Thirty-two years ago the Atlanta Falcons fired the best coach they had ever had. Leeman Bennett had gotten the Falcons to the playoffs in three of the six seasons he coached the team, but it was not enough.
The Falcons had gone 52-99-4 in the first 12 seasons of the franchise before Bennett took over. Norb Hecker, Norm Van Brocklin, Marion Campbell and Pat Peppler had all failed, while Bennett went 46-41 from 1977 through 1982. Comparatively, they should have built a statue for Bennett instead of firing him.
Dan Henning was picked as Bennett’s replacement. Henning had been the offensive coordinator for Joe Gibbs and the Super Bowl-winning Washington Redskins. He was the hotshot assistant coach in the NFL, destined to get a head coaching job.
Instead, Henning was a disaster. He ended Steve Bartkowski’s tenure as Atlanta’s quarterback, and the Falcons went backwards instead of making progress. Henning was 22-41-1 between 1983 and 1986.
Ask any Falcons fan and they’ll tell you that firing Bennett was a huge mistake, and mainly because his successor was much like the first four coaches in Atlanta’s history – a failure.
Now fast forward to today, as the Falcons are trying to replace the best coach they’ve ever had. Mike Smith deserved to be fired, but not if the Falcons kept around the man that hired him – general manager Thomas Dimitroff.
Arthur Blank is making a mistake in keeping Dimitroff, who constructed the roster that led to two dismal seasons. A clean sweep was necessary, but for some reason, Dimitroff is still around.
The Falcons lost out on Rex Ryan, reportedly because Ryan did not feel Dimitroff was in his corner during last week’s five-hour interview. It seems they are now only considering current NFL assistant coaches, hotshots that seem destined to get a head coaching job somewhere.
Maybe Todd Bowles, Teryl Austin or Dan Quinn – the reported finalists – will make a great head coach. Maybe we will apologize to them if they are successful for doubting their ability in the first place.
Remember, not many people knew who Smith was when he was hired as head coach in 2008. He had been Jacksonville’s defensive coordinator, and much like these guys one of the hot names on the coaching candidate board.
But there is one difference. Seven years ago not many people cared who was hired as Atlanta’s coach. The Falcons had just come off the worst season in history – with a scandal involving quarterback Michael Vick and a one-year stint of coach Bobby Petrino that left fans numb. It probably wouldn’t have mattered who got the job, as long as it was somebody brand new.
Blank said he needed Smith’s replacement to get the team where Smith had failed to go – the Super Bowl. He needed the next coach to take this team to the next level.
At the same time, and let’s be honest, Blank also needs someone to excite the fan base, which will soon be asked to write a big check for a personal seat license at the new dome. That’s why Ryan was such a good candidate. He could have possibly filled both requirements.
Now the Falcons are evidently left with these assistants. The search firm Blank hired has obviously not come up with a better candidate that has head coaching experience, so he’s left to choose from the flavors-of-the-month.
Maybe they’ll be fine. Maybe they’ll be the next best head coach the Falcons have ever had. But don’t blame some fans who remember the 1980s and hope the next coach won’t be the next Dan Henning.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Falcons should avoid another Dan Henning
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