ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons have a new general manager, a new coach and a new quarterback — not to mention plenty of good feelings in the locker room.
That might be the most refreshing change of all after what this team went through last season.
"We have a great working environment," said linebacker Keith Brooking, the Falcons’ senior member, as he enters his 11th season. "We will win here, sooner rather than later. There’s no doubt about that. I’m a big believer in what they’re doing."
Just don’t expect immediate results. Atlanta, which opens the season today against the Detroit Lions, had little choice except starting over after a debacle of a season that will forever be remembered for the downfall of the biggest star in franchise history.
Michael Vick, a thrilling, one-of-a-kind quarterback who kept every seat filled in the Georgia Dome, wound up in prison garb rather than a Falcons uniform after admitting to his role in a gruesome dogfighting operation. As he headed off to serve a nearly two-year sentence, he took with him any hope of a successful season.
Rookie coach Bobby Petrino didn’t even make it through one full season in Atlanta, stirring up plenty of hard feelings with his dictatorial style before he jumped ship with three games left to return to the college ranks. Not surprisingly, the Falcons struggled to a 4-12 record, their worst mark since 2000.
After Rich McKay was booted upstairs, Thomas Dimitroff took over as general manager with the goal of rebuilding with youth. Seven rookies made the final cuts, and 19 players on the 53-man roster have no more than one year of pro experience.
In keeping with that theme, the Falcons handed Mike Smith the first head coaching job of his career.
It remains to be seen whether he’s up to the task, but at least he’s taken some big steps toward patching up a locker room that was nearly in full revolt by the end of Petrino’s brief regime.
"Anytime you go through transition and change, the quicker you get guys to buy into it and believe it, the better off you’ll be," Brooking said.
"That energy, that style, that atmosphere is very positive. We have a good chance of being successful. It’s very encouraging to see what’s taking place around here."
Putting Vick permanently in their rearview mirror, the Falcons drafted quarterback Matt Ryan with the third overall pick. He needed only three preseason games to claim the starting job over journeyman Chris Redman, though the Falcons might be taking a big chance putting the rookie right in the game behind a shaky offensive line.
Remember David Carr?
"It’s going to be a lot of fun," Ryan insisted. "There’s going to be some ups and downs throughout the game, but this is something I have always dreamed about and I’m excited that it’s about to happen."
While Atlanta’s season fell apart before it ever began, the Lions had the Motor City thinking playoffs when they won six of their first eight games a year ago. Of course, there were still eight more to play — and Detroit limped home with only one more victory.
The 7-9 mark was the Lions’ best in seven years, but that was of little consolation for a team that has gone 31-81 since the beginning of 2001.
Looking for more balance in its offense, Detroit parted ways with pass-happy coordinator Mike Martz.
His replacement, Jim Colletto, plans to call a lot more running plays, even though the Lions hardly look like a team that can pound defenses into submission.
Rookie Kevin Smith, a third-round pick from Central Florida, will likely share the load with late addition Rudi Johnson, who signed with the Lions after being cut by Cincinnati last weekend. A 1,400-yard rusher in both 2005 and ‘06, he managed only 497 last season while battling a hamstring problem.
Johnson missed much of training camp and the preseason with the same injury, but the Lions insist he’s healthy enough to give them a much-needed boost in the backfield.
"He’s run for a lot of yards in this league," Colletto said. "He’s going to play. How much he’ll play (today), I don’t know, but he can play. I don’t think we can ask Kevin to carry the load the whole day."
The Lions have one of the league’s top receiver duos with Roy Williams and second-year player Calvin Johnson, who grew up in suburban Atlanta and starred at Georgia Tech.
Even with a new emphasis on the running game, look for Detroit QB Jon Kitna to go right at the Falcons’ secondary. Second-year player Chris Houston will team with Brett Grimes, who wasn’t even drafted out of college and spent most of last season on the practice squad. He’s a big drop-off from two-time Pro Bowler DeAngelo Hall, who was dealt to Oakland.
Johnson is 6-foot-5 and Williams checks in at 6-3, giving them a big size advantage on the Falcons’ corners, neither of whom is even 6 feet tall.
"They can make some big-time plays in the passing game," Brooking said. "They can really run. When you have guys that size, who are as tall and rangy as they are, nine times out of 10 they are not speed guys who can beat you vertically down the field. But those guys can really get down the field."
On the other side of the line, the Lions will try to make life miserable for Ryan, hoping to rattle the rookie in his first pro start. Not that they’ll be blitzing on every play.
"There’s different ways," coach Rod Marinelli said.
"There’s physical pressure, but there’s a lot about mental pressure. When you think it’s coming and it’s not — disguise, pressure, four-strong here, there, making him make checks, and sometimes you bring four. I love hitting them, don’t get me wrong, but the mental pressure is just as great."