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  1. https://www.ajc.com/blog/further-review/falcons-sink-further-their-owner-says-changes-coming-for-now/jUDGLiKXPpJ98vAadq0PQL/ The Falcons’ Arthur Blank had just experienced his second-worst-ever moment here inside NRG Stadium. And when the team you own just had more points scored on it than in any game since 2004, when the defense “coordinated” by your head coach couldn’t have stopped a grandfather clock this day much less Deshaun Watson, that says something about just how miserable the No. 1 ordeal was. But we’ll not dredge up that 2017 Super Bowl again. That’s unnecessarily rough. There are far more current events on the autopsy table. There come certain moments in certain seasons when it is required to ask a team owner if his finger rests upon the button that opens the trap door always beneath the feet of his coach and his executive branch. A moment such as Sunday, for instance, when a team with playoff aspirations loses the fourth of its first five games, and does so in spectacularly defenseless fashion, 53-32 to the Houston Texans. Blank was not prepared to entertain any nuclear option Sunday. Not publicly. Asked if was contemplating any big changes at the top of the Falcons org chart, Blank answered, “No. There are a lot of games left in this season. The staff has performed at a much higher level in the past — and these players have, too. My hope and my belief is that they can find a way to re-mix the puzzle and have a different answer in terms of results.” So, he was asked, you still have faith in those in charge? “Obviously, the faith is being rattled right now and I’m sure our fans feel that way,” Blank said minutes after the Houston loss. “This is an organization starting with the head coach and the general manager who know how to fight and know how to fight back. They don’t know how to lose. They know how to win. They are tenacious, they are not going to lay down. Hopefully it will be good enough to have a respectable performance the rest of the season.” Respectability would be a huge step up from what Sunday delivered. After the Falcons accidentally stopped Houston on its first possession on a three-and-out, the Texans scored on every other possession that wasn’t interrupted by the end of the half. There were no cheapies among any of their six touchdown drives — travelling anywhere between 60 and 88 yards. Throw in a pick-six at the end, and it turns out you can get to 50 points and more with surprising ease. Will Fuller V, the Texans’ second option, had himself quite a season Sunday at the Falcons’ expense, with 14 catches for 217 yards and three touchdowns. On many of his multitude of receptions he was sprinting clear of a confused secondary, the Falcons running what could only be described as a Cover None zone. Watson — 28-of-33 for 426 yards and five touchdowns — put up the third best-possible quarterback rating in the NFL this season. That number is 158.3, which I could explain in detail or just leave it at the fact Watson flew as close to the sun of quarterbacking perfection as any man is allowed. And the Falcons were the wind beneath his wings. Oh, and he also ran for 47 yards. If the NFL had a Heisman, Watson would have won it Sunday. So, they certainly were tickled in this part of Texas, having been gifted a nice diversion until the Astros’ next game. On the Atlanta side, not so much. Afterward you heard about this being a “100 percent gut-check time” (from Quinn). And about the need for more accountability from players that seem to know what they’re doing in practice but then get all dizzy at game time (from safety Ricardo Allen). And the owner spoke of the depth of his disappointment. It seldom is a good sign when the owner is plumbing those depths. To be precise, the level of his disappointment is “extraordinarily high, just like all of our fans,” Blank said. “It’s not the start we envisioned and it’s not the way we’re capable of playing. But as Bill Parcells says, ‘You are what your record says you are.’ ” He continued: “Players, coaches, we’re just not putting it together the way we’re capable of doing. We do have more talent on this team than what we’re showing right now, I don’t think there’s any question about that. The mix isn’t working, apparently, and I feel deeply for our fans. As I know the coach does and the players do. “They’re working their [butts] off, they’re trying to figure out the right solution, the right mix, the adjustments they have to make. That’s really all you can ask them to do, work as hard as they know how to work. We have four head coaches — one head coach and three previous head coaches — so we have a lot of experience. And we have some players who have been in the league for a long time and have played at real high levels for a long time. The capabilities are there but it’s just not coming together the way it should and the way it needs to.” Blank did express a measure of hope when asked what he thought could be salvaged from this season, pointing to another team’s example from a year ago. Can this be fixed this season? “They can turn it around,” the owner said. “The Colts last year started 1-5 and ended up in the playoffs (winning a wild card game). It can happen. We haven’t played a single divisional game yet, that’s obviously an opportunity.” “But,” he added realistically, “we have to play better than we have been playing, that’s for sure. No matter who we’re playing we’re not going to be successful unless we do that.” As Blank Sunday resisted the urge to immediately fire everyone in sight, does that, I wondered, amount to a vote of confidence in this staff? We’re big on votes of confidence in this business. Assume nothing, not with a season so off kilter as this. “It’s not a vote of anything,” Blank said. “I’m sharing my feelings. It’s not a vote of anything.”
  2. https://www.ajc.com/sports/falcons-ring-honor-bartkowski-resets-very-good-life-montana/brfAxs7JWIC1qR7ZTlTh5N/ The Big Hole River wends 150 miles through southwest Montana without a single dam to stop it. Left purely to its own imagination, it cleaves the land whimsically, in random twists and bends, as if its course were drawn in finger paint at the pre-K stage of creation. It is one of the world’s great water features, its banks giving way to copses of willow and cottonwood, wispy fields of wild grass, rocky outcrops that appear almost in ambush around the next turn of the river. At the most memorable places, the scenery comes with the distant backdrop of mountain peaks, here in July still wearing traces of the snow that feeds the river’s flow. Steve Bartkowski, he with an everlasting place on the Falcons’ Ring of Honor, the franchise’s first quarterback who left a mark, was at the moment concerned with a very small, very specific section of the Big Hole. His son Pete worked the oars of the drift boat, keeping Pops in range of where they figured the fish were. They figured correctly. For suddenly, Bartkowski’s flyrod was bent and shivering with a fish just realizing that the presumed insect it attacked had other plans. Bartkowski held the rod high, keeping the pressure on, while retrieving line by hand and closing the gap between fisherman and fish a few inches at a time. He’d not take much credit in the brief post-catch review – “I did everything I could to lose it,” Bartkowski would say. But proof otherwise was soon beside the boat, and officially netted. A fine brown trout, whose name does no service to the iridescent gold of its belly nor the pointillist display of red and black on its flanks. It is like naming a ruby a “red rock.” Posing unwillingly for a few photos, and measured at 19-1/2 inches – “It’s 20 inches, we round up,” Bartkowski insisted with a smile – the beautiful fish was then given back to the water. Bartkowski tries hard to explain the draw of this part of the world, the attraction that ultimately has won him over from the big city where he could have just spent the rest of his life comfortably wrapped in the shawl of his football fame. A man seldom at a loss for something to say, he finds that words can fail him on this subject. “People all want to know what it’s like, they say, tell me what it’s like out there. What’s the attraction?” he said. “I start to try to describe it and I just can’t come up with the words. I tell them you just got to come out here and see it, come out here and experience it. It’s like trying to describe a sunset to a blind man.” The better explanation comes in the snapshot of Bartkowski and a brown trout meeting on the Big Hole River, the kind of moment of natural simplicity that makes him most happy. It’s not all lazy days of fishing and hunting, because this also is a working life out here for the Bartkowskis – Steve, his wife, Sandee, and son Pete. They run the Ruby Drake Lodge, a compound consisting of a main lodge building and five tidy cabins, all of a pine-paneled, mounted-animals-on-the-wall theme. It’s an enterprise built on sharing wilderness with the paying guests, many of them on retreat from the corporate world and many coming from the Southeast, where Bartkowski built so many ties. Pete’s the guide, the one responsible for navigating the five trout rivers within range of the lodge and the wide valleys when it turns hunting season. “Pete has taught me so much about fly-fishing that I could have never learned on my own,” his dad said. “He’s the teacher, and I’m the student now.” Sandee brought the necessary style and taste when it came to revitalizing a lodge that had fallen into grimy disrepair. Steve is the CEO in charge of public relations, a good name and a big personality that comes in handy when fishing for customers. You need someone to maybe scramble an egg in the morning, drag a dead, decomposing skunk out from beneath one of the cabins (that really happened) or wash and dry the dishes, he’ll do that, too. They all are a very long way from Buckhead, indeed. As a young man Bartkowski came to Atlanta as the NFL’s No. 1 overall pick in 1975, a big, blond promise of better days for a franchise that had spent the previous nine seasons of its existence on the outside of the playoffs. He played 11 seasons in Atlanta and lived to tell about it. Cultivated for a town hungry for a hip sporting personality was the persona of “Peachtree Bart.” As a 66-year-old, Bartkowski is the antithesis of all things urban and slick. Peachtree Bart now lives off a dusty gravel road, the view out his front door an alfalfa field, that when newly mown draws herds of deer and squadrons of hungry hawks looking for the varmints flushed from cover. Welcome to one of those where-are-they-now stories that always seem to surprise fans who have frozen a favorite player in another time, another place, another image, another body. He has taken many forms in his 66 years. He was the dashing two-time Pro Bowl quarterback, who took the Falcons to their first three playoff appearances and led the NFL in touchdown passes in 1980. He has produced outdoors TV programming that showed up on The Nashville Network and ESPN. He invented a $3 million made-for-TV golf tournament that had a very brief run. He has survived colon cancer and potentially fatal blood clots after a dual knee transplant. He made a career for himself with the Atlanta firm, DPR Construction, with which he still has ties. And, now, here he is, in a place where the nearest town – Twin Bridges – contains 300 souls and where a traffic jam is defined as waiting for a rancher to move his herd to the other side of the road. This is a place where you can’t throw an elkwing caddis brown dry fly without hitting a Lewis and Clark historical marker, and still maintains just a hint of frontier. This is the setting of his last act, Bartkowski figures. “There is no question about it, my ashes will be dumped right out there in the Ruby River,” he said, nodding toward the gentle stream that runs directly behind the lodge. “I’ve already requested that of Pete, and he said, Dad, no time soon, please.” It was Pete who led the way west. Both he and Bartkowski’s eldest son Phil had followed their father into jobs with the construction company. By 2014, though, Pete was growing increasingly dissatisfied, to the point that he abruptly called an audible at 31. He’d finish one last big job, then pack what he could in his car and head to Montana. “I didn’t have a plan. My plan was to keep driving that way,” Pete said. The family dream of owning a little piece of Montana had gotten as far as buying some riverfront land. But finding the money to actually build on it was proving difficult. That’s where Pete headed, pitching a tent on the property in April and freezing his ideals off. The morning a moose poked its head through the tent flaps was a sign that he might need something more permanent. Pete supported himself working construction in Montana, but events were lining up to push him outdoors. His godmother died and unexpectedly left him $10,000, money he could have used in any number of practical ways. Or just enough to buy a drift boat and scratch an itch he had to become a fly-fishing guide. He got the drift boat. And enter Jim Cox Kennedy, the Chairman of Cox Enterprises, which owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He’s a friend of the Bartkowskis, a big outdoorsman and Montana-phile. Kennedy had another vision of Pete. There was this lodge on his property that needed resurrecting, and Pete might be just the fellow to give it new energy and new purpose. Leading Pete to ask, um, mom and dad, could you come help? “I’d never run a lodge either,” Steve said. “I do know what hospitality is, and I do know a lot about lodges. I think we put together a pretty good team. Give people a nice destination where they feel comfortable. At the end of the day those are the things you can control. Whether or not the fish bite on any given day, you’re at the mercy of the fish.” He was an easy sell, for his son’s plea to come west was like an answered prayer. “I would sneak out here as much as I possibly could (through the years) and every time I got on the plane to go back to Atlanta or wherever I had to go, I would beat myself up. Why are you leaving? Why are you going back?” Bartkowski said. “You can only take so many years of that self-peppering before you finally say this is where I need to be. “Here we are through a series of just-short-of-miraculous events. I’m living the dream.” Sandee, a native Atlantan, had to go a few rounds with the idea. This man she met at an Atlanta racquetball club (remember those?) in the late 1970s was all these years later asking her to move somewhere so remote and far away that it could be another country. A photographer and graphic artist, she was going to have to put all that largely on simmer while renovating a lodge, re-branding the whole business and then giving full attention to running an outdoorsy B&B. “I wondered, oh, gosh, can I do this?” Sandee said. The answer came on an October visit to Montana. “The Aspens were shimmering. The sky was blue. The air was crisp. It was like I heard the voice of God saying, ‘You got a problem with this?” Leasing the lodge and renting a home from Kennedy, the Bartkowskis are in their third summer in Montana (while Pete wintered, his parents can escape to a Hawaiian condo or, like this year, hang around Atlanta and a Super Bowl scene). Montana is a stoic, broad-shouldered place, slow to accept outsiders. But, as Sandee said, “We’ve found something here, a real solitude, a real community.” “I’ve never seen Steve so happy,” she added. “He cooks and cleans and loves it.” (Fixing a brisket for the next night’s meal, the former Pro Bowl quarterback found himself up at 3 in the morning, preparing it for the smoker). For all his medical mishaps, the old football player said he is in surprisingly good health now. Although, with fingers that had been regularly stomped and otherwise displaced, it can be difficult to thread line through the opening on a fly that is about as minute as the commas in this sentence. And out here, so far away from the source of his football fame, a man almost never has to think about January 1981, and what was the Falcons’ most painful playoff loss until a certain blown 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl. Almost. Of the day that Dallas scored 20 in the fourth quarter to beat the Falcons 30-27 in the NFC playoffs, Bartkowski said, “I’m miles away from it, but that’s one of those scabs I’ve got still. That was our chance. We had the best team in the NFL that year.” He’ll still follow certain Atlanta favorites. He loves the Braves and believes his old NFL team is poised to make some serious noise this season. But closer to his current home – the place he chose, not the one that chose him – they play a little ball, too. And on fall Fridays, he might be found on the sideline cheering. It’s high school football to scale, where because of the lack of bodies, they play eight-on-eight. Sometimes, big changes can come with little, almost snickering hints of the familiar. Sometimes, a sign that you might just be where you’re meant to be is posted on a road leading into a Montana mapspeck. Because, like the sign says, this place that Bartkowski now calls home also is home to the Twin Bridges Falcons.
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