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Falcons owner has reason to celebrate
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tlanta Falcons running back Jarious s Norwood (32) celebrates with teammate Harry Douglas (83) after rushing for a touchdown in the second quarter against the St. Louis Rams last Sunday in Atlanta. - photo by Dave Martin

Falcons vs.Cardinals

When: 4:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Glendale, Ariz.

TV, radio: NBC (WXIA-11); 550-AM, 92.9 FM

Web site:

FLOWERY BRANCH Falcons owner Arthur Blank couldn’t wait for the 2007 season to end.Michael Vick, the quarterback he signed to an NFL record contract, behaved and lied his way to federal prison.

Bobby Petrino, the first-year coach who promised Blank he would return in ‘08, quit with a 3-10 record and left for Arkansas.

Blank even went so far as to remove Rich McKay, the general manager he once coveted, from his control of player personnel.

Twelve months later, Blank has reason to celebrate.

As Atlanta (11-5) prepares to visit Arizona (9-7) in a wild-card game Saturday, Blank is delighted in the two obscure hires he made last January. Coach Mike Smith and GM Thomas Dimitroff are the two men most responsible for drafting quarterback Matt Ryan third overall and for turning around a once-pitiful franchise.

"We went through every bit of pain last year that an NFL owner or a franchise or a community of fans could imagine," Blank said this week. "At least that’s my viewpoint. On the other hand, to see things come around this year as well as they have, it’s just a tribute to the men involved who are making these decisions."

It appeared early in his search to replace McKay that Blank wanted an established executive, but Bill Parcells turned down an offer, then Philadelphia GM Tom Heckert dropped from consideration. Chris Mara, the Giants’ vice president of player evaluation, withdrew his name.

Overtures to retired coach Bill Cowher and Southern Cal coach Pete Carroll were rejected.

By Jan. 12, Dimitroff was in place after Blank hired him via web cam. A career scout with boyish looks, Dimitroff had risen to the role of director of college scouting in New England.

Together with Blank, Dimitroff hired Smith, Jacksonville’s defensive coordinator since 2003, after a second interview.

"That expression that things can go 180 degrees? They certainly have for us," Blank said. "It’s been a series of great decisions and a head coach who put together, in my opinion, just a great coaching staff."

Atlanta’s about-face in the NFC came at the expense of well-documented collapses in Dallas, Tampa Bay and Green Bay. Clubs that arguably had talent to make the postseason — Washington, Chicago and New Orleans — lost momentum. Seattle collapsed to join the conference bottom feeders in Detroit and St. Louis.

Ryan’s ascension to AP Offensive Rookie of the Year was accompanied by career seasons from running back Michael Turner, the NFL’s No. 2 rusher, and wideout Roddy White, the league’s No. 4 receiver.

Defensive end John Abraham stayed healthy for 16 games and led the league at his position with 161/2 sacks. Kicker Jason Elam, the first NFL player to account for at least 100 points in each of his first 16 years, made 29 of 31 field goals.

Receiver Michael Jenkins and defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux played well enough to warrant new, lucrative contracts.

The rest of Dimitroff’s rookie class made considerable gains. Sam Baker won the starting job at left tackle before undergoing midseason back surgery. Curtis Lofton starts at middle linebacker. Harry Douglas became a reliable third receiver, and Chevis Jackson is the nickel cornerback.

Though Turner, White and Abraham produced the best statistics, the decision to draft Ryan could help the Falcons become a perennial contender. Ryan insists he doesn’t feel extra pressure to be a franchise savior.

"Quite frankly, it’s not something I have given a lot of thought to, just because the most important thing for me to do is come in and try the best I can every week," Ryan said. "I think if you do that and handle yourself in the right manner, then those other things fall in place. That’s been my approach, to come in and do my job and be respectful of everything that’s gone on before, and hopefully we’ll have a successful future here."

During the lowpoint of 2007, which began with Vick’s federal indictment for dogfighting a few days before the start of training camp, Blank often hung his head in disappointment. Not even a personal portfolio estimated at $1 billion could keep Blank, a co-founder of The Home Depot, from showing how much he hurt inside.

"You do reach the point where you’re waiting for the season to be over, and it seems like we played an awful lot of seasons this last year," he said. "You just want it to be over, not so much that the pain would be over because I felt we were dealing well with the stress from an organizational standpoint, but I was anxious to get the season over so we could start fresh."

His hires did just what he hoped: lead the Falcons into the playoffs, albeit a year or two earlier than expected.

"The beauty of the NFL, with the way the rules are set up," Blank said, "you have an ability to turn things around pretty quickly if you pick the right people to run the team."

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