ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Falcons accelerated their search for a new coach on the first day of their offseason by interviewing Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and San Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.
Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris interviewed on Friday. The team was 4-7 under Morris, completing a 4-12 season after coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff were fired following an 0-5 start.
The Falcons closed the season just as they started, with five consecutive defeats. They set a season high for points allowed in Sunday’s 44-27 loss at Tampa Bay.
Owner Arthur Blank said Monday he will not place limitations on what moves a new general manager and coach can make. He said that includes decisions on the team’s most accomplished leaders: quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones.
“You can’t hire the very best people you can hire, whether it be general managers or coaches, and then tie their hands,” Blank said.
Blank said the Falcons’ third consecutive losing season “doesn’t represent any aspect of our goals.”
“Most would say this is a roster much better than 4-12,” Blank said. “That doesn’t mean change is not necessary. It is necessary.”
When asked his timeframe for building a winner, team president Rich McKay said, “We want to win in 2021.”
The Falcons announced they conducted a virtual interview on Monday with Bieniemy. On Monday night, the team announced it had also interviewed Saleh remotely.
Bieniemy and Saleh also are being pursued by other teams with openings.
The defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs led the NFL in total yards and yards passing and ranked second in scoring, making Bieniemy, the former NFL running back, an attractive target for teams seeking new leadership.
Morris said Sunday his interview “went well.”
“It was fair,” Morris said. “It was long. It was definitely appreciated.”
4-12 BUT ‘NOT FAR AWAY’
If Blank and McKay wanted to hear a candidate say a total rebuild is not needed, Morris likely delivered the right message. He told reporters following Sunday’s loss he believes the Falcons “are not far away.”
Asked what the Falcons need for a turnaround, Morris said, “We have to find a way to be able to run the ball more consistently. We have to find a way to get after the quarterback with our four-man rush. If we can do some of those things, we are going to be the team to beat and we’re going to be a team to deal with moving forward.”
Blank made several references to the roster’s talent and said some of the same players remain from the 2016 Super Bowl team.
Even so, Blank said “we can’t fool ourselves” and noted, “It’s not that we were one or two games away from where we needed to be. We were a lot of games away from where we needed to be.”
RYAN PLANS TO RETURN
Dimitroff had been Atlanta’s general manager since 2008, when he made Ryan his first draft pick. Now the 35-year-old Ryan’s future will be one of the first decisions that must be made by the new coach and GM.
The durable Ryan played all 16 games and completed 65% of his passes for 4,581 yards with 26 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
The NFL South is led by two quarterbacks who are in the 40s and headed to the playoffs, Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady and New Orleans’ Drew Brees, That gives Ryan reason to believe he will continue as Atlanta’s quarterback in 2021 and beyond.
“I think I’m here,” Ryan said Sunday. “I feel like I can be a really good football player for this team for a long time, but no one knows. You never know in this league what can happen, but I feel good about it. I want to be here and I want to be a part of getting this turned around and get back in the playoffs.”
The real quarterback question in Atlanta may be whether to look for Ryan’s eventual replacement, perhaps with the No. 4 overall pick in this year’s draft. If Ryan is viewed as a quarterback who can lead the team for a few more years, then the first-round selection can be used to address an immediate need at another position.
Blank said Ryan’s backup, 39-year-old Matt Schaub, is retiring.
Ryan’s good health and production are not the only reasons he feels good about his chances to be back in 2021. His 2021 salary-cap figure is almost $41 million and includes a dead cap hit of $49.9 million if he’s traded. Jones’ dead cap hit in 2021 is $38.55 million.
The Falcons face decisions with such unrestricted free agents as center Alex Mack, running backs Todd Gurley and Brian Hill, safety Keanu Neal, defensive ends Charles Harris and Steven Means, and defensive backs Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Darqueze Dennard, Damontae Kazee and Sharrod Neasman. Pro Bowl kicker Younghoe Koo also is facing free agency.
The Falcons already have conducted virtual interviews with former Houston Texans GM Rick Smith and Atlanta’s director of college scouting Anthony Robinson in their search to replace Dimitroff.
McKay said there will be more interviews of GM candidates this week.
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