franchise quarterback, Matt Ryan, who has missed only two starts in his six-year career, and has thrown for at least 4,000 yards and 26 touchdowns in each of his last three seasons. And we haven't even mentioned Julio Jones, whom the Falcons traded five draft picks to nab in 2011. He's as good as it gets at the wide receiver position.
What Smith and Ryan haven't been able to produce is postseason success. Their closest step to the Super Bowl was losing to the Niners in the NFC title game two years ago, before taking two steps backward with last year's 4-12 campaign. The team wasn't good enough to compete last year, and Atlanta faces the dubious fact that the rest of the NFC South has caught up with them. And the front office's strategy of renting great players past their prime—Tony Gonzalez, Steven Jackson, and Osi Umenyiora, to name three-—has regressed toward the mean.
In short, their prospects of acquiring hardware this season look grim.
But that's what the Falcons are up against: Looking for first-rate glory with a second-rate roster. It's a tall order for a franchise that has continually found itself, for lack of a less dramatic way to put it, on the wrong side of history. We mentioned Petrino's sudden departure; would that have happened to the Cowboys?
And then there was their best player of the 2000s, Michael Vick, being busted by the feds for operating a dogfighting ring in Virginia. And even when the New Orleans Saints made their post-Katrina run to their Super Bowl win, the Falcons were almost pitted as villains against destiny, the NFL's answer to the LeBron James-fronted Miami Heat.
If there's one man who can dig his football team out of such literal and figurative holes, it's the 71-year-old with the moustache that would have Alex Trebek nodding with approval.
Arthur Blank may not deliver the Lombardi to Atlanta this year. But placing a long-term bet against him would be unwise. It won't be long before Blank sits in that giant silver football on the 50-yard-line with that trophy in his hand, with a nation watching it rise up over his head.
Josh is a freelance sportswriter, analyst and host. You may know him from such websites as Deadspin, Kissing Suzy Kolber, With Leather, WashingtonPost.com, and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @JoshZerkle.