FLOWERY BRANCH — Matt Ryan knows the Atlanta Falcons are desperate to restore credibility after quarterback Michael Vick and coach Bobby Petrino sullied the team’s image last year.
Introduced on Sunday as Atlanta’s new franchise quarterback, Ryan pledged to lead the Falcons from the shadows of Vick’s federal imprisonment and Petrino’s abrupt flight to Arkansas.
"I think the organization has made a commitment to bring in high character people," Ryan said. "I’m glad to be a part of that."
Owner Arthur Blank begged fans to return to the Georgia Dome after the Falcons played in front of thousands of empty seats last year. There were several low points during the 4-12 season, but few as bizarre as Dec. 10, when Vick was sentenced to 23 months for dogfighting and Atlanta suffered a 20-point home loss to New Orleans.
Earlier that day, Petrino shook Blank’s hand and assured him that he would return in 2008, yet by Dec. 11, he had abandoned the Falcons and signed with Arkansas. On Dec. 12, as Blank offered his details of Petrino’s departure, the team issued a news release that stated in the next-to-last paragraph that Rich McKay would no longer serve as general manager.
"Last year created some unique opportunities for us, and I just want to remind you as we face this season that we’ve cut prices on about 30,000 seats this year and the rest of the seats were held," Blank said. "We have season tickets starting at $250, and if this sounds like an appeal, it is an appeal."
By drafting Ryan No. 3 overall, Blank hopes the former Boston College standout can energize a fan base that’s watched the Falcons combine over the last three seasons to lose 10 of 13 home games in November and December.
Ryan is ready for the challenge, which begins May 10 during a three-day mini-camp for veterans and rookies. He’s already had a primer, meeting in Boston before the draft to discuss football specifics with offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave.
"I don’t think they were trying to stump me, really," Ryan said. "I think they just wanted to know what I knew. I enjoyed that meeting. A lot of it was basic football, protections, formations, route combinations, progressions."
New general manager Thomas Dimitroff insists the Falcons will not endure a contract holdout with Ryan, whose agent, Tom Condon, also represents Sam Baker, the offensive tackle Atlanta drafted No. 21 overall.
"Obviously, that’s our drive, and I think we’re going to work very hard to get it done," Dimitroff said. "I’m confident right now that we’ll be very close to having it done by mini-camp. I know Matt wants it done, and I’m confident we will."
Baker, who started 49 of 52 games at Southern Cal, should get a quick understanding of what he will face against some of the NFL’s outstanding defensive ends. Lined up on the left side of Atlanta’s line, Baker will take plenty of snaps against John Abraham, the three-time Pro Bowl selection who starts at right end for the Falcons.
"Some of these defensive ends are excellent," Baker said. "They have some good guys down here. I think it’s about competing and practicing and making the most out of every day."
It’s unlikely that Ryan will open mini-camp with the No. 1 offense. Chris Redman and Joey Harrington are currently listed as Atlanta’s first- and second-string quarterbacks, and the Falcons are likely to bring Ryan along slowly.
No one knows how long before Ryan takes charge of the offense, but new coach Mike Smith believes franchise centerpiece will have a short learning curve.
"Matt is a very passionate football player," Smith said. "In the NFL, the last two to three minutes are crunch time, and that’s when games are won and lost. You can see Matt’s passion and how he brought his team back to victory. That’s the kind of player we want on our football team."