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Falcons facing lofty expectations
Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, center, is congratulated by teammate Brian Finneran after catching a 14-yard touchdown pass in first quarter of an exhibition game against the St. Louis Rams. Atlanta plays host to the Miami Dolphins in the season opener Sunday. - photo by By Chris Lee

Falcons vs. Dolphins

When: 1 p.m. Sunday

Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta

TV, radio: CBS; 550-AM, 92.9 FM

Web site:

ATLANTA The Falcons have one of the NFL’s rising stars at general manager, a coach coming off a brilliant rookie season and a young quarterback who looks as though he’ll be the starter for the next decade or so.

Where have we heard that before?

Try 2005, when Atlanta was coming off an unexpected trip to the NFC championship game. Rich McKay was running the front office, Jim Mora was the breath-of-fresh-air coach, and Michael Vick appeared to have no limits at quarterback.

Flash ahead four years: McKay has been kicked upstairs to team president, Mora is coaching in Seattle after being fired in Atlanta, and Vick is just returning to the league — in Philadelphia — after serving prison time for organizing a dogfighting ring.

Remember, when it comes to the Falcons, every brush with greatness is usually followed by a devastating fall.

"I’ve thought about that all five years I’ve been here," receiver Roddy White said. "Man, one year we’re up, the next year we’re down. I’m tired of going one up, one down. We need to be consistent. We need to get five, six, seven straight seasons with 10 or 11 wins."

Two in a row would be a start.

Atlanta has put together one of the most consistent streaks of inconsistency in all of professional sports. Over its 43-year history, the Falcons have never managed back-to-back winning seasons.

Not after winning their first division title. (They went 7-9 after a 3-0 start in 1981.)

Not after making their lone Super Bowl appearance. (They slumped to 5-11 in 1999.)

Not after coming one win shy of making it back to the big game. (They lost six of the final eight to go 8-8 in 2005.)

Not once. Not ever.

Well, here we are again. The Falcons have positioned themselves to break The Streak after a surprising 11-5 season that included a trip to the playoffs. No one saw it coming, not after the debacle of 2007: Vick heading off to prison and three QBs trying futilely to take his place; first-year coach Bobby Petrino abandoning the team late in the season to return to the college ranks; a 4-12 record and an interim coach by the time it mercifully ended.

Owner Arthur Blank decided it was time to start over. Youthful-looking Thomas Dimitroff was hired as the GM. Little-known Mike Smith got his first head coaching job. Quarterback Matt Ryan was drafted with the No. 3 overall pick.

A rebuilding job that most pegged at several years was accomplished in one short season.

Dimitroff made all the right moves, like signing free-agent running back Michael Turner, who had been stuck behind LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego. Finally given a chance to start, Turner ran for a franchise-record 220 yards in his very first game and finished second in the NFL with 1,699 yards rushing. He also set a team record with 17 touchdowns.

Smith brought some much needed stability after the volatile regimes of Mora and Petrino. The new coach turned to the veterans for leadership, meeting with them regularly to check the pulse of the team, but wasn’t hesitant about using the impressive rookie class that Dimitroff drafted.

Ryan was handed the quarterback job right out of training camp, and his first pro pass went for a 62-yard touchdown. He started all 16 games, passing for 3,440 yards with 17 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions to earn the AP’s offensive rookie of the year award.

No doubt mindful of this team’s history, Smith urged everyone to keep striving for improvement.

"We asked all of our guys to really evaluate what they feel are the pluses and minuses of the team and come up with what they thought was their plan of action to get better," Smith said. "In terms of on the field, off the field, in the weight room, it’s all part of being a professional football player."

Ryan is the key, of course. The Falcons have surrounded their centerpiece with plenty of offensive weapons, adding to an already dynamic mix by trading for perennial Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez. Now, Ryan can hand off to Turner, look to Gonzalez on the medium-range routes or go deep to Roddy White, who missed the first eight days of training camp in a contract dispute but eventually signed a $48 million deal that makes him one of the league’s highest-paid receivers.

Gonzalez, who had 96 receptions last season for the lowly Chiefs, is looking forward to working with Ryan after all sorts of quarterback problems in Kansas City.

"He knows where to put that ball, and he works hard," Gonzalez said. "That’s really the difference in what a great player is. Somebody that works hard. That’s what separates some guys like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady."

Defense is the big question mark. The Falcons decided to go younger and faster, cutting ties with longtime stalwarts such as Keith Brooking, Lawyer Milloy and Grady Jackson. The only major addition is linebacker Mike Peterson, who knows he’ll be tutoring second-year starters such as Curtis Lofton. Dimitroff tried to bolster a suspect secondary by dealing for cornerback Tye Hill, a former first-round pick but an injury plagued bust in St. Louis.

"I’m coming to a great defense, but a defense with a bunch of young guys," the 33-year-old Peterson said. "That’s nothing outside my character. I’ve been doing it for years in this league. I’m counted on to be a leader here and I accept that role. I believe I can do best at that role."

He’s not worried about the past 43 years.

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