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Blank feeling used, 'abused'

December 16, 2007|From the Associated Press

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Arthur Blank must feel like a jilted lover.

The Atlanta Falcons owner keeps putting his faith in people such as Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino -- showering them with praise, lavishing them with millions of dollars, handing them the keys to his most valued material possession, his NFL team.

They keep breaking his heart.

Vick is behind bars, his career with the Falcons most assuredly over as he gets started on serving a nearly two-year sentence for dogfighting. Petrino is on the recruiting trail at Arkansas, having slipped out of town after coaching Blank's team for only 13 games.

"Do I feel used?" Blank said. "Actually, I feel abused."

Blank was a hugely successful businessman -- he co-founded The Home Depot -- and his purchase of the Falcons in 2002 was seen as bringing some much-needed professionalism to a down-and-out franchise, but one can make the point that his team is actually worse today than it was when he took over.

He doesn't have a quarterback. He doesn't have a coach. He doesn't have many reasons to be hopeful about the immediate future.

In some ways, Blank sounds as though he longs for the days when all he had to do was run a multibillion-dollar corporation.

"In business," he said, "you don't have these kind of surprises in most circumstances."

Vick's secret life and Petrino's hasty departure have surely taken on a toll on the Falcons' owner, though in different ways.

Blank had eagerly built his entire franchise around Vick, and with good reason. He was a quarterback like no other, a guy blessed with the arm strength of Dan Marino and the running ability of Barry Sanders.

Vick moved merchandise, as Blank might have said in his previous line of work, though in this case it meant selling out the Georgia Dome and getting folks to buy anything with No. 7 on it instead of selling plywood and plumbing supplies.

But Blank has come under criticism for the way he handled Vick, going back to that infamous episode in 2003 when the owner pushed his employee onto the field in a wheelchair while he was recovering from a broken leg. At best, the move came across as a tacky photo op; at worst, it showed how beholden Blank was to the NFL's most dynamic player.

Blank has denied that he coddled Vick, but at least one former Falcons employee, speaking on condition of anonymity because he still works in the league, has said the owner was warned about Vick's shady activities off the field.

Instead, Vick was rewarded with a $130 million contract, the richest in the league at the time, in December 2005. Blank thought it was a lifetime commitment, but it lasted only one season.

"I'm angry over the Michael Vick situation," Blank said. "It happened over an extended period of time, some six years. Michael made a series of bad choices in judgment when it came to who he associated with and some of the acts he performed himself personally. I feel very bad about it."

If anything, he sounds even angrier when it comes to Petrino, who abruptly resigned from the Falcons on Tuesday, hopped on a plane to Arkansas and was shouting "Sooey!" before the night was done.

"I do feel a sense of betrayal," Blank said. "I do feel a sense of trust lost. It's just not right given the circumstances and the commitment we made to him."

Then again, Blank and his top lieutenant, general manager Rich McKay, deserve some of the blame for putting their trust in a coach who had shown plenty of times before he would put himself first and readily jump at a better offer.

During his four years at Louisville, Petrino was constantly talking with other potential employers, including a secret meeting with Auburn officials that probably would have gotten him fired if he hadn't been so successful. He even signed a huge extension with the Cardinals, only to abandon ship when Blank came calling with a five-year, $24 million deal.

Petrino never got a chance to work with Vick, who was suspended before the season began, and never got along the rest of the team, which wasn't amused by his college-style disciplinary whip.

While most players figured Petrino would bail at the end of the season, Blank thought his coach was in it for the long haul. Even when it became apparent that Petrino was having trouble relating to pro players. Even when Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, an Arkansas alumnus, called to say his alma mater was interested in talking with the coach. Even when Petrino expressed a list of concerns during a series of meetings last weekend.

Blank took Petrino at his word when he said he planned to stay, going on national TV during a Monday night loss to New Orleans to proclaim that he felt better than ever about his rookie coach.

Less than 24 hours later, Petrino quit. Blank, a man who built a vast fortune largely on anticipating what people wanted and how they would react, comes off looking rather naive through the whole affair.

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