GM will likely come before new coach

The first order of business for the Falcons figures to be hiring a general manager.

Updated: December 11, 2003, 5:40 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- One of the early complaints Arthur Blank dealt with when he was the co-founder of The Home Depot and not the owner of the Atlanta Falcons was the problem customers had in getting to the upper reaches of the home fix-up stores.

Blank has been aware, ever since, of the significance of the top shelf. Fact is, as both a businessman and now the owner of a sports franchise, he is regarded as a top-shelf guy. And that figures to become pertinent in the next few weeks, as Blank starts the ambitious project of refurbishing the inner-workings of his football team.

Count on a process wide in scope, one that results in Blank finally filling out the general manager position that has been vacant since he purchased the team, and concludes with he and his new front office management team securing a top-shelf head coach to replace the deposed Dan Reeves.

As we noted several weeks ago, it might be worthwhile to lay a wager that Tampa Bay general manager Rich McKay, first sought by Blank two years ago, will go north a few hundred miles to head up the Falcons organization. There are two reasons Blank has never filled the general manager job. First, he was previously unable to wrest McKay away from the Bucs. Second, he could find no other candidate he felt came close to McKay in filling out the profile he desires for the job.

Interesting note: McKay on Tuesday was attending a two-day league workshop for salary cap managers and front office types, and several times left the meeting to answer his cell phone. Just a hunch, but we're guessing a few of those calls at least were from Blank, as he apprised McKay of the Reeves situation.

Blank already has a picture of McKay in a Falcons' baseball cap, taken a year or two ago when the two shared a round of golf, and the bet here is that the Atlanta owner soon gets to remove that photograph from his desk and mount it on his office wall.

The name of former Green Bay general manager Ron Wolf, who rejected a four-year, $14 million contract offer from Blank two years ago, has surfaced again. If someone throws a monkey wrench in the McKay deal, like Bucs ownership demanding that the Falcons pay them compensation to let the general manager out of the rest of his contract, Wolf could be a factor. But the huge favorite is McKay, who has been McCoy about his future when questioned about rumors he will leave the Bucs at season's end.

It is always nettlesome when people begin listing candidates for head coach jobs. The term itself connotes an element of requited interest -- some wink or nod of the head from a pursued coach that, yeah, he would be willing to talk -- and the process in Atlanta is not yet far enough along for that to have occurred.

Of course, most veteran NFL observers aren't na´ve enough to believe that Blank and his lieutenants haven't already cast a lengthy net of inquiry. In fact, when Reeves found out second-hand that Blank and his Falcons operatives were already conducting background checks, the reality led the Atlanta coach to press the issue with his boss.

So if you want a laundry list of potentialcandidates for the Falcons job, think of men with high profile in the Atlanta area, a place that is a hotbed for SEC and for ACC football. At or near the top of the wish list, certainly, could be LSU coach Nick Saban. It will take a huge financial offer to get him out of Baton Rouge, where he has new offer on his desk that could make him the highest-paid college coach, but Blank probably will not allow money to be a deterrent in his decision.

Don't rule out college coaches like Kirk Ferentz (Iowa), Frank Beamer (Virginia Tech) or Ralph Friedgen (Maryland). A longer shot might be Bob Stoops (Oklahoma).

Among the current NFL assistants, there really isn't a so-called "hot" guy, but keep the name of St. Louis defensive coordinator Lovie Smith in mind.

Even if Blank and team vice president Ray Anderson were not on the NFL's workplace diversity committee, the search would be very inclusive, given the background of the Atlanta owner and his past emphasis on diversity. Smith has done a superior job this year and once worked on the Tampa Bay staff with, you guessed it, McKay.

Former Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green, who is sending signals now that he could work with the right general manager, could be in the mix as well. No one should count, though, on a speedy resolution. Blank seems inclined to have a general manager on board first and, even with the somewhat adversarial relationship between the coaching and personnel staffs in Tampa, it could take a while longer to pry McKay free.

After all, it always take a while to climb the ladder to reach the top shelf, right?

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Len a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

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