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As the son of John McKay, the legendary football coach at USC and the first head coach of the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Rich McKay grew up around the game. He was a high school quarterback in California and Florida and a ballboy for his father at Tampa Bay. Later on, he earned his undergraduate and law degrees, respectively, from Princeton and Stetson. Rich McKay was a practicing attorney in Tampa before taking the job of general manager with the Buccaneers in 1993. During his 10-year tenure with the Bucs, McKay hired Tony Dungy as head coach and built a team that won the Super Bowl in the 2002 season. He joined the Atlanta Falcons in 2003 as president and general manager and saw the team advance to the NFC title game in his first season. McKay spoke recently with Jerry Kavanagh.
Q. What has been the biggest surprise of this NFL season for you?
McKay: I would say it is some of the teams that probably have not performed as well as I thought they would. I looked at some of those teams, like the Cowboys, and thought they were really going to be a force to be reckoned with. But every year I think that about certain teams, I realize how much injuries play a part and how quickly the league can change. So, every time I get surprised by certain teams’ success or lack of success, I remind myself that I shouldn’t be surprised.
Q. The way the NFL is structured, a team can turn it around pretty quickly or drop precipitously.
McKay: Absolutely, and that’s the way you want the league to be. The word parity…sometimes people give it a negative connotation; I’ve always thought of it in a positive light because it truly means that even if your team hasn’t had success for three years, that doesn’t mean that in the next two years it can’t have a lot of success. That’s how close the margin is, and that’s a good thing for our sport.
Q. You’ve got parity in the NFC West, where a 7-9 team made the playoffs.
McKay: People view that as a negative. But usually that’s very cyclical. Those things can change quickly. I remember how good the Rams were just a few years back. And the 49ers were the dominant team in the ’80s and into the ’90s, so those things go in cycles.
Q. What has been the key to the Falcons’ success this season?
McKay: I think Mike Smith and his staff have done a really good job of staying with the plan and being very basic in our approach. And we’ve been very consistent. We’ve been consistent on offense, defense, and special teams. And when that happens, you tend to win football games.
Q. The Falcons have home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs. Given the Falcons’ record at home, how much of an advantage is that?
McKay: Home field in this league matters a lot. It always has, and it should. Since coach Smith’s been here, I think we’ve only lost three or four home games. So it matters a lot. Hopefully, we can take advantage of it. Winning at home can become a habit. You begin to expect it and to expect good things to happen. That’s a positive because I’ve been in situations when it wasn’t so good, like in my early days in Tampa, where you expected to lose. What happened was, you literally waited for a bad play. And when it happened, then all the players kind of got that expectation in their mind that, “Oh, oh. Here it comes.” And then you lost the game. I think you can have the inverse of that, and that’s what we’ve got going on right now.
Q. There’s a comfort level, too, isn’t there, in playing at home? You don’t have to travel. The players get to sleep in their own beds…
McKay: No question. All of that matters. We’re all creatures of habit, and those habits are easier to keep in sync at home than they are on the road.
Q. You have spoken about reseeding the teams for the playoffs. It seems particularly appropriate now, but that’s not going to happen this year..
McKay: It’s something that’s been discussed before in the league. I wouldn’t say it’s my issue as much as it’s been an issue raised by a number of teams. Jacksonville, I think, submitted two different proposals on it. I think eventually it’s something we should go to. But it’s still got a little ways to go.
Q. How would it work?
McKay: The four division winners are now automatically seeded one through four. In the most recent proposal, the division winners automatically get in the playoffs. So, you are not devaluing the division winners. But only the first two seeds are automatically guaranteed those seeds. And after that the teams are seeded based on record.
Q. What’s the point of reseeding?
McKay: The purpose behind the proposals was to keep more games relevant later in the year and potentially to deal with the [current] situation, where the team with the much better record is going to go on the road. We’ll see. I think people get concerned about devaluing what are division championships. I think that it’s something that will certainly be debated this year. But as it usually does in this league, it will take time to get that thing passed.
Q. Let’s get back to parity. How does a team maintain a continuous atmosphere of winning when the NFL, by its very system (schedule, draft, salary cap, etc.), works against such sustained success?
McKay: Very good point, Jerry. You’re absolutely right. The system is designed to…not necessarily to prevent you [from winning] but to make it difficult for you to win on a continuous basis because of the narrowness and the margin of winning. And so it does work against you in that sense.
But what you have to give your fan base the feeling of is, No. 1, that you’re going to do everything necessary to try to get your team to be the best it can be. And No. 2, that you’re going to try to also win off the field. That is, that you’re going to represent everything that’s supposed to be good about being an NFL city. And by that I mean that your players have got to get out in the community, they’ve got to do the right thing, and they’ve got to touch the fans, not just on the football field but off the field. And I think that when you do those types of things, then when you do have those down years, you’ve built up enough equity that the fans are willing to hang in.
Q. By the way, speaking of off the field, I like that commercial with the Falcons on the school bus. I didn’t see you in it, though. Are you on the bus?
McKay: No. In fact, I was out of town. I decided that I’m better not in that commercial, given my lack of rhythm. [Team owner] Arthur [Blank] is a huge supporter of the Play 60 initiative and the anti-obesity campaign. It married up well with what we’re trying to be about, and so it was nice that we were associated with [the commercial].
Q. You grew up in football and have been around the sport from an early age. What’s the best decision you have made in the game?
McKay: Wow! Now, there’s a hard question. I would say it’s the hiring of certain people. I think it always gets down to people. Hiring Tony Dungy in the [Tampa Bay] franchise and the situation we were in was probably the best decision I could have made for the franchise at that time. That was probably as big a decision as I’ve made. There were plenty of draft picks along the way that I’m real proud of and others that I’m not. But when you’re charged with hiring a coach, that’s an important decision. In essence, that coach ends up becoming the CEO of your franchise and has great impact on your winning and on the perception of your franchise locally.
Q. The last time we spoke, a few years ago, you talked about stocking your roster with draft picks and free agents. I realize that every team needs both, but you said, “You are much better served to develop your own [players], let them understand what your culture is, and then pay them and extend their contracts than to go out and buy the talent in free agency.” Does that still hold true?
McKay: One hundred percent. I’m more committed today than whenever I told you that. Building that culture and raising those athletes within your culture is a lot easier than bringing players in who’ve had success at [other] teams and then trying to fit them into your schemes and into your culture. Look at Pittsburgh and New England. Those are two examples of franchises that have won continuously and have done it by drafting their own and developing their own and keeping their own.
Q. You are chairman of the NFL Competition Committee. Does the game itself and/or the NFL need any changes?
McKay: The game’s in a really good place right now. I think the numbers speak to that. You can never do enough on the player safety side. And I think we will always, and should always, focus on that end, even to the extent of facing public criticism from either ex-players or the media.
Q. Is enough being done to insure the safety of the players?
McKay: I think it is, but you have to continually work on that issue. If you look over the last 15 years, there have been an awful lot of changes made to try to make the game safer and to try to limit the player from any type of unreasonable risk of injury. But I don’t think we should accept where we are. We should keep pushing and make sure we look at every instance in which a player is potentially put into a place that presents an unreasonable risk.
Q. And yet there is talk of an 18-game regular season in a sport that is so debilitating.
McKay: There is, and I’ll leave that to those at the league office and the union who are talking about it. But I think there are things you can do that deal with the whole system and don’t just focus on the two [additional] games but the whole system that goes into the training, the offseason, and everything else. Because those elements all go into player safety. It’s not just the games.
Q. Is there an offseason? It doesn’t seem like there is an offseason anymore.
McKay: (laughing) I don’t know. If you ask some of the people who work here, I think their answer might be that there isn’t much of one.
Q. Jerry Jones just recently said, “Basically, the [economic] model that we have does not work.” He also said that he did not think that a lockout would be disastrous for the game. Do you think there will be a lockout next season? If so, would it be disastrous for the game?
McKay: I say “No comment” to both questions, and I leave it to people with a pay grade much higher than me.
Q. OK, you don’t want to speculate about a lockout, but do you have any predictions about the postseason and the offseason?
McKay: No predictions, Jerry. I’m not a predictor.
Q. Everybody’s a predictor.
McKay: (laughing) Behind closed doors I am.
Q. What are you reading these days?
McKay: I’m into the latest James Patterson. Whatever the latest James Patterson is, he’s on my Kindle and I’m reading him.
Q. Kindle, huh?
McKay: I can’t remember which one it is, but I’ve been all over and into that kind of genre, if you will, lately. I haven’t been as much into serious books. I probably need to get back to do a little more serious reading.
Q. I’m glad you have some time to read. It seems so many people now don’t have time to do anything but work.
McKay: The interesting thing me about me from a reading standpoint is that I’m a late-night reader and I’m an airplane reader. We travel so much during the season, and that gives me the best opportunity to read.