Atlanta needs to aim high and throw deep in its head coaching search

At long last, the Atlanta Falcons have the chance to escape the blast radius of 28-3.

You know the backstory here. Super Bowl LI, 2017. Just minutes away from winning the first Super Bowl in their half-century-long history, the Atlanta Falcons committed every sin, mistake, miscue and misfire imaginable, and the New England Patriots took maximum advantage. The Falcons became a rallying cry in the worst possible way. No matter how dark the prospects, no matter how long the odds, remember 28-3.

Rival teams gloat about it every chance they get; anyone with an Atlanta affinity is advised to stay off Twitter every March 28. Saints fans have turned 28-3 mocking into high art. The national media — including, yes, this very column — won’t let Atlanta forget it.

The fundamental problem, though, is that the Falcons themselves haven’t done anything to obscure the memory of that miserable Super Bowl. What should have been a foundation for the team’s future was, instead, the pinnacle.

After a run-it-back 10-win season with the same personnel that reached that Super Bowl, Atlanta has posted win totals of 7, 7, 4, 7, 7 and 7. That would be six straight losing seasons, with, as expected, a total of zero division titles and zero playoff berths. This, despite playing in the weakest division in football and, in 2023, playing one of the easiest schedules for any team in recent memory.

That woeful run has cost two head coaches their jobs — three, if you include interim head coach Raheem Morris, who took over for the fired Dan Quinn for 11 games in 2020 — and only fed into the long-running perception that this franchise is more cursed than a pharaoh’s tomb.

But from crisis comes opportunity. Thanks to now-former head coach Arthur Smith’s good-for-the-slots, bad-for-the-NFL run of three straight 7s, Atlanta has the chance to reimagine the face of the franchise and potentially hand the keys over to a familiar face.

The Falcons have interviewed half a dozen candidates for their head coach position, and the social media team has dutifully posted notice of each one … which has led to incongruous sights like Bill Belichick superimposed on the Falcons’ logo:

And, of all people, Jim Harbaugh:

(Side note: If the NFL wants to draw in-season numbers for off-season content, broadcast these interviews. Wouldn’t you want to see how Belichick and the Falcons sized each other up? Or how Harbaugh answered questions about, well … everything from 2023?)

This isn’t Falcons owner Arthur Blank’s first attempt at luring a legendary coach. Back in 2007, Blank wanted Bill Parcells so badly that he flew to Parcells’ home — only to have Parcells effectively stiff-arm him, to the point of taking then-Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga’s calls while Blank was still in another room of his house.

There’s definitely some question of fit. Both Belichick and Harbaugh would demand more of a cultural overhaul than Blank may be willing to concede. But, like a hypothetical Belichick-to-Dallas deal, either one of these coaches would bring immediate nationwide attention to the Falcons … and, if either man coached at the level of his past performance, legitimacy.

Thing is, for all its on-field woes, Atlanta has the infrastructure already in place to be a top-tier franchise. Mercedes-Benz Stadium, with its dramatic iris roof, is one of the finest in the league, if not the world. Blank has shown he’ll spend money to make players happy, and Atlanta is a vibrant town for professional athletes. Atlanta fans are front-running, yes, but that means when you’re in front, they’re right there alongside you, loud and in numbers. And the Falcons already have a core of highly talented players on both sides of the ball, including Bijan Robinson, Drake London, Kyle Pitts and Tyler Allgeier. There’s a whole lot to work with for the right chef.

And that’s why the Falcons need to swing big. Bring in Belichick. Bring in Harbaugh. Give Nick Saban a call. Send a helicopter to Athens, Georgia, to lure Kirby Smart. Consult the ghost of Vince Dooley; try to track down Texas high school coach Eric Taylor. Yes, a largely anonymous young offensive coordinator or defensive coordinator would be the smart, if conservative, play. But when you’re as far down in the pit as the Falcons are right now, baby steps aren’t going to get you very far.