Falcons president Rich McKay has always been a guy who keeps his head when others are losing theirs. The former Bucs general manager's biggest strength is his calm amid chaos, be it quarterback Michael Vick's arrest or coach Bobby Petrino quitting during the season. So even McKay was surprised by how nervous he became before the Atlanta's NFC division-round game against the Seahawks on Jan. 14. And last week he was already expecting to become anxious before today's conference championship game with the Packers.
"I said this to my wife, Terrin, 'I don't remember the last time I was nervous,' " McKay said. "(On Seahawks game day), I woke up and couldn't be more nervous. I had to go for a run. I guess it's because of the game, the team we have and the moment we're in. I have to find a way to break those nerves. It's the last game at the Georgia Dome, and we don't want to retire it the way (the Eagles) retired (Veterans Stadium, losing to Bucs in 2002 NFC title game)."
McKay, 57, is in his 25th year in the NFL, a tenure that includes 12 years with the Bucs as legal counsel and later general manager. He was at the center of helping the Bucs win Super Bowl XXXVII in the 2002 season. With the Falcons since 2003, he has led their resurgence as GM and president. He also has been the point man on the construction of two stadiums, Raymond James in Tampa and Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium, set to open this year. We caught up with McKay to discuss the Falcons, their chances to reach the Super Bowl and the Bucs under coach Dirk Koetter.
This will be the fifth NFC title game you have been part of, including two with the Bucs. Where does this one rank?
I think it's a really good time for the franchise, especially when you have a home game. In our history in Atlanta, 51 years now, we've hosted two NFC Championship Games, and big moments don't come around every year. I think people get spoiled watching the Patriots.
I think (former Falcons coach) Mike Smith, obviously the defensive coordinator in Tampa, what he did here in 2008 was special. Coming off the Michael Vick year, we lost our franchise quarterback (after Vick pleaded guilty in 2007 to several charges in a dog fighting ring case) and the coach (Bobby Petrino) quit (during the '07 season). Mike and (Atlanta GM) Thomas Dimitroff did a great job, and we went right to the playoffs.
We've had good teams and lost the NFC championship with the ball on the 9-yard line. It's been three years without us going to the playoffs. What I like is that this team gets along very well. (Coach) Dan Quinn uses the term "brotherhood," and there's something to that phrase.
Will you describe the kind of year QB Matt Ryan has had?
We're blessed to have Matt Ryan because of his leadership, intangibles, and because of his play. The one thing the fan base is looking for is that face of the franchise, and that's the quarterback. Just the way he led the team way is a cool thing for us.
What do you think about (today's) game against the Packers?
We played them this year, and we felt like we had control of the game, and all of a sudden we didn't (Atlanta won 33-32). You have to look at their organization, which is fantastic. … When you're playing (QB) Aaron Rodgers, the game is never over at any time because he's capable of scoring from anywhere with his ability to throw and run, and with his arm strength and smarts.
How have the Falcons handled the pressure of the playoffs?
One thing that's interesting, that really surprised me, is I felt like our team needed to get off to a good start, and then Tampa came in and beat us Week 1 at home. If you went back and read the papers and listened to talk radio, you might not like it. Forget a lack of optimism. It was worse than that.
I give the team credit. It wasn't a big deal. They went on the road at Oakland, at Denver and at Seattle, and showed a lot of grit. You saw it (in the playoffs) when Seattle had a seven-minute drive that felt like two hours, and it was nice to see our guys respond.
How does your construction of the new stadium in Atlanta compare to the building of Raymond James Stadium?
This was a much different project. This has just been a long project. We started this in '07, and we've owned every inch of it. There's no meeting on any facet of this stadium we weren't involved in. It's a lot different than in Tampa, where we had a very politically charged 18-month negotiation and concerns about keeping the franchise in town. Once we crossed the goal line with the deal, we didn't do much as a franchise with the stadium (built in 1998). We got back to football business, and that helped because we had a lot to do with the team. In this one, (owner) Arthur Blank's vision really set the bar in every aspect, from design to fan experience.
What did you make of the Bucs this season?
I thought they achieved at a much higher level than anyone thought they would. I don't know we saw that coming. They won nine games, and I know people think that's easy. But it's not easy at all. I think everybody was pretty impressed with what they got accomplished. Dirk is a really good football coach. When he was our offensive coordinator, look at Matt Ryan's numbers. They're good numbers. I guess I'm not surprised, in retrospect. Mike Smith is an elite football coach. It shouldn't have caught me offguard how good they were. Jameis Winston, all he did in college was one thing really well. He won.
Is the NFC South the toughest division?
It is a good division. We played Carolina twice last year, once in Carolina at the end of the year, and they were a really good football team. Nothing to look forward to in playing them. If you look at the run New Orleans had, between (coach) Sean Payton and (QB) Drew Brees, it's a dangerous combination. And look at what Dirk has done. It's a very competitive division.