Massive effort to bring Atlanta Falcons to Hall County
Peaks and valleys. Exhiliration and despair. Highs, lows and left turns into the realm of the utterly bizarre.
Say what you will about the 10 years since the Atlanta Falcons first touched down in Flowery Branch, but don’t say it’s been boring.
It’s an era that has spanned six head coaches (if you count interims); that began when Michael Vick was still a Hokie and Matt Ryan was a high school sophomore; that includes some of the 44-year-old franchise’s brightest moments and darkest days.
When the Falcons held their first practice at the site of what eventually became their home base in Hall County, they were less than two years removed from a Super Bowl appearance. But they were already on their way to the second of three straight losing seasons.
Then came a series of events that changed the course of the team’s history forever — for better and for worse.
In 2001, the Falcons sealed a blockbuster trade, moving up and selecting Vick with the first overall selection in the NFL draft. He sat, watched and learned for most of his rookie season as the team stumbled down the stretch to a 7-9 finish.
Then in February 2002, former Home Depot CEO Arthur Blank bought the team.
Good times followed: Vick took over as the starting quarterback and took the league by storm. His blend of speed and arm strength was unprecedented, and the Falcons immediately became a winner again, earning a playoff berth for the first time since the 1998 Super Bowl run. The high-water mark came when Vick guided the team to Lambeau Field and defeated the Packers 27-7 to become the first visitor to win a playoff game at the historic Green Bay Stadium.
Coach Dan Reeves, who led the ’98 Dirty Birds, couldn’t hold his job through another losing season, though. In 2003, Vick was injured in the preseason and missed the first 11 contests. Reeves was fired after 13 games and the team finished 5-11.
With a new coach on the sidelines and Vick back under center, the Falcons bounced back in 2004, winning 11 games and advancing to the NFC championship game in Jim Mora Jr.’s first season. But continuing a trend that plagued the franchise’s first 43 seasons, the Falcons found sustaining success elusive and weren’t able to string together back-to-back winning seasons. They followed an 8-8 2005 with a 7-9 mark in 2006, but it was about to get worse.
Mora, who in a radio interview during the 2006 campaign said coaching at the University of Washington was his dream job, was given the opportunity to pursue that dream when he was fired one day after the season ended.
He was replaced by Bobby Petrino, fresh off an Orange Bowl win with Louisville. Considered a bright offensive mind who had NFL experience as a quarterbacks coach and coordinator at Jacksonville, Petrino’s first priority was to get more production out of Vick. The mercurial quarterback with blessed abilities seemed to be stagnating.
Their union never even made it to mini-camp.
In April of 2007, Vick was implicated in an illegal dogfighting ring. As the months wore on, the depth of his involvment became clear, and in August, as his team was preparing to start the season with protesters at practice and under an intense swarm of national media attention, Vick pleaded guilty and was eventually sentenced to 21 months in jail.
In December, two days after Vick’s sentencing and a little more than 24 hours after his team’s most recent loss, Petrino resigned with three games left in the season, leaving only a note in the players’ lockers and taking a pay cut to return to the college ranks and become the head coach at Arkansas.
It didn’t seem like it could get any worse. Maybe it couldn’t.
Finishing the season at 4-12, the Falcons were slotted third in the April draft, allowing the new team brain trust (rookie head coach Mike Smith and first-time general manager Thomas Dimitroff) to take Matt Ryan.
And, just like that, the clouds parted: Michael Turner, the team’s key free agent acquisition in 2008, became the NFL’s leading rusher. Ryan took over the starting quarterback spot midway through his first training camp and hasn’t looked back yet. Five other members of the 2008 draft class became integral pieces in an improbable playoff run during their rookie season.
And when Falcons will convene this week in Flowery Branch for training camp they’ll do so with back-to-back winning seasons behind them for the first time in franchise history.